At the height of the Civil War, a Union soldier climbed into the dome of the State House in Annapolis and described the scene around it, a sea of white tents spreading in every direction.
The tents were home to thousands of soldiers captured by the Confederates and returned to the Union army. They would wait in Camp Parole until recalled to service or sent home.
In a letter home, another infantryman described the dire conditions in the crowded camp and called the state capital "a low, dirty place." The depiction would, some 150 years later, become the title of a book on the role Annapolis and its surroundings played in the war.
"That soldier had not a high opinion of the place where he was always knee-deep in mud," said R. Rebecca Morris, the book's author. "For much of the time, these men had nothing to do but get into trouble. As the war got longer, conditions in the camp worsened. Many felt they were lucky to get out alive."
Morris, an Annapolis resident recently retired from the Internal Revenue Service, spent more than 18 months researching the history of Camp Parole, "just reading words from 150 years ago," she said.
"I would unwrap bundles of letters tied with faded ribbons," she said. "I read letters from young men thrilled to be marching off to war in a great adventure. Then, two years later, those letters were about how horrible war really is. A lot of the writers didn't get home or got home broken by the war."
Much of the research involved combing through letters, military records and other artifacts at the National Archives, with encouragement and assistance from Mark Schatz and other friends in the Ann Arrundell County Historical Society, which recently published the book.
"Becky really got down into the details," said Schatz, a former archivist.
Details like how men were provided with wood to build shelters but relied on tents. Or how the prisoners of war returning from the South tossed all their clothing, even their boots, into College Creek in an attempt to delouse themselves. When the discards started to wash up on shore, the camp resorted to burning the clothing.
Then there are what Morris called the "snarky official memos" that began respectfully with "I have the honor to" and quickly switched to a critical "who gave you the authority?"
"You can spend hours on dull, dull records and then find an amazing letter," she said.
The camp and its hospital began on the grounds of theU.S. Naval Academyin 1862 after the midshipmen were transferred to Providence, R.I., where they would remain for four years. As the number of parolees grew, the camp spread to the St. John's College campus. Then, as they began arriving by the shipload or from major battlegrounds nearby, the camp reached as far as Annapolis Junction and the railroad lines.
"Many times, the camp did not know how many men were coming and how many of them were wounded," Morris said. "Many arrived from Southern prison camps emaciated and with untreated wounds. Some descriptions of their conditions wring your heart out."
The 109-page book includes 31 photographs reprinted from originals in the National Archives, the Naval Academy and private collections, such as that of Daniel C. Toomey, a collector of Civil War memorabilia and author who has written several volumes on Maryland's role in the war. He also wrote the foreword to Morris' book.
"The author gives an excellent account of the construction and administration of these camps," Toomey wrote of what he called "the first-ever book-length rendition of this little-known aspect of our Civil War history."
Morris, whose father instilled in her an appreciation for American history, has long been interested in the story of her own neighborhood.
"When I started working on the book, I had no idea how rich the history here is," she said. "People should appreciate the history that's in their backyard. But most people don't even know how Parole got its name."
Nothing remains of the camp but the name it lent to an area along Route 2, now the site of Annapolis Towne Centre.
"I found newspaper ads from after the war," Morris said. "One was about selling off lumber from barracks, wash houses, even a death house. Everything is gone."
The Stanton School, the area's first school for freed slaves, was built from some of that discarded lumber, according to records.
A marker on Route 2, between West Street and Forest Drive, notes the location of the third and largest in the series of camps. It gives testimony to the thousands who passed through the camp and reminds passers-by that those who did not survive are buried in Annapolis National Cemetery.
The book commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the 50th anniversary of the county's historical society. Society members have written several books detailing aspects of life in the county, including its ties to aviation, its truck farms and a biography of Commodore Isaac Mayo, a naval hero and commander of the USS Constitution.
"There is a real market for these books," said Schatz, the society's former director and current publications chair. "We usually make enough money to proceed with another book."
Morris, the society's treasurer, said she is considering several ideas for future research but will need a respite before she tackles another book.
"I still want to plow through the archives, which are such a great resource," she said. "And there is still an untapped well of information for anyone interested."
To obtain the book
The historical society has 550 copies of "A Low, Dirty Place" in print and is selling the book for $15 at its Kuethe Library, the Benson-Hammond House and the South Shop in Severna Park. Copies are available by mail at AACHS, P.O. Box 385, Linthicum 21090-0385. Information: 443-837-8196.