To many, Annapolis is a Colonial town, with its 1700s architecture and its links to four signers of the Declaration of Independence.
But the state's capital also played an important role in the Civil War — a history that may coincide with a controversial present-day development proposal.
Local historians and history buffs believe they've found evidence that thousands of Union soldiers who had been captured and then paroled by the Confederates were once housed at a site off Forest Drive. Being placed on parole meant that the soldiers agreed to remain in a camp as noncombatants until they were formally exchanged for Confederate soldiers captured by the Union.
They're hoping more research will be done before the forest at Crystal Spring Farm is turned into Crystal Spring Annapolis — a mix of senior apartments, townhouses, retail shops and an inn on 180 acres.
"To recover what's there and to tell the story is important," said Rock Toews, an Annapolis bookstore owner who is part of an informal group researching the history of Camp Parole.
Historians agree that there were three parole camps in Annapolis during different points of the Civil War. The first parole camp was located at St. John's College downtown, and the third was in what's now known as the neighborhood of Parole on the city's western edge.
The second camp's whereabouts have been tougher to pin down, although for years it had been assumed it was probably somewhere off Forest Drive, which runs along the southern border of the city.
"People have been looking for this camp for years," said Jane McWilliams, author of a comprehensive history of Annapolis, "Annapolis, City on the Severn."
Research on the second location of Camp Parole has waxed and waned over the years. It ha gathered steam more recently as Annapolis resident George Hughes turned up new information in his quest to track a great-uncle who served as a Union soldier.
Hughes' great-uncle, Joe Allen, served in the 1st Vermont Cavalry, which trained in Annapolis at a site called Camp Harris. Hughes found a diary from another soldier from the 1st Vermont, Harry Ide, who had trained at Camp Harris, went off to fight, was captured by the Confederates and ended up at Camp Parole — where he slept in stables used at Camp Harris.
"We know for sure Camp Harris became Camp Parole 2," Hughes said.
The local historians say they've have pinned the probable site of Camp Harris to the area where Crystal Spring is located based on land records and claims that property owners made to the government, seeking reimbursement for damages caused by the Army at Camp Harris.
"A huge area was affected by the camps being there," said Jean Russo of Annapolis, another member of the research group.
They've also studied letters and drawings from soldiers describing being taken outside the city to a parole camp, and from residents describing seeing thousands of soldiers.
The historians haven't pegged the exact boundaries of the second Camp Parole, nor do they know exactly how many soldiers stayed there. They do know the second Camp Parole was in operation from September 1862 until June 1863.
They're hoping their research will spur further investigation into the site, including possibly test digs to see if there are any Civil War artifacts buried . They made a presentation to city officials this summer but have not reached out to the property owner or the developers.
Sally Nash, the city's acting planning director, said the Crystal Spring developers will be required to analyze any potential historical resources on the property as part of the planning review process. What would happen to the proposed development depends on what the analysis turns up.
"It wouldn't necessarily stop the development, but there might have to be some changes," Nash said.
The city might require changes as complex as moving proposed buildings to new locations, or as simple as adding signage describing the property's history, Nash said.
The Crystal Spring proposal is too early in the process to require the historical analysis, Nash said. The historical analysis wouldn't be required until the developers propose the full site development plan, she said.
Currently, the developers are trying to get approval for a forestry plan, a preliminary step that involves mapping out locations of environmentally valuable features to determine where buildings can fit on the site.
Many Annapolis-area residents have raised concerns about the number of trees that would be felled for the development, and how the project would affect traffic on busy Forest Drive.
Marshall Breines, the Connecticut-based developer of Crystal Spring, said he's discussed with city officials how to handle any artifacts that are discovered during construction. "That's a routine issue, something that all developers have," he said.
In a document outlining archaeological procedures for the site, Breines' company, Affirmative Hillspoint LLC, says it's "plausible" that Civil War parole activities may have taken place at or near Crystal Spring. The developers plan to educate contractors about local history and what they might find. Minor finds such as buttons or bullets would be noted on a site map, while more significant finds — such as possible buildings or graves — would immediately halt work to allow for a thorough investigation.
For now, the local historians will continue their research and build their case for more investigation at the Crystal Spring site. They say they have dozens more claims to review at the National Archives and more work to do on matching land records with current maps.
Half a dozen historians are on the case, including Toews, Hughes, McWilliams, Russo, Will Mumford and David Haight. All are members of the Annapolis History Consortium, a group of dozens of professional and amateur historians who meet regularly to share findings and seek help with their research.
Toews understands it's not likely that a historical discovery would stop eventual development at Crystal Spring. But he hopes care is taken to tell the site's story.
"Before any development goes forward, there needs to be an archaeological investigation," he said. "It's a site of national importance."