…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.
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 last post, we looked at the Baltimore Riot that took place early in the war. To Union forces in 1861, Baltimore was hostile territory.
Not wanting a repeat of the experience that the 6th MA had, the next group of troops coming in from the north stopped at Perryville, MD and boarded boats. They were heading to Annapolis – using the Chesapeake Bay to route around the potentially-troublesome city of Baltimore.
These men were from the 8th MA, under the command of Brig. General Benjamin Butler. His orders were to open up the route into Washington, D.C. from the north so that troops and supplies could continue to flow.
Butler landed his men at the Naval Academy on April 21, 1861, and began the work of repairing the sabotaged railroads – first, the line leading from Annapolis to the Washington branch of the B&O at Annapolis Junction, and then the Washington branch itself. Once those lines were secured, Butler turned his attention to the north, taking possession of Relay – a very small town in the Patapsco river valley – on May 5, 1861 with the 6th MA, the 8th NY Militia, and Major Cook’s battery of Boston Light Artillery.
Relay was especially important because it is the northernmost point on the Washington branch of the B&O. It’s where the line began, and where it met with the main line from Baltimore to points west in the Ohio valley. And – most importantly – at the time of the Civil War, this was the ONLY railroad going into Washington, D.C.
In order for the Washington branch to be built in the first place, a bridge had to be constructed to cross the Patapsco river. That bridge is the Thomas Viaduct – named for the first President of the B&O railroad – and it remains the longest stone-arch bridge on a curve in the world, still carrying trains on their way to the capital to this day.
This bridge and the junction next to it were of extreme strategic importance to the Union cause. The army HAD to control this place, and being just 7 miles from Baltimore, it was facing real threats.
Butler placed his guns and deployed his 2,000 troops along the tracks in the area to ensure that no more sabotage could take place. All trains out of Baltimore were stopped and inspected to see if they were carrying men or materiel destined for the Confederacy, but this policy didn’t last long. At the request of the owners of the B&O, Butler agreed to back down somewhat and only perform random searches.
There will be one more exciting incident along the B&O, though. A tip about a secret Confederate weapon will cause some of Butler’s men to leave Relay to find and capture some potentially-threatening cargo.
In my last post, I talked about the story of Elizabeth Thorn, and her husband Peter. I’m going to return to that storyline, but I wanted to take a short detour (which may be interesting to readers on its own, really) so that we can get a sense of context.
What can be easy to forget is that there is history all around us – not just at historical parks and tourist attractions. Recently, I was inspired to dive into some very local history, and I’ve found some pretty cool stuff. In fact, this may become a new rabbit hole for this blog to go down as I find out more and more.
So, let me set the scene a little.
As you may know, Maryland is a border state. It is situated north of Washington, D.C. – a city that was carved out of Maryland, in fact – and up until the end of the Civil War, was a slave-holding state. When Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860, it was well-known that the Republican party had an abolitionist wing, and there was concern that slavery’s days were numbered. This is what prompted several of the southern states to secede from the Union.
It was imperative that the capital not be surrounded by enemy territory – especially to the north – so it became vital to keep Maryland in the Union by any means necessary. This was made crystal clear on April 19, 1861 (a week after Confederate forces had fired on Fort Sumter) when the 6th Massachusetts Infantry came through Baltimore on its way to Washington.
In those days, there was a lot of southern sentiment in Baltimore. Thousands of Baltimoreans formed a mob outside of Camden Station to harass the Union troops as they arrived. Some dug cobblestones out of the street to throw at the soldiers. Others put up make-shift blockages in the road and obstructed traffic by their very presence. The men of the 6th MA were forced to abandon the carriages they were in and proceed on foot to the station.
Then a gunshot rang out from the crowd.
Surrounded by hostile citizens and fearing for their lives, the troops returned fire into the crowd.
When it was all said and done, 13 citizens of Baltimore were killed, and many more suffered wounds. The soldiers were able to board and leave on their train, but at least 1 of them was killed, and some of the men were wounded. While certainly not a battle, it was the first blood shed of the war.
The train made its way to Relay, MD, a small stopping-off point on the B&O railroad for travelers on their way to points west. It was about to become a highly-fortified, major strategic location for the Union army. All because of the experience that the 6th MA just had, and the need to defend a famous construction project that was completed nearly 30 years earlier.
I know that it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything – I’ve now let life get in the way of threedifferentseries that I’ve started on here. For now, I can’t fix that, but I trust that I’ll come back to each of those in the near future.
For today, I just wanted to make note of something I’ve noticed dozens of times, but haven’t really processed fully.
I met a few of my wife’s family members down at Fort McHenry today for a tour. While I was waiting for them to arrive, I wandered over to the George Armistead Monument near the parking lot.
It’s a nice, simple monument. There’s a likeness of him, birth and death dates, and a line about why he was important. All the usual stuff you’d expect on a memorial for a man with a great role in history. The issue I want to explore comes in on “the back” of the pedestal:
There is more text on this monument that describes how, when, and by whom it was put in than there is to describe the thing it is actually memorializing. Like I said, I’ve seen this same type of thing on monuments dozens of times, and it always strikes me as being pretty narcissistic. As if the people who decided on the design and placement of the marker deserved equal praise and billing with the memorialized person or event!
