Archive for Civil War

James Herbert

Colonel James R. Herbert

Colonel James R. Herbert

Another of the Confederate burials in Loudon Park Cemetery with a connection to Gettysburg is Col. James R. Herbert, the commander of the 1st MD Battalion (later renumbered to the 2nd MD).

As a Lt. Col. at Gettysburg, Herbert led his unit – part of Brig. Gen. George Hume “Maryland” Steuart’s brigade – in the assault on the Union right at Culp’s Hill. From the night of July 2 to the morning of July 3, Herbert’s men were almost constantly fighting – at one point even going up against other men from Maryland who had sided with the Union.

It was a tough fight. The 1st MD Battalion lost 189 of the 400 men present (47.3%) – the highest losses by number and percentage for a Maryland unit at Gettysburg. Among the wounded was Lt. Col. Herbert himself. Hit three times in the confused crossfire, he fell just after the sun went down on the evening of July 2.

Herbert survived his wounds and the war and went on to become the commander of the Maryland National Guard in the post-war years. He also served as the Baltimore City Police Commissioner until his death in 1884.

His gravesite is located across the street from Confederate Hill, and is marked by a large, distinctive monument with crossed flags on the front:

Location of James R. Herbert's Gravesite.

Location of James R. Herbert’s Gravesite. Map by Apple Maps.

James R. Herbert's Monument.

James R. Herbert’s Monument. Photo by the author.

In the next post, we’ll see the gravesite of the man who took over command of the 1st MD Battalion after Lt. Col. Herbert’s wounding at Gettysburg.

The Baltimore Riot

The Baltimore Riot. Engraving from Wikipedia.

The Baltimore Riot. Engraving from Wikipedia.

Today marks the 153rd anniversary of the Baltimore Riot. The 6th Massachusetts Infantry, trying to make its way through town to Camden Station, on the way to Washington D.C., ended up firing into an angry mob in the streets of Baltimore.

The 14 people left dead that day comprised the first blood shed in the Civil War.

I posted about this event in more detail a few months ago as part of a series of posts about local Civil War history.

Harry Gilmor

Colonel Harry Gilmor

Colonel Harry Gilmor.

The first Civil War burial that I discovered at Loudon Park was Confederate Col. Harry Gilmor. He was present at the Battle of Gettysburg as a Major in command of the 1st MD Cavalry Battalion (CSA) – part of Fitzhugh Lee’s brigade – though they did not participate in the action at the East Cavalry field.

After Gettysburg, he continued his service in the cavalry, serving most notably under Lt. General Jubal Early during his campaign through Maryland which culminated in the Battle of Monocacy in July of 1864. I actually found out about his burial in Loudon Park from the book I read about that campaign recently. He didn’t fight to the end of the war though; he was captured by Union troops in February of 1865 while on a raid in West Virginia.

After the war, he wrote a book about his experiences, and went on to serve as the Baltimore City Police Commissioner for 5 years.

Col. Gilmor is buried in the Confederate Hill section of Loudon Park. A very prominent headstone marks his gravesite:

Location of Confederate Hill

Location of Confederate Hill. Map by Apple Maps.

Harry Gilmor's Monument

Harry Gilmor’s Monument. Photo by the author.

Detail on the front of Harry Gilmor's Monument.

Detail on the front of Harry Gilmor’s Monument. Photo by the author.

Detail of the left side of Harry Gilmor's Monument.

Detail of the left side of Harry Gilmor’s Monument. Photo by the author.

Detail of the rear of Harry Gilmor's Monument.

Detail of the rear of Harry Gilmor’s Monument. Photo by the author.

Detail of the right Harry Gilmor's Monument, marking his wife's burial.

Detail of the right side of Harry Gilmor’s Monument, marking his wife’s burial. Photo by the author.

As you may guess (with a whole section named “Confederate Hill”) there are certainly a few more prominent leaders with Gettysburg connections buried at Loudon Park. In the next installment, we’ll show the grave of one of the infantry commanders from that battle.

The Conspirators

Earlier today, I posted about the burials in Loudon Park Cemetery with connections to the Lincoln Assassination, but these are not the only graves in Baltimore that have a connection to that tragic event in our nation’s history.

