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147 years ago, a neighbor saved Westminster from ransom … or destruction

UnionsHistoryUlysses S. Grant

On July 10, 1864, a large contingent of Confederate cavalry was moving out of Westminster. A day earlier, it had arrived at dusk with a ominous mission:

Hold the town for ransom … or burn it to the ground.

What unfolded in Westminster in July 1864 is considered by some historians to have been the most perilous experience Carroll County had during the Civil War.

At this point in the war, the conflict had grown ugly as a result of the North's decision to target civilians and burn and destroy the South into submission.

Arguably, July 1864 was one of the darkest hours in American history. And for two days in the summer of 1864, Westminster was Ground Zero for retaliation by the South.

Yet our fare county seat escaped destruction as the result of one individual — a friend and neighbor it did not even know it had.

The events that played out on that hot and humid Sunday marked the end of the third occupation of Westminster by Union and Confederate troops during three important military campaigns in 1862, 1863 and 1864.

As the events that caused the Civil War unfolded, rural Carroll was certainly aware of national and international events, according to "Carroll County Maryland, A History 1837-1976" by Nancy M. Warner.

Then, the "events in the second half of 1862 jolted Carroll County citizens into recognizing the reality, seriousness, and persistence of the war," Warner wrote.

On Sept. 11, 1862, Confederate Col. Thomas L. Rosser led the Fifth Virginia Cavalry in a raid of Westminster. This was a part of the maneuvers of Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and its first invasion of the North, just before Lee's engagement with Union forces led by Major Gen. George B. McClellan at Antietam on Sept. 16-18, 1862.

On June 29, 1863, some 90 soldiers of the First Delaware Calvary engaged Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's Confederate Calvary, of more than 6,000 men, in Corbit's Charge. The battle had a impact on the war because the brief skirmish took place days before the fateful meeting of Union Gen. George G. Meade and Lee on the killing fields of Gettysburg on July 1-3, 1864.

By the time the events of July 9 and 10, 1864 unfolded, Westminster — and Carroll County — was fairly well traumatized by the Civil War. As one report dryly noted, "considerable alarm was felt in the area."

In the July 1864 military campaign, Lee sent Brigadier Gen. Bradley T. Johnson north to cut the rail and telegraph lines in Westminster as a part of Lee's third invasion of the north, in an attempt to try to force a diversion to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's siege of Petersburg, Va.

This event was unique in that Johnson's raid was intended to do significant damage to the community. This "was the most dangerous Confederate visit of the war," according to Civil War historian Walt Albro.

"The war had grown ugly since Gettysburg," Albro said. "For the last year, Union forces in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley had been engaged in a 'scorched earth' policy. … Enraged by these acts, the Confederates planned to take revenge — to fight fire with fire — when they reached Maryland soil."

In the days before July 9, Frederick and Hagerstown had paid huge ransoms to avoid being burned to the ground. "Johnson ordered a squad of 20 men … to gallop ahead (through Libertytown and New Windsor) and cut the telegraph line in Westminster.

"The commander of this unit was 26-year-old Major Harry Gilmor, the offspring of a socially prominent Baltimore family," according to Albro.

Gilmor was, in fact, born Jan. 24, 1838, at "Glen Ellen," the family estate in Baltimore County, near Lutherville-Timonium and just north ofTowson.

Before the war, Gilmor had "socialized with other prominent and wealthy families — including those in Carroll County."

"Three hours after Gilmor arrived in Westminster, he received a message by courier from his commanding officer ordering him to demand" a ransom.

"It was clear that the threat was similar to those made in Frederick and Hagerstown. … In the event the demand was not met … the town would be destroyed," said Albro.

The demand was given to the Westminster mayor and Common Council, who failed to respond by the time Johnston arrived in town.

It was at that moment that "Gilmor intervened with his superior officer to spare the town," according to Albro. Gilmor is said to have spoken with Johnson about the ransom, and later Gilmor wrote in his memoirs, "I then persuaded him to say nothing more about it."

For contrast, it is believed that Gilmor participated in the burning of Maryland Governor Augustus Bradford's home the next day, and burned Chambersburg, Pa., to the ground about a month later.

In one of the many ironies of the Civil War, after the war was over, "Gilmor married the daughter of a Union colonel, and lived his final years in aristocratic splendor."

Maybe his karma was being rewarded for saving Westminster in those fitful, fateful hours on July 9 and 10, 1864, when Westminster was spared.

When he is not hiding under the bed, fire extinguisher in hand, Kevin Dayhoff may be reached at kevindayhoff@gmail.com

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