Both sides of Civil War represented in Harford courthouse portraits

A portrait of Brigadier Gen. James Jay Archer, a Bel Air native and Southern sympathizer who led "Archer's Brigade" in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia commanded by Robert E. Lee, is tucked away on a wall on the second floor of the Harford County Courthouse in Bel Air.

In the adjacent ceremonial courtroom hangs a portrait of Judge James Watters, a cavalryman for the Confederate Army during the Civil War, along with a portrait of Col. Edwin Hanson Webster, a colonel in the Union Army.

Both sides of the Civil War are represented in the same room and nearby hallways of the historic building. During the Civil War, sympathies in Harford County were divided between both sides, as was the case throughout Maryland, and many of the county's leading citizens of the era actively supported one cause or the other.

To date, there's been no move to take down any of the portraits of people with some personal or historic family tie to the Confederacy.

But the recent protests over whether Confederate monuments should be taken away from public spaces or remain, such as the one that turned violent and deadly in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend over the removal of a Lee statue, may not leave Harford County immune from the upheaval.

In Baltimore City early Wednesday morning, contractors removed four Confederate statues at the direction of Mayor Catherine Pugh. The statutes had long been a bone of contention for many city residents, African-American and white.

Aside from the courthouse portraits, there are no Confederate statutes or memorials on public property in Harford County, which had men serving in both Civil War armies.

"It's a mix. Harford County was probably pretty evenly divided during the Civil War," retired Circuit Court Judge William O. Carr said Wednesday about the portraits. "Though there were probably more Southern supporters than Northern, maybe 60-40."

Carr retired this spring after 33 years on the bench, during which he also spent time as the county's chief administrative judge, placing him in charge of the courthouse.

He has done considerable research about the building, the provenance of approximately 60 portraits hanging on the walls and the local judges and lawyers who have worked there, all of which hopes to turn into a book.

"The courthouse portraits of the people who served in the Confederacy are based more on their service to the county than their Civil War service," Carr said.

He pointed out Watters was a judge for 32 years in Harford County and Webster was a U.S. Congressman as well as a member of the Maryland State Senate.

"It's appropriate to have portraits of people who distinguished themselves in Harford County," he said. "For them, their military service was part of that."

The photograph of Archer, on the north stairwell leading up to the ceremonial courtroom, was moved from the other stairwell several years ago.

The portrait had hung just outside what had been Carr's chambers on the south side of the of the entrance to the ceremonial courtroom. Carr said it was moved to the other side so another portrait could be relocated to outside his office, which he felt was a better place for it. Archer's was moved to what he considers the "military section."

He also removed a plaque that hung in the courthouse given to Harford County government by United Daughters of the Confederacy. That was done, Carr said, to make room for more portraits of judges — following their deaths.

The plaque was given back to the county government, which turned it over to the Historical Society of Harford County, Carr said.

Richard Sherrill, president of the Harford historical society, said the portraits and other "artifacts," as he calls them, are part of the history of the nation.

"It's both good and bad, as compared to many other aspects of our nation's history," Sherrill said. "We've made some mistakes, but we've also accomplished a great many things, and if you try to eliminate any aspect of our nation's history, you will create a false image of the struggles and accomplishments that this nation has made."

On a personal level, Sherrill said thinks much of the current controversy about Confederate monuments is all about political infighting, "which results from who has the power to do what and if it's not us, find a way of taking it away from them."

It can be looked at racially, politically, based on sexual preference, "any way you want," he said.

As for the memorials, removing them would be a disservice, Sherrill said.

"They are what they are and if you don't like them, or you do, you just leave them be because it illustrates the fact that we have accomplished in this nation a lot of positive things and we also have made mistakes," he said.

Protests and violence over the removal of such artifacts, however, is not warranted, he said.

"But it's the way society is today. 'I'll do anything,' they say, 'to get what I want,'" he continued. "And a lot of this is just simply a means to another end, which has absolutely nothing to do with whatever the means is."

"When you stop to think about the fact that the issue is the Civil War, that people disagreed and eventually it led to civil war," Sherrill said. "If we made one mistake and we didn't learn from it, we can make the same mistake again."

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