There were ten people involved in the conspiracy to kill Lincoln and other government officials in April of 1865. Fully half of these (bolded) are buried in Baltimore cemeteries:

  • John Wilkes Booth (Greenmount)
  • Lewis Powell
  • David E. Herold
  • Michael O’Laughlen (Greenmount)
  • Mary E. Surratt
  • John Surratt (New Cathedral)
  • Edman Spangler
  • Samuel Arnold (Greenmount)
  • George A. Atzerodt (Old Saint Paul’s)
  • Dr. Samuel A. Mudd

Eventually, I’m going to get around to covering each of these on the blog – maybe around the anniversary of the trial – I just wanted to make a note about those local Baltimore connections while the topic is fresh.

Also, if you haven’t seen it – The Conspirator is a recent movie that does a pretty good job of telling the story of the trial. It’s not available to stream at this point, but Netflix has it as a DVD (and so does Amazon).

The Lincoln Assassination

The Assassination of President Lincoln.

The Assassination of President Lincoln.

149 years ago tonight, John Wilkes Booth famously shot Abraham Lincoln during a performance of the play Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. While the Civil War had more-or-less ended a few days before with the surrender of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, the bloodshed and bad feelings clearly had not.

John T. Ford

John T. Ford

There are two burials in Loudon Park Cemetery that have a tangible connection to this tragic event in U.S. history. The first is John T. Ford – the owner and manager of the aptly-named Ford’s Theatre. A friend of John Wilkes Booth, Ford admitted to mentioning in one of their conversations that Lincoln would be attending the play, and he was thus jailed as a suspected member of the famous conspiracy. After more than a month in prison, Ford was finally cleared of wrong-doing and went on with his life, albeit embittered by the experience of being falsely accused of a capital crime. He continued to manage many theatres in the region until his death in 1894.

His grave is located almost in the middle of the cemetery, in Section XX:

Location of John T. Ford's gravesite.

Location of John T. Ford’s gravesite. Map by Apple Maps.

John T. Ford's Gravesite

John T. Ford’s Gravesite. Photo by the author.

Samuel J. Seymour

Samuel J. Seymour

Another Loudon Park Cemetery connection to that night is Samuel J. Seymour. As a 5 year-old boy, he attended the April 14, 1865 performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre with a family friend and was seated directly across from the Presidential box. While he didn’t remember seeing the gunshot, he did see Booth leap from the balcony to the stage, and his immediate reaction was that the commotion in the theatre was due to the man who fell. When Mr. Seymour passed away in 1956, he was the last surviving witness of the assassination.

He made an appearance on the television game show I’ve Got a Secret a few weeks before his death where his story was told. A video from that appearance has made its way onto YouTube.

Both Wikipedia AND FindAGrave have his gravesite location as being in Loudon Park National Cemetery, but it is in fact located in the private Loudon Park Cemetery. Specifically, it’s in the newer part of that cemetery, in the Bethel Section (and as far as I can tell, his grave is unmarked):

Location of Samuel J. Seymour's gravesite

Probable Location of Samuel J. Seymour’s gravesite. Map by Apple Maps.

Next time, we’ll get to some of the Confederate burials in Loudon Park that are directly related to the Battle of Gettysburg.

Civil War Snowball Fight

I stumbled onto this post a few days ago (honestly, I don’t remember where I first saw it) and marked it to read later. After finally getting around to reading it this morning, I felt like I had to share.

A Civil War Snowball Fight

A Civil War Snowball Fight.

Can you imagine the sight of full Confederate brigades, their pent-up energy from months spent in winter quarters, unleashed on each other in the form of a snowball fight? From the description in the article, they were pretty serious about it, too:

The charge was sounded by our buglers, and the brigadiers and colonels gallantly led on their respective commands. When the contending columns met, the shock was terrible – the air was filled with whizzing snowballs, and above the confusion rung out on the clear cold air the shouts of the combatants. Here and there might be seen some unlucky hero placed hors du combat, with a red eye or a bloody nose.

It must have been incredible to witness. You should most definitely go read the full article.

George R. “Cracker-baker” Skillman

This is a very long post about a piece of Skillman family history. There’s plenty of general interest history in here as well, but I go very deep in the weeds in some places. If you’ve stumbled onto this post via a web search and think that we may be related, please drop me a line!

When I recently wrote about my family’s connection to the Great Baltimore Fire, it got my curiosity going again about my great-great-great-grandfather, George R. Skillman. Since there are so many men named “George R. Skillman” in our family, we’ve always called him “Cracker-baker George”.

George R. Skillman, the Cracker-baker. Photo courtesy of George Skillman.

