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Capturing the voices of the Civil War

The Baltimore Sun

Charles W. Mitchell's recently published book, Maryland Voices of the Civil War, is the culmination of 12 years of burning the midnight oil. When he wasn't helping coach his children's sports teams on weekends, he immersed himself in reading and writing about the great conflict that swept through Maryland from 1861 to 1865.

He spent thousands of hours squinting at microfilm of old newspapers and combing the files at the Maryland Historical Society, the Maryland Department of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Peabody Institute, Hood College, and the Freedman and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland, College Park, to name just a few of the institutions whose holdings drew him.

What he was searching for were letters and diaries from people from all walks of life -- merchants, soldiers, politicians, slaves, slave owners, clergy, women, civic leaders and children -- that would in turn become the "voice" that Mitchell sought to illuminate the conflict.

Because he did not wish to destroy the spirit in which the letters were written, Mitchell quotes from them as they were originally written, making no attempt to correct grammar, spelling or punctuation.

"The book just kept evolving, and working on it was fun and fulfilling," said Mitchell, 53, a Lutherville resident. "I wrote an introduction to each section, and then I turned over the narrative to letters, diary entries and newspaper accounts. I wanted to let the people speak, and it's really about them, and not me."

By day, Mitchell works at Lippincott Williams & Wilkens, now part of Wolters Kluwer, a Dutch publishing and multimedia conglomerate at Camden Yards, as publisher of Medical Practice.

When he was a student at St. Paul's School, he was encouraged in his writing by Thomas N. Longstreth, a teacher who was "rigorous and demanding but always very positive," Mitchell said.

Mitchell went on to earn a bachelor's degree in 1978 in history and political science from Pennsylvania State University, and a master's degree in international relations with an emphasis on Soviet politics from the University of Maryland in 1984.

In 1985, his interest in the Civil War and Maryland was piqued when his wife, Betsy, inherited a box of Civil War memorabilia that had rattled around her family for years. The material had been gathered by her great-grandfather, Alexander P. Watson.

Watson, an Indiana, Pa., native, had served as a private with the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry until being captured and sent to a Confederate prison.

Then, while doing research for an article on the Battle of Cedar Creek, Mitchell discovered that one of his ancestors, Carter Braxton, a Confederate artilleryman, had been on the same battlefield as his wife's ancestor.

He later "stumbled upon" Braxton's tunic and pistol at a display while exploring the visitors center at the battlefield in Fredericksburg, Va.

Mitchell has helped to dispel the notion that Maryland was ready to secede from the Union and join the Confederate cause, which would have had major economic consequences for Baltimore.

"I hope this book punctures the myth that Maryland was ready for secession. Baltimore's businessmen were against it," he said.

After the fall of Fort Sumter, Allan Bowie Davis, a wealthy Montgomery County planter, wrote to his son, who was at school at St. James Academy in Hagerstown.

"I write with a heavy heart, our beloved Country is now involved in Civil War, the most horrible of all national contests, and God only knows where it will end," Davis wrote.

"We here in Maryland I fear are to be the innocent victims of the wicked and insane Slavery agitation between the North & the South. We have not provoked the contest and it cannot rightfully be made parties to it -- but I fear we cannot escape its consequences," he wrote.

In another letter, Davis writes, "I am glad that Maryland is still in the Union -- it would be utter ruin and devastation for her to attempt to secede. The South could not protect her and she would be prey to the northern hordes."

Another myth that Mitchell punctures is that President Abraham Lincoln dispatched Union troops to occupy Baltimore after Gen. Benjamin Butler, in an unauthorized move, marched into the city and settled his forces on Federal Hill in mid-May 1861.

Butler trained his guns on the city and threatened to level the city at the first sign of disloyalty from Baltimoreans.

"Lincoln and General-in-Chief Winfield Scott were furious, and Butler was relieved of command and sent to Fortress Monroe," Mitchell said.

Mitchell is perhaps proudest of his chapter on the liberation of Maryland's slaves, who, once free of their bondage, fought with the Union Army.

In a letter that Mitchell quotes, Mary Houser, a Maryland slaveholder, explained how she consented to letting her slave join an African-American regiment.

"Elligah my colord man has been in the US service about nine months he is in the 4th Maryland US Rgt. We often get letters from him he likes the service. I am sorry for the necessity of employing Negro troops but it is so we were willing for him to go and we miss him very much."

Mitchell praised the letters and diaries that were written by women.

"The voices of the women were very powerful, and the most engaging diaries were kept by them," he said.

Mitchell concludes his account of a time that tested every institution in the state by writing that the "myth that military force alone thwarted the will of Marylanders to secede is an essential story line in the romanticism of the Lost Cause."

"Sons and daughters of those who fought that war will sip mint juleps on soft summer evenings and argue over the viability of Maryland secession, and their debates will propel the story from one generation to the next."

He added: "Enlightenment and redemption lie not in dogmatic rehash of oral traditions, but -- if we listen closely -- in the rich voices of Maryland's Civil War."

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