Historical exhibit provides window into the Civil War

May 27, 2006|By JACQUES KELLY

I found myself spending a long time at a new exhibition at the Maryland Historical Society. Its title, The Civil War in Maryland: Rare Photographs from the Collections of the Maryland Historical Society and its Members, pretty much tells the story.

An old photo, perhaps a daguerreotype or ambrotype, that records a scene or person 150 years ago, is powerful. The camera does not lie; the realism has a power. Yes, this is Baltimore when Lincoln was in the White House. Yes, this is what young men in military service were like, too. Slaves and free African-Americans as well.

Local collectors Ross J. Kelbaugh, Arthur "Gil" Barrett, David P. Mark Sr., Frederick D. Shroyer and Daniel Carroll Toomey and others lent their precious materials to the exhibit. Their mini-biographies indicate they began collecting when they were quite young, several while in elementary school. It takes a lifelong passion to gather treasures like these, the largest collection of Maryland Civil War photos ever exhibited.

If you cannot make it downtown, I recommend the excellent accompanying catalog ($10), which shows many of the photos enlarged.

On the other hand, viewing the originals, which are often small and timeworn, reminds me they were made to be viewed in an intimate way, held by hand. The effect of this wartime photography on Memorial Day is downright haunting.

The catalog begins with a classic Baltimore street view, a house in Oldtown at High and Low streets. It was taken May 23, 1863. As a child, my mother took me to this curiously named corner. The circa-1770 home that once stood there was long gone; I recall the area as a rather smoke-stained downtown backwater.

There is also an amazing section of photos of Baltimore architectural landmarks photographed in 1864 by Daniel Stiltz. I found a picture of the old St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church, then the home to the city's largest Roman Catholic parish. Not a trace remains of it today. I had never before seen a photo of this early Baltimore house of worship.

The exhibition deals with several of the military encampments in and around Baltimore, including scenes at Relay in Baltimore County, where troops guarded the B&O Railroad and its Thomas Viaduct. But it's the Federal Hill pictures that helped me understand how the Union troops occupied this landmark during this very bitter period.

Kelbaugh produced what he calls "the only photograph yet found that shows the interior of Fort Federal Hill." It's a remarkable find and shows a headquarters that looks as if it would be at home in the hills of Frederick County. (This unidentified photo turned up on an online auction site.)

He also discovered one of the finest pictures I've ever seen of the outer slopes of a nonbeautified and nonlandscaped Federal Hill. Clearly visible are the entrances to the fabled tunnels, or caverns, used by local brewers to store beer. (Other sources say they were sand mines.)

These passages, which remain, occasionally cause parts of the hill to cave in. The 150-year-old photo looks very much like what I witnessed when a contractor was doing work on the hill 15 years ago.

Many of the camp-scene photos were made as send-home souvenirs for the Union soldiers sent to Baltimore from the North to keep order here and keep Washington from falling into the hands of the Confederates. The collectors report they discovered some of the outdoor scenes in New England photo albums.

Other photos show people, like William R. Clark, a 20-year-old sailor who had enlisted in the Confederate Army before the war began. He took a musket ball in the head during the Pratt Street riot of 1861 and died on the spot. The elegant photo of him was found in a box-lot at auction in Timonium.

So too the African-American soldier and his wife and two children, who posed sometime after the Emancipation Proclamation. The ambrotype was found at a Cecil County antiques shop in the 1970s.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

The exhibit runs until Oct. 14 at the society's library, Park Avenue and Monument Street. It is open Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

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