George R. Skillman, the Cracker-baker. Photo courtesy of George Skillman.

For a long time, that was pretty much all we knew about him: he lived in Baltimore, had some type of association with the Maryland Institute, and made a name for himself in cracker-baking. That was it.

In recent years, I’ve done some digging on Ancestry, and was able to locate some Census records and his Civil War draft registration on there, but my mission at the time was to try to get information on the whole family, not to just drill down on one or two members, so I never got that deep on his life story. That all changed with the anniversary of the Great Baltimore Fire. I wanted to find out more about who this guy was.

I collected all the data that I had from the traditional family story, to the Census records I found online, and went down to the main Enoch Pratt library, hoping that they would have some good sources. I’m happy to report that they were tremendously helpful. I was able to find some information about companies he worked for, and even some clues about a few other relatives in Pratt’s collection of books. Searching the city directories and the online archives of The Baltimore Sun (which the library subscribes to) were instrumental in putting some of the pieces together.

There are still plenty of holes – one of the Pratt librarians told me that this is probably always going to look like Swiss cheese – but here’s the story of his life that I have (so far):

George R. Skillman was born January 1, 1837 in Baltimore. His parents were F. Robert J. Skillman and Naomi Sophia (Miller) Skillman.

He was a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church. His family attended services at High Street Methodist Episcopal (originally built at 230 S. High St. – now a parking lot) and later in life, at Grace Methodist Episcopal in Baltimore.

The first reference to him that I found was in The Sun on March 8, 1858. He apparently attended a meeting in Temperance Hall in Baltimore, where the attendees were discussing their support for “The President’s Plan” regarding Kansas. This is a reference to the Lecompton Plan for Kansas’ state constitution – a constitution that would have allowed slavery in the Sunflower State. From what I’ve been able to find, George was a life-long Democrat, so it isn’t surprising that he’d be supporting President Buchanan as a young man.

On April 22, 1858 he married Mary Elizabeth Pierce. The couple would go on to have 8 children, but three of them wouldn’t survive past their twenties. My particular branch of the family is descended from his 4th son, Robert G. Skillman.

He registered for the draft in 1863, listing his occupation at the time as “Clerk”. The 1864 Woods’ City Directory has him living at 90 N. Eden Street (a house that no longer exists), and shows that he’s working as a “Bookkeeper”, but on January 1, 1864, James Beatty announced in The Sun that he was entering into a copartnership with his clerk, George R. Skillman.

His name is called in the draft June 23, 1864, but he doesn’t end up going to war. By June 28, he’d found a substitute to serve in his place. You could do that back in those days, especially if you were a partner in a prominent manufacturing business.

The same city directory in 1865-1866 shows the first reference to the company that he made his name working for: James Beatty & Co. Steam Cracker, Cake, and Ship Biscuit Bakers. This firm seems to have been one of the largest commercial / industrial baking operations in Baltimore at the time. James’ grandfather was also named James Beatty (what is it with all these people having the same names?), and was the U.S. Government Naval Agent in Baltimore during the War of 1812. The Beatty’s were a prominent (and rich) family in 19th century Baltimore. Civil War nerds like me will also appreciate that “ship biscuit” is the naval term for hardtack, and from records I’ve found, the company was definitely a hardtack supplier for the Union army. The company’s address is listed as “Nos. 92, 94 & 96 Dugan’s Wharf, near Pratt Street” – what is now known as Pier 4 at the Inner Harbor.

In the 1870 Census, George lists his occupation as “Baker”, and on April 4, 1871, he’s granted U.S. Patent 113,356 for his Cracker Machine. Clearly, he was an innovative force in the industry. In an 1873 advertisement for the James Beatty Co., George is still listed as being James’ partner in the business. My feeling is that George became the brains, or the heart of the operation, and that James was providing the capital and the business side.

Sometime before 1878, George moves the family to a nicer house at what is initially listed as “329 Myrtle Ave.”, but later listings all show the property more accurately as being at 1408 Myrtle Ave (the current house at this address was built in 1920).

George joins the Board of Managers for the Maryland Institute in 1878. He would end up serving on the board for the rest of his life. Of course, it was through this association that my family first learned of him. In his first year as a board member, the institute held an exhibition (in those days, the school had a mechanical, vo-tech element to it as well as being an art school) in which the very latest technology was demonstrated. That year, the arc light, and the telephone were the big showpieces. The Baltimore Sun, describing the event 20 years later, had this to say:

On top of the tower of the building was placed one of these lights, with a reflector – a crude forerunner of the now well-known electric searchlight. An incident of this application was that when the light was thrown towards the home of Mr. George R. Skillman, on Myrtle Ave., and Mr. Skillman using the other unique exhibit, the telephone, read by it a newspaper extract to an auditor at the other end of the line.

