There have been many good neighborhood histories and other histories that explore particular topics. But I remember Eric Smith, the cartoonist and columnist for the Evening Capital, writing a column in March of 1999 saying, "Why don't we have a decent history of the city? This is ridiculous." The consortium agreed. I was crazy enough to say I'd do it.
I needed to establish what had been done, so I spent a year and a half putting together a bibliography [of everything published on Annapolis]. A friend and I looked at whatever we could find in any library within 30 miles. She called every organization in town — churches, banks, civic organizations — and asked if they had their own histories. If they did, we got them.
We found about 1,200 primary and secondary works. Pratt Library in Baltimore has a lot of very arcane, obscure things on the city. The Maryland Historical Society, too. Are you familiar with the state law library? What a great resource! We found some really cool stuff. I have quite a collection now.
The book is in chronological order. Did you proceed that way?
When I started out, I had a pretty good sense of the Colonial history, and I knew quite a bit about the 20th century, having lived through half of it. So I started in the middle, with the Civil War. It just seemed like a good place.
How did that work out?
In April, the consortium gave a theatrical production … called "Annapolis: A City Awakened by War." That's how things really happened. Here was this sleepy little Maryland town, and in April of 1861 — after the Union army learned they could no longer come through Baltimore — it was like, "Where are we going to go?"
Well, there just happened to be this little federal property on a rail line in Annapolis — 71/2 acres known as the U.S. Naval Academy. From that month through summer 1865, tens of thousands of soldiers came through. The town was overwhelmed.
At first, it was soldiers coming in to camps before going out [to battle] — 20,000 people camped out along West Street, toward Parole. Later you had sick, sick men being brought in — the wounded from battle, sick people who had been held in Southern prisons who were being exchanged [at Parole].
The streets aren't paved. It's dirt; it's mud. There's a good bit of crime. I couldn't find proof of prostitution, but I know it's there. It's hard to explain how incredibly difficult all this was for folks who lived in town.
How did the war shape city history?
This is true of all Maryland to an extent, but it was very true here: The men who went South were the brothers of men who stayed here ... but when your brother came home, even if he fought for the other side, he was generally your brother.
Emily Peake, the historian at St. Anne's Cemetery, has done a lot of research on the Civil War soldiers from Annapolis buried there. She believes — and we discussed this — that you have almost equal numbers from the North and South.
Another local gentleman, John Wissman, had been using old newspaper accounts to study celebrations of Decoration Day [now Memorial Day]. He believes that when Southern and Northern soldiers marched together in the parade in Annapolis [in 1886], it was the first time the two sides ever did that in the U.S. I think he's right.
You've called this project a "book by community." Are those examples?
Yes. From the start, the consortium members promised to help. Every single member shared their resources — notes, art, family histories, memories, anything I asked for. There are people all over town I could call on the phone and ask, "What do you know about such-and-such?" I'd run into people in line at Graul's who knew a lot about some particular thing and talk for an hour. I'm responsible for all the content, but it's a book by community.
You call Chapter 6 "Great Expectations, 1870-1908." The next chapter is "Promise Denied, 1908-1940." What did you mean?
There was great hopefulness after the Civil War, especially among African-Americans. If you were a free black man, you might have been free for three generations. Many made a lot of money during the war. You had people like William H. Butler, a prosperous carpenter whose house was next to City Hall and who owned a good bit of Market Street. He was the first black man elected to office in Maryland [in 1873, to the city council].