The thing is, this is some useful information in some ways. Who and what a people choose to memorialize can tell you something about those people – George Armistead was obviously enough of a hero in Baltimore in 1914 that this commission decided they needed a sculpture of him. And you don’t have to do any further research to discover who the sculptor was. You can further infer that there was a big to-do made of the centennial celebrations of the Battle of Baltimore, what with a monument dedication and all. Maybe one of these commissioners was a relative of yours – a remote possibility to be sure, but something similar happened to my dad years ago at the Maryland Institute.
I guess what I’m saying is that there’s a place or time when this kind of thing stops being the grandstanding of politicians and influential businessmen, and becomes “history” that is worthy of study. Not so much of the event itself, but of how the event is portrayed, and by whom. “Meta-history” if you will, but history nonetheless.
Where is that line? I have a hard time deciding. 50 years? 100? A generation or two? Maybe when the day-to-day decisions of these politicians and notable citizens fade from our memory, and thus cease to have so much controversy associated with them? History is curved, after all. I suppose it’s up to the future viewers of the monuments to make that call for themselves.
There may be some merit to exploring the backs of the monuments, too.
As part of their plan to take Baltimore, several thousand (different sources say anywhere from 4,000-7,000) British troops landed at North Point and began a march toward the city. They were met by militia under the command of Major General Samuel Smith and held for a few hours. Eventually, the Americans were forced to fall back into the defenses of the city, but not before mortally wounding the British commander, Maj. Gen. Robert Ross.
The momentum was beginning to leave the combined British invasion force. The actions to come at Fort McHenry would prove to be the deciding factor.
After the funeral, Grandma wanted to sort through some of the things Grandpa had kept in his office for years. He had an extensive collection of books, housed on shelves he made himself. The orders from Grandma were: any books that family members didn’t want were being donated to the library. Naturally, we all took a look.
My Uncle Tom from Canada wanted the Time-Life World War II collection. My dad and I split the Baltimore-related books (more on that in a minute). Near the top of one of the shelves, I found a collection of electrical engineering textbooks that I can only assume he used during his training in the Navy. They don’t seem like they’d be very old – they’re only from the 1930s – but one of the books admits right up front that we don’t really understand a lot about electricity, but that it is probably the result of a “tension or strain” in the “ether“. My how far we’ve come, huh? I had to take those.
I was also lucky enough to be given my Grandpa’s entire Time-Life Civil War collection. I had the Gettysburg one as a kid, and I really beat it up, but boy did I love that book. I haven’t dug too deep yet, but the rest of the collection looks just as good.
Apart from books, there were some other valuable items: ship models, hats, old liquor bottles, carved wooden masks, and lamps. Many of the gathered family members were able to find something that was meaningful to them.
My dad was looking for one thing in particular: the family records. I didn’t know what the big deal was. I have an Ancestry.com membership. Distant Cousin Bill Skillman has assembled a very complete family tree. What’s so special about these records?
I found out as soon as my Cousin Kyle found a box near the bottom of the closet with my dad’s name on it. Apparently, Grandpa knew that my dad would want to be the keeper of the records. Inside was a hand-written family tree (in pencil) on the back of Skillman Baking Company paper. I haven’t had a chance to really examine it myself yet, but it looks amazing. I have no idea who wrote it, but it has to be at least 100 years old.
Another box was labeled “Mother Skillman”. I can only assume that this refers to my Grandpa’s mom, Sophie (Jory) Skillman. This box had a ton of pictures and letters in it. I also haven’t gone through all of it – we left it with my Grandma in Lewistown. There were two things that I took from that box though, and tonight I scanned them so they can be preserved.
One is an old brochure from Ft. McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine. I’ve collected quite a few of these myself over the years, but none as old as this one. Based on the the fact that Harold L. Ickes is listed as being Secretary of the Interior, and Newton B. Drury is listed as the Director of the National Park Service, the brochure would have to have been produced between 1940 and 1946. I guess my Great-Grandmother must have gone down the avenue (she lived at 1604 Johnson Street in Baltimore) to visit the fort sometime during those years.
It’s a cool document. Admission was $0.10 back then. The cover features a 48-star U.S. flag (shouldn’t it always be a Star-Spangled Banner?). I’m amazed that both my Great-Grandmother and then my Grandpa decided to keep this brochure around for all these years. Why? Was this a memento of a special visit for them? Was it just a familiar reminder of Baltimore for my Grandpa? I’ll probably never know.
Either way, I created a high-quality PDF of the brochure to preserve and share it. Feel free to have a look for yourself. See what the past thought of the past.
The other item from the box is equally interesting. My Great-Grandmother kept a small book (it’s more like a pamphlet) of photos from the 1904 Baltimore Fire. As best as I can tell, the book itself dates from 1904. Obviously, this was a major event in her life. Looking at the photos, you can see that the devastation was almost unbelievable. This story isn’t much told – even locally in Baltimore. We should try to change that.
The cover announces that there was $175,000,000 of damage. That’s over $4.4 Billion in today’s dollars.