Alexander Graham Bell had his successful test with the telephone just 2 years before. George was certainly a man who wanted to be on the cutting edge of technology.

His association with the Maryland Institute didn’t stop at serving on the board, though. An advertisement in The Sun on February 23, 1880 announces that “George R. Skillman, esq.” will be giving a lecture that evening about “Saalbec, Athens, and Pompeii”. So he’s a history buff, too.

In 1886, a book called “Half Century’s Progress of the City of Baltimore” was published. It included a one-page profile of James Beatty & Co., that mentioned how James took over the company from his father in 1858 and “some years later” added George R. Skillman as a partner. The article goes on to say that George “retired” from the firm in 1884. This isn’t entirely accurate, it seems. An announcement in The Sun on January 1, 1885 states that the partnership had been dissolved, and that James was bringing his son onboard in George’s place. It goes on to say that George had purchased another piece of property on Greene St., and would be starting his own bakery there.

On December 22, 1885, The Baltimore Sentinel published an article stating that:

Sunday afternoon, a fire destroyed the three upper floors of George R. Skillman’s cracker bakery, in Baltimore. The damage to the building is estimated at $10,000 and to stock and machinery $10-15,000.

Some “retirement”, huh?

The 1886 Woods’ City Directory lists “Skillman, George R.” under the category “Steam Bakers”, with an address at 51-57 N. Greene St. This was the location that was destroyed by the aforementioned fire. Luckily, George was fully-insured, and he rebuilt the business at a location up the street. By 1887, that new listing has appeared as “George R. Skillman Universal Steam Bakery” at 203-211 N. Greene St. (now a parking lot for the nearby University of Maryland campus).

203-211 N. Greene Street as it appears today. <em>Photo by the author</em>.

203-211 N. Greene Street as it appears today. Photo by the author.

The Sun has several text ads for the company from this period:

"Count the cost" - Making your own bread isn't worth it.

That last one is terrific. I have to wonder how much time was wasted by 19th century Baltimoreans in “scolding their cooks” about the low-quality bread they made. There’s also a collection of smaller ads. These are all great:

I think it’s interesting that his early ads are all about bread. In those days, most people baked their own bread at home. Even as late as 1910, only about 30% of bread was store-bought. His marketing push is based around his bread being an affordable luxury. He can make it better than you can yourself, and you might even save time and money. Rather than relying totally on local grocers carrying his bread, he also opens a full-service retail store at the bakery sometime in the 1890s.

On January 1, 1892, an advertisement in The Sun announces that my great-great-grandfather, Robert G. Skillman, has been made a partner in his father’s business. Only 26 years-old at the time, he is the eldest surviving son.

At the same time, George continues improving on the state of the art in his industry. In 1892, he’s granted U.S. Patent 487,431 for a commercial oven he’s invented.

It’s around this time though, that things look like they start going downhill a bit.

On January 27, 1891, The Sun mentions a court case, Edward A.F. Mears v. George R. Skillman. I don’t have any of the details of the case, but I know that George lost, and had to pay a sum of $45 to Mr. Mears.

Another article, entitled “Business Troubles” appears in The Sun on May 7, 1895. Guess what this is about:

George R. Skillman & Co., proprietors of the bakery at 203-211 N. Greene Street and of the restaurant at 225 N. Eutaw Street, made an assignment for the benefit of creditors yesterday to George D. Iverson, trustee. The bond was for $15,000, double the estimated value of the assets, which are said to consist mainly of special machinery. The liabilities, it is said, will aggregate about $30,000….They said the assignment was due to the low price of crackers and cakes, and to depression in the business.

So by 1895, he’s up to his eyeballs in debt, and he can’t seem to find a way out. This sounds like really bad news, except that another announcement appears in The Sun on June 21, 1895 – less than 2 months later:

George D. Iverson, Trustee of George R. Skillman & Co., bakers, under deed of trust for the benefit of creditors, yesterday reconveyed the trust property to the firm, who have settled with all their creditors. George R. & Robert G. Skillman are the members of the firm.

So it looks like George has found a way to pay-off all the people he owed money to. He must have come into some quick cash….

