It has been 125 years since Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, but interest in the Civil War has surged. With Maryland as the most important border state, Howard County would serve asa stage for some of the war's most significant, curious and sublime episodes.
On Oct. 17, 1859, Baltimore & Ohio conductor A.J. Phelps tried, for the second time, to convince his incredulous boss that an incidentof national importance was occurring at the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Va. From the Ellicott's Mills train station he telegraphed master of transportation William P. Smith in Baltimore. Some sort of action by authorities outside of the B & O was necessary, Phelps insisted.
Earlier in the day, Phelps' eastbound train had been stoppedjust short of the Potomac River trestle in Harpers Ferry by abolitionist John Brown's raiding party. At dawn, and after a delay of five hours, the raiding party finally allowed the train to proceed.
Whenthe train arrived at Monocacy Junction near the city of Frederick, Phelps telegraphed his first message to Smith, urging him to call the secretary of war at once. "They say they have come to free the slaves, and intend to do it at all hazards," he messaged.
His superior replied in disbelief. "Your dispatch is evidently exaggerated and written under excitement." But Phelps tried again, this time from Ellicott's Mills (later Ellicott City).
"I have not made it half as bad as it is," Phelps telegraphed his boss. "The captain (Brown) told me that his object was to liberate all the slaves and that he expected a reinforcement of 1,500 men to assist him."
That dispatch persuadedSmith to pass the information along to the president of the B & O Railroad, John W. Garrett. Garrett subsequently telegraphed President James Buchanan, the governor of Virginia and the Maryland militia.
By that afternoon, the president had dispatched 90 Marines by rail. They would pass through Ellicott's Mills bound for Harpers Ferry to end John Brown's raid. The raid's most significant effect was to spur efforts to form Southern militias for the defense against future attempts to eliminate slavery. These militias would later become elements of the Confederate Army.
In the spring of 1861, Charles Dickinson, an inventor from Cleveland, Ohio, developed what he called a "centrifugal steam gun" and traveled with it to Baltimore. This gun, whichhe hoped to sell to the Confederate Army, was really a cannon-type weapon that Dickinson claimed could be adjusted to fire projectiles ranging from a 1-ounce ball to a 24-pound shot. The gun could fire at the remarkable rate of 100 to 500 projectiles per minute, he claimed. Even weapons today can't accommodate such a range of projectiles at such speeds.
Dickinson, writing in Harpers Weekly, raved that the gun was "a triumph of inventive genius" and that it eventually would "inaugurate a new era in the science of war." Word spread about the miracle gun. It was even put on display in Baltimore, in the words of one writer, to "scare off hoodlums and awe the populace."
But Dickinson ran into trouble on two counts.
In early May he was moving his cannon west on the Frederick Turnpike (Route 144), reportedly to sell the weapon to the Confederacy. That was when he was spotted by military intelligence working for Gen. Benjamin Butler of the U.S. Army.Butler had six days earlier taken occupation of a critical train junction at Relay, the point where the B & O Main Line and Washington Branch split and bordered Howard County on the east, north and west.
On this morning, May 11, Butler had commandeered an Ellicott's Mills-bound train, which was to be boarded at Relay by several hundred Massachusetts volunteers and two pieces of cannon. Butler's train and Dickinson with his gun arrived simultaneously at Ellicott's Mills.
Dickinson's gun was confiscated and brought back to the Federal encampment at Relay.
That was when phase two of Dickinson's troubles began. The triumph of inventive genius, the wonder weapon, the cannon destined to launch a "new era" of military science, simply wouldn't work.
As The Baltimore Sun reported, "some very material and indispensable parts . . . were found wanting, and the steam gun, that all came to look upon as a death-dealing engine, stood as harmless as an oldbarn fan."
Whether the parts found wanting would have made the gun function is pure speculation.
Two of Dickinson's three followerswere taken into custody and later released by the Union occupying force. The third suspect, when cross-examined by Butler about his intentions, admitted to being a secessionist and went to jail.
Dickinson was not arrested by Butler's confiscation party, and he subsequently fled to Baltimore. Although it was used as a dummy gun at Relay to frighten raiders from the Thomas Viaduct, little trace of the gun canbe found after that.
It never became part of military ordnance.