Blood Brothers A new history details the lives of Maryland's Union and Confederate officers: men from the same state, but two very different worlds.

June 22, 1998|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

An article in yesterday's Today section about two Maryland junior officers who served during the Civil War misidentified the Union Army officer. He was Capt. Robert B. Meads.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Margaret Fresco looks down the long corridors of the years and sees the past much more clearly than the present.

At 90, she's a handsome, buoyant woman who bears her age with easy grace, even though for the last few years her sight has been failing badly.

She can envision the tombstone of her grandfather with its Confederate emblem more precisely than the dim forms and faint colors of visitors to her assisted living apartment at Solomons, in Southern Maryland. She and a grandson set the stone in an old St. Mary's County churchyard toward evening on a cold, rainy day only four years ago.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

During the Civil War, her grandfather, Capt. Joseph Forrest, rallied Marylanders to the Confederate cause and organized them into the Chesapeake Artillery battery after they had rowed across the Potomac River to Virginia.

Sixty miles north of Solomons in Carney, just off the Baltimore Beltway, Janice Harding, who is a vibrant, youthful 60, sees a different history when she peers into her family's past.

"This is a Union house," she says, with good-humored fervor. And indeed her comfortable house with a pond and a brace of faux Canada geese out front abounds with Union artifacts inside.

Her great-great-grandfather, Capt. Thomas B. Meads, fought with the Union Army of the Potomac, from Gettysburg to the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. Her husband's grandfather,Sgt. Edward S. Harding, was a Union soldier, too.

Though they have never met, Fresco and Harding share a great, if divergent, pride in their Civil War ancestors. It's a pride well-founded, says historian Kevin Ruffner, who lists both men among 365 officers surveyed in his new collective biography, "Maryland's Blue and Gray."

The book (Louisiana State University Press, $34.95) is a study, as his subtitle explains, of "a border state's Union and Confederate junior officer corps" -- the captains and lieutenants who actually led troops on the ground and into battle, sometimes against each other.

"In essence," Ruffner writes, "this book attempts to discover the cultural similarities between Union and Confederate Marylanders and the irreconcilable differences that brought them into mortal combat."

Margaret Fresco and Jan Harding each have made their separate peace with this past, but each remains loyal to the heritage that has come down to them through the generations.

Harding sometimes refights the old campaigns on chat room and e-mail battlegrounds with friends who are Confederate sympathizers. Fresco approaches her past with some of the nostalgic resignation perhaps characteristic of survivors of the Lost Cause.

"I think it was the darkest time in our country," Fresco says. "People had to murder each other. I think it was pitiful. I hope the country will never come to that again. But who knows? I'm sure the North thought they were in the right. And the South thought they were in the right."

Steeped in history

Author Ruffner knows something about the small-unit commanders he writes about. He's a major in an Army Reserve unit at Fort Meade and served three years' active duty with the Third Armored Division in Germany.

Now he's a staff historian with the Central Intelligence Agency, -- which means he researches, writes and teaches agency history. And he works with historians from the State Department and other governmental agencies.

"It's public history," he says. Well, not quite. "Probably about 75 percent is classified."

But he's an earnest, mild-mannered, friendly academic kind of guy without a hint of cloak-and-daggerism. He lives with his wife, Sonya, and their infant son, Tristan, in a porch-front rowhouse just outside the historic district on Washington's Capitol Hill.

His book is one of the first to look at Maryland officers from a social-military viewpoint. He found the forces rending the nation reflected in the split between the men who joined the Maryland Line of the Confederate Army and the Union loyalists who fought with the Maryland Brigade of the Army of the Potomac.

Ruffner's study shows a deep divide in the social and economic caste of Confederate and Union officers. He challenges some old shibboleths.

"It is a kind of commonplace to say Maryland was basically a Confederate state occupied by Yankee soldiers," he says.

Yet a common estimate suggests 60,000 Marylanders -- including 8,000 blacks -- fought for the Union, compared to perhaps 25,000 who joined the Rebels of the Confederacy.

"The Union number is double the Confederate number, you could say," Ruffner suggests. With lots of room for error, he adds.

The Confederates, he says, won the postwar "battle for memory."

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