Fast forward to December 4, 1895 when The Sun ran an ad announcing that the Skillman Universal Steam Bakery had been purchased by the New York Biscuit Co. The ad expressed the hope that their customers would continue to support the business. George R. Skillman is listed at the bottom as the “Manager”.

In 1898, the New York Biscuit Co. (now owners of the Skillman Bakery) merged with the American Biscuit and Manufacturing Co., creating the National Biscuit Co. in the process. This conglomerate would later shorten its name to Nabisco. By 1900, they’ve consolidated their operations in Baltimore to the 203-211 N Greene St. location, and George R. Skillman is still the Manager.

But there’s still more trouble brewing.

The Sun publishes an article on July 25, 1899 entitled “To Fight the Trusts – Wholesale Grocers Declare War on Big Corporations”. In the article, its reported that the local grocers don’t want to deal with the larger suppliers, and several have agreed to only buy from smaller, local providers. One of the companies that is specifically targeted in this protest is the National Biscuit Co. that George sold-out to, and is now managing the Baltimore operations of. But there’s about to be another plot twist.

The Polk’s City Directory for 1901 lists the following under “Bakery, Wholesale”:

  • Skillman Bakery (National Biscuit Co.), 203-211 N. Greene St., Elmore B. Jeffery, Manager.
  • Skillman, George R. (Union Biscuit Co.), 115 S. Frederick St.

By 1903, the listings look like this:

Under “Bakery, Wholesale”:

  • National Biscuit Co., 203-211 N. Greene St.

Under “Bakery”:

So when the big, national baking interests had become the bad guy, George removed himself from that situation and started up another operation of his own. And look at how he’s marketing the new venture: “biscuits” and “crackers” in 1903 are products that are made almost exclusively in large commercial bakeries. “Bread” and “pie” are still primarily products that are made at home by most people. He’s trying to make this new business at least appear to not be a big, scary company.

Other than the damage to the Maryland Institute that I talked about in an earlier post, I don’t think George is personally affected by the Great Fire in 1904. All his properties are outside of the disaster area. He suffers a very personal disaster a few weeks later, though. On February 20 his wife Mary dies.

1905 is the last year that George is listed in the city directories as being the “proprietor” of the Skillman Bread & Pie Co., so it looks like his day-to-day involvement has slowed. Elmore B. Jeffery (who replaced George at National Biscuit Co.) is brought onboard as the Manager of Skillman Bread & Pie in 1906. How about that, huh? George has also left the family home on Myrtle St., and moved to 3617 Forest Park Ave (the current house on this site was built in 1920). I have to imagine that his wife’s death had something to do with both moves.

In 1909, George sued the Skillman Manufacturing Co., claiming that they owed him $115 and that the company was insolvent. He won himself the company receivership in the case, and the managers of the firm were forced to admit that George’s claims were true. At this point, the company address is listed as being 110 S. Charles St. The old Regester St. location was sold in 1910 for $14,000 to a man who built an auto repair shop there.

Skillman Bread & Pie Co. moves again to 104-112 W. Barre St. at least by 1912, and by 1914, it has completely disappeared from the city directories. It seems like the business had run its course.

George is back in The Sun in 1912, though. An article on November 19 states that he had sold the property at 203-211 N. Greene St. (somehow, he must have re-bought the place) to the Lexington Storage and Warehouse Co., and the next year’s city directory lists him as the President of that company.

The gig doesn’t last long, it seems. While he remains involved with the Board of Managers for the Maryland Institute, and as a Board Member for The Boys’ Home on Calvert and Pleasant St., by 1915, he no longer has an occupation listed in the directories. Sometime before 1917, he’s moved in with his daughter and son-in-law, George MacCubbin, at 3803 Clifton Ave (the current house at this address was built in 1910, so this seems to be the only house he lived in that still exists).

He died in that house, October 18, 1918 at the age of 81, having led a very full life.

He is buried at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Baltimore.

George R. Skillman's Grave in Mt. Olivet Cemetery

George R. Skillman’s Grave in Mt. Olivet Cemetery. Photo by the author.

The best indication of what he did is found in the 1917 edition of “A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents”. This collection of Presidential remarks also includes an “encyclopedic index”, there to give background information on a number of topics that may come up in speeches and letters of the Presidents. The entry in the index for “Baking Industry” explains that it has become at least the 12th largest industry in the country, and that the growth has been incredible in recent years. It specifically states:

Some of the other bakers engaged in interstate trade in the early history of the industry and who contributed to its national importance were…Skillman, of Baltimore….

