Confederates in my family tree

July 23, 1999|By Warren Buckler

WHILE Marylanders fought and killed each other throughout the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg stands out in popular memory at least as a particularly harsh reminder of the animosities that made this state to an extraordinary degree "a house divided."

Anyone whose roots in Baltimore and Maryland go back into the 19th century has surely become well versed in family lore related to the terrible blood-letting, 136 years ago this month, just up the road in Pennsylvania.

In our family, my grandmother, Mary Coleman (Herbert) Buckler, assumed the role of oral historian. She deemed it her mission, in fact, to ensure that her descendants would not soon forget what her father, and other Marylanders on the Southern side, did in the greatest battle on American soil.

And how could we forget when Lt. Col. (later Gen.) James R. Herbert himself, or at least a huge portrait of him in full Confederate uniform, looked indulgently at us from the wall, as though we were recruits rehearsing the manual of arms. He had a strikingly handsome face, one too sensitive, I always thought, for a soldier.

Granny's history

In my grandmother's high-ceilinged, heavily draped parlor on the second floor at 806 Cathedral St., I learned at an early age how memories -- of events terrible and uplifting, trivial and historic -- are passed down from one generation to the next.

We -- my siblings, cousins and I -- were often a captive audience on summer days, when the streets of Baltimore baked in the sun and a breeze was hard to find even in our Roland Park neighborhood.

Granny engaged in very vigorous values education. Courage and manners were high on her list. Her father became our role model.

Neither I, nor my cousin Sally Craig, of Towson, remember any discussion of slavery or the suffering of black people. If we ever found the gumption to ask how our brave, humane forebears could tolerate, even fight for, so cruel and inhumane an institution, we didn't get a straight answer. Indeed, that quandary was one many Marylanders took a long time to resolve.

Maryland, remember, was a slave state but remained in the Union. As Robert Cottom Jr. and Mary Ellen Hayward point out in their book "Maryland in the Civil War," slave markets in Baltimore and the brutal reality of slave labor in rural areas were no secret.

Most people just preferred not to talk about them. Secessionist sympathies ran strong. To assure the safety of the national capital, Baltimore was placed under what amounted to martial law for most of the war.

Some 60,000 Marylanders signed up to fight, about two-thirds of them for the Union. For African-Americans, military service often offered a chance to escape forced servitude.

I don't know why my family leaned toward the Confederate side. But some members had strong Virginia and Southern Maryland ties, presumably valued Southern ways and no doubt wanted the federal government to keep its nose out of what they considered local and state affairs.

Anyway, Lt. Col. Herbert, of Howard County, started out as an officer in the First Maryland Regiment. He moved up in rank when the infantry unit was reorganized into the Second, elements of which he led in heavy fighting on Culp's Hill at Gettysburg.

A few of his men reached the top, sometimes battling Marylanders on the other side, but lacked the resources to follow up their success. His compatriots described him as brave, which I assume means a little dull. He seems to have lacked the panache of the glamorous cavaliers who broke hearts between battles. A battlefield monument commemorates his unit's exploits.

By July 17, 1863, the Army of Northern Virginia had retreated. Herbert, severely wounded, stayed behind. He ended up in a prison camp where conditions, my grandmother assured me, were just short of barbaric. (So what would you expect from Yankees?) He survived, though his injuries surely hastened his death 20 years later.

Herbert was Baltimore police commissioner for a time and received full military honors when he died.

Maryland never left the Union and so avoided the retribution that came with Reconstruction. If anything, the lost cause was romanticized during the post-war years.

Memorial dedication

Thousands attended the dedication of the Confederate monument on Mount Royal Plaza in 1903. In a dramatic part of the ceremony, my grandmother and her sisters presented a banner to veterans who called themselves the James R. Herbert Camp.

The essential ugliness of the Southern cause was enveloped in a fog of sentimentality. Six years would pass before a comparable memorial honored Baltimore's Union soldiers.

The tradition of denial grew stronger, too. When the battle flag of the Second Maryland was presented to the governor in a State House ceremony in 1909, the speaker, Rev. Randolph McKim, a Culp's Hill veteran, dealt with the issue of motive.

Did Maryland Confederates fight to perpetuate slavery? "No," he said, "a thousand times no!" They fought for liberty and self-government and against subjugation and usurpation, he said.

Perhaps they were deluded into thinking so. That happens even to honorable, well-meaning people. The consequences of Southern success, however, would have been the perpetuation and even the expansion of slavery, the antithesis of liberty. We can all be grateful their cause was lost.

I hope Granny will forgive me.

Warren Buckler, a Baltimore native, writes from Valparaiso, Ind.

Pub Date: 7/23/99

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