Although no battles were fought in Laurel during the Civil War, the city's railroad was a strategic resource for the Union Army, numerous units of Union soldiers were stationed here and the military's presence added a different element to the city's social and cultural landscapes.
A new yearlong exhibit, "Stationed in Laurel: Our Civil War Story," opened Sunday Feb. 3 at the Laurel Museum and captures that segment of Laurel's history. In September, a mini-exhibit was displayed at the museum that gave a partial account of Laurel's Civil War past. Museum director Lindsey Baker said they decided to expand that theme for this year's major exhibit because of the response it attracted.
"A lot of people were interested in it and people came to see it who had never been to the museum before," Baker said. "It had only one panel and one case of items, and now the full gallery is used for the new exhibit."
When visitors enter the museum, they are met by two laminated cutouts of Union soldiers, erected on green turf, with an opening in the facial area for people to stick their heads through for souvenir photos. The drawings for the cutouts were created by Monica Sturdivant, the museum's assistant to the director.
"When they said they wanted two soldiers, I went online to see what their uniforms looked like and what they would be carrying," Sturdivant said. "One of them I drew from a picture and the other one is a combination of various uniforms of enlisted soldiers and volunteers I came across."
Next to the soldier cutouts are two divided areas that represent the two hospitals that were used by Union soldiers stationed in Laurel as they waited to be shipped to various battlegrounds. They were treated for illnesses such as diarrhea, typhoid fever, measles and smallpox in the hospitals.
According to museum officials, one of the hospitals was in a tent and when additional soldiers came to Laurel — which was called Laurel Factory at the time by locals and Laurel Station by federal officials — a larger one was opened in 1863 at 377 Main St.
Baker said one of the hospital display rooms was designed to represent what Civil War hospital worker Sarah Palmer's bedroom might have looked like during those days. Palmer oversaw the hospital on Main Street and wrote a book, "Aunt Becky's Army." The cozy room includes a single bed, an antique-looking small desk and chair, a wash basin and an oil lamp on the mantle. A mannequin wears a long black dress covered with a long white apron, an authentic nurse matron's uniform from that period.
Marlene Frazier, chair of the museum's collections committee, said the nurse matron's uniform was donated to the museum.
"Now the uniform of the soldier is a reproduction," Frazier said, referring to the Union uniform hanging on a rack in the adjoining display area of a typical hospital room during that time.
Discovering Laurel's history
"I had no idea that Laurel had a hospital then," Laurel resident Mary Hueffmeier said as she talked about the exhibit with her two children during Sunday's opening. "This exhibit is giving them a good sense of Laurel's Civil War history."
Tom Dorman, of Laurel, said he found the exhibit interesting as well, especially the section on the city's railroad line that was important in moving soldiers and supplies during the war.
"I'm into railroads and it was interesting to read about the bridges on the line that washed out twice across the Patuxent (River)," Dorman said. "It says that one was stone and collapsed and had to be rebuilt. A soldier died when it collapsed."
The exhibit also documents President Abraham Lincoln's numerous travels by train through Laurel during the Civil War years. It points out that there were many Southern sympathizers in Laurel and that the rail line was heavily guarded at all times, especially when the president rode through.
"I never knew about Lincoln's travels through Laurel or that the trains had to be guarded so they would not be attacked," said Margaret Gooden, who was visiting the museum for the first time Sunday.
In collecting items for the exhibit, because many of the soldiers stationed here came from Binghamton, N.Y., exhibit committee member Karen Lubieniecki went there to do research.
"My husband, Ken, and I went to Binghamton because you don't find letters and diaries on these soldiers in Maryland, but in museums in their home towns," she said.
Excerpts of several letters from various sources are included in the exhibit, which reveal how the soldiers felt about Laurel and how they thought they were perceived by local residents, and vice versa. Baker said for her, they had an almost Facebook quality to them, as soldiers documented daily happenings and wrote how their feelings changed at times to their surroundings and the people they met.