Husband, father, baker, inventor, technologist, historian, businessman, civic leader, and “contributor of national importance”. George R. Skillman, my great-great-great-grandfather, was all of these things.

UPDATE – 12/27/2014:

I was able to find a display tin from the Skillman Universal Steam Bakery in an antique shop on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. My brother and I bought it to give to my father this Christmas so that it can stay in the family.

My dad holding a piece of family history.

My dad holding a piece of family history. Photo by Sharon Skillman.

138th Pennsylvania at Relay

Quite a few units rotated through duty at Baltimore – and specifically at Relay – during the war. The one that I want to focus on today is the 138th PA, which took up the post on August 30, 1862 and remained until June 16, 1863.

I mentioned before that Peter Thorn – the caretaker of Evergreen Cemetery in Gettysburg – left his family in August of 1862 to join the army. The unit that he joined went to Harrisburg and became Co. B of the 138th PA. Peter was selected to be a Corporal in the company. Another group of men formed in Adams County became Co. G in the 138th PA. After just a few days in Pennsylvania’s capital, the regiment shipped out to become part of the defenses of Baltimore, and was immediately assigned to duty at Relay House.

Col. Charles Sumwalt, commanding the 138th PA, initially deployed his men as follows (Adams County units bolded):

  • Co. A – Jessop’s Cut
  • Co. B – Ellicott’s Mills
  • Co. C – Dorsey’s Switch
  • Co. D – Elk Ridge Landing
  • Co. E – Hanover Switch
  • Co. F – Relay House
  • Co. G – Fort Dix
  • Co. H – Relay House
  • Co. I – Relay House (with a detachment at Elysville)
  • Co. K – Relay House

Some of these place names may seem a little off to locals. The spelling of “Jessop”, or the separation of “Elk Ridge” as two words, for example. “Ellicott’s Mills” is now known as Ellicott City. These things have evolved over time. “Elysville” is a place that no longer exists. It was a small mill town along the Patapsco river most recently called Daniels, but it was wiped-out in the flooding brought by Hurricane Agnes in 1972. As I explained in the previous post, Fort Dix was the temporary fortification constructed on the hill just above, and to the north of the Thomas Viaduct. It’s a little easier to understand if we put all these locations on a map:

Deployment of the 138th PA. Base map from OpenStreetMap. Annotations by Pete Skillman.

Deployment of the 138th PA. Base map from OpenStreetMap. Annotations by the author.

You can see that the emphasis was on defending the Washington Branch – that’s where most of the troops were deployed.

Now, this isn’t to say that these assignments held through their entire duty in the area. Guard duty like this was a dreary task, and the units were routinely rotated back to the regiment’s headquarters at Relay House where there was a larger encampment that gave the men a chance to drill and practice their military skills. Relay House was also centrally-located in case reinforcements needed to be shifted along the railroad in a crisis. As I alluded-to before though, not much happened along this section of the B&O after May of 1861.

So what were these men spending their time doing? According to the orders of another unit that served at Relay, the 60th NY, the men were supposed to watch all the bridges, culverts, and switches along their sector. They were supposed to periodically patrol the track, looking for sections that had been removed or otherwise damaged, and for obstructions (natural or otherwise) that needed to be cleared. These tasks became even more important at night, when the cover of darkness meant that mischief was easier to pull off. This was not exactly a glamorous posting.

In fact, the task was so boring that Col. Sumwalt himself fell into a less-than-honorable lifestyle and was kicked out of the army for “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman” during the unit’s time at Relay.

At least for a little while though, Peter Thorn and the other men from Gettysburg were stationed practically right outside my front door, protecting the railroad that ran past Ellicott’s Mills. I spend so much time studying Gettysburg, and taking trips up there, that it’s funny to think that men from that little anonymous town spent more than 9 months of their Civil War service within a few miles of my house.

You never know what history might be lurking in your own front yard until you go looking for it.

The Occupation of Baltimore

Relay was secure. The railroad was firmly in Union control. The Winans Gun had been captured. Everything was going so well that Brig. General Benjamin Butler wasn’t at all concerned about an attack coming from Baltimore. In fact, he claimed that he’d yet to see:

…any force of Maryland secessionists that could not have been overcome with a large yellow dog.

