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

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.

As a result, Union generals were determined to carry the fight to civilians and non-military targets such homes, farms and entire cities, which were burned and destroyed, especially Virginia, Missouri, Kentucky, Georgia and South Carolina.

More Americans died in the Civil War than in all U.S. wars combined and July 1864 was the beginning 'of the worse of the worse.' It was the beginning of a period of time in which President Abraham Lincoln was expected to lose the presidential election of November 1964 – in part because of the broadening anti-war movement in the north.

Riots against the draft continued in the northern states. The Union was essentially bankrupt and the global economy was a disaster as a result of the economic turmoil, in part precipitated by the American Civil War.

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.

One of the warning signs that Carroll County would not be able to escape the social, political, and economic and ultimately the military consequences of the war of 'brother against brother' occurred on September 17th 1861.

That was when Bernard Mills, a Carroll County member of the Maryland State Legislature, was arrested at a special session of the legislature in Frederick.

Then at the end of August, 1862, the Fourth Maryland Regiment entered Westminster by the newly constructed railroad from Baltimore and arrested 16 prominent Westminster citizens on August 28th, 1862 for "being a member of some guerilla band" or "having talked succession talk."

They were taken to Baltimore for trial and subsequently released, according to Warner's research.

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.

The raid was disturbing, but did not cause that much material damage to Westminster. However, the Battle of Antietam, for the community of Westminster, was not a battle in some far off state in the south, casually discussed in the newspaper, but, for the first time in the American Civil War, huge armies fought on nearby soil in a major battle of horrific consequences.

For some contrast and comparison, keep in mind, that in 1864, there were only 1,900 citizens living in Westminster.

Just a year before, on June 29th, 1863, approximately 100 soldiers of the First Delaware Calvary were camped at the Commons on the Hill – now known as McDaniel College.

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.

On June 30th, 1863, 24,000 Union troops passed through Westminster — on Westminster's Main Street — on their way to Gettysburg, according to local historian and Civil War authority, G. Thomas LeGore, in a phone interview in 2003.

"[A] study of the records indicates that [at Westminster, between July 1-3, 1863, there were] estimates of 5,000 wagons, 30,000 mules and 10,000 men, with at least 20 regiments guarding the trains" in Westminster, according to "Just South of Gettysburg," by Frederick Shriver Klein, with the collaboration of W. Harold Redcay and G. Thomas LeGore.

Company A of the 6th Michigan Cavalry, commanded by Brig. Gen. George A. Custer, was sent to Westminster June 30 to guard the Wagon Park. They encountered the rear of Stuart's cavalry on the outskirts of town.

In addition, "Just South of Gettysburg" reports, "The 6th Corps of the Union Army, under General Sedgwick, moved from Frederick to New Windsor on June 29th and to Manchester on June 30th, in accordance with Meade's Pipe Creek plan. When the battle developed at Gettysburg, this unit was ordered from Manchester to Gettysburg, and made one of the longest and fastest marches in Civil War history."

The Sixth Corps stretched 10 miles long — through a Westminster community that was less than two miles long in June of 1863.

At the time, the Sixth Corps "was in itself a larger army than was ever marshaled on American soil prior to 1861," and it marched through Westminster.

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 of Towson.

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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