That said, he wanted to take control of Baltimore and make sure that the secessionists couldn’t gain a foothold there. Without asking for permission from his superiors, he made a plan.

On May 13, 1861, under cover of darkness and in the midst of a heavy rainstorm, Butler loaded about 1,000 of his men onto a train at Relay and steamed into Baltimore. By midnight, they had possession of Federal Hill, and had begun building fortifications to hold the hill. It was a bloodless invasion as the rainy night had kept most of Baltimore’s citizens indoors and unaware of what was happening.

Butler notified the commander of Fort McHenry that the city was secure, but that guns should be trained on the downtown area, in case there was an attempt to take Federal Hill by force. None came.

Even though they were happy to have Baltimore neutralized, the higher-ups in the army didn’t like the blatant show of force. They immediately relieved Brig. General Butler of his command in Baltimore. New troops under Maj. General John A. Dix would be moved into town, taking possession of the forts around Baltimore and patrolling the railroads.

A new fort was constructed at Relay – on the hill directly to the north of the Thomas Viaduct – called Fort Dix, after the new commander. Camp Relay was established nearby, and Camp Essex sprang up on the Howard County side of the river in Elkridge. By the end of the war, there were 28 cannons in place to protect the Relay junction and the Thomas Viaduct. Thousands of troops served in the area, being constantly rotated in and out over the course of the war.

One of the units that spent a few months here was the 138th PA, and that will bring us back to Peter Thorn.

The Winans Steam Gun

After gaining control of the junction and bridge at Relay, Brig. General Butler got word that a new experimental weapon was being moved out of Baltimore – probably by horses along the old National Road (today known as Frederick Road, MD 144) – toward Harper’s Ferry with the plan of selling it to the Confederacy. This weapon was the Winans Steam Gun.

The Winans Steam Gun in the hands of Union troops. Engraving from Wikipedia.

The Winans Steam Gun in the hands of Union troops. Engraving from Wikipedia.

This was a steam-powered, self-propelled cannon that was capable of a very high rate of fire. No gunpowder was used – the balls were “fired” by the centrifugal force generated by a steam turbine. People who had seen it demonstrated in Baltimore prior to the war thought that it had great potential as a weapon against infantry and artillery. One observer wrote this in the Baltimore News after seeing a test firing:

Against a brick wall about a foot thick, heavy timbers, each a foot thick, were piled up. When finally placed ready for the test, there was about three feet of wood and one foot of brick ready to receive the discharge of the gun. The gun was some 30 or 40 feet away from the target. At a given signal an awful uproar was begun. In less than a minute the gun had been stopped. In that short time the heavy timbers had either been smashed or thrown into the air. Every one of us was convinced that the discharge would have mowed down a whole regiment.

Clearly, it would be a bad thing if this technology fell into enemy hands. On May 11, 1861, Butler halted the noon train from Baltimore to Ellicott’s Mills (present day Ellicott City) to commandeer it. As many as 500 men from the 6th MA, as well as 2 of Cook’s guns were quickly loaded on the train in the hopes of intercepting the experimental weapon.

The gun was in fact traveling along the Frederick Road in a mule-drawn wagon. Its smugglers were trying to disguise it as a piece of farming equipment in an attempt to avoid suspicion.

Butler’s efforts paid off. The Union troop train arrived just in time to stop the contraband in its tracks somewhere between Illchester and Ellicott’s Mills and the smugglers (including the gun’s probable inventor, Charles S. Dickinson) hardly put up a struggle. Four of them were immediately arrested. The weapon and prisoners were brought back to Relay.

The Union forces at Relay were very interested in testing-out their new capture, but found the results to be much less than what they expected. Aside from the issues they saw of how to keep the weapon properly fueled and loaded with ammunition in the midst of a battle situation, the performance of the gun was just pitiful. Rounds seemed to dribble out of the barrel haphazardly. It was hard to imagine this as a purported super weapon.

What these men did not know was that there was a second wagon traveling with the gun, and several of the important parts of the gun had been removed and placed in the other wagon prior to departing Baltimore. When the gun itself was captured, the second wagon escaped. The steam gun was useless to the Union forces, but in that, it also left the impression that the technology itself was flawed and further attempts to develop the weapon went nowhere.

Of course no one knew it at the time, but this was the most excitement that the area would see during the war. The B&O was too important not to be defended, and troops would rotate through this post until the end of the war, but the feared attacks never came.

In the next post, we’ll finally bring it back to Peter Thorn.