Frederick redeemed, but not repaid


February 07, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen |

There was one battle the late Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. couldn't win during his 26 years in the House and Senate - where he had championed such historic causes as civil rights legislation, women's rights and restoration of the Chesapeake Bay while defying the Republican Party with his opposition to the Vietnam War - and that was concluding the Civil War for his hometown of Frederick.

For all of his political power and acumen, Mathias was unable to persuade Congress to pay back the original $200,000 ransom (at 4¿ percent interest, compounded) that the city of Frederick had paid in 1864 to Confederate Gen. Jubal Early to stop his troops from torching the town.

Early had a history of doing this sort of thing. When his troops occupied York, Pa., on June 28, 1863, for example, he demanded that city officials supply his troops with 2,000 pairs of shoes or boots, 1,000 felt hats, 1,000 pairs of socks, 32,000 pounds of fresh meat, thousands of barrels of sugar, flour and molasses, three days' rations and $100,000 in cash.

After York residents could scrape together only $28,000, a highly irritated Early threatened to burn all facilities that could be used by the Union army, including area railroad yards and terminal facilities.

Two days later, the general received orders to abandon York, so his troops didn't get the chance to destroy that southern Pennsylvania city.

In the summer of 1864, with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's grip tightening on the Army of Northern Virginia, Gen. Robert E. Lee ordered Early to invade Maryland and take Washington with 10,000 fresh troops.

Word had reached Frederick on July 4 by way of an alert Baltimore & Ohio Railroad telegrapher that a detachment of rebel cavalry was crossing the Potomac at Point of Rocks.

Suddenly, the telegraph line between Hagerstown and Frederick was cut. Military authorities in Frederick, now fearing a Confederate attack, began to remove patients from its hospital that held 3,000, sending them to Annapolis.

The next day, Early and his forces crossed the Potomac above Harpers Ferry, W. Va., and swung east on the Hagerstown pike, occupying Hagerstown on July 6 and levying a ransom of $20,000.

Frederick lay next in the path of Early's advances, and its residents had good reason to worry.

It was a major supply depot for Union forces, and its warehouses, jammed with uniforms, underwear, boots, crackers, shoes, coffee, sugar, rice, medicine, arms and wine, were a ripe plum.

Frederick also contained government manufacturing facilities that built wagons, as well as wheelwrights and blacksmith shops. The B&O also maintained a large freight house in the city.

Residents, packing their belongings and families into wagons, departed the city for the relative safety of Baltimore. Farmers drove their horses and cattle out of the city.

On the evening of July 7, Confederate forces in the mountains west of Frederick lobbed a few shells into the city, and the "entire Federal force [was] hotfooting it toward the Monocacy," reported The Sun in a 1931 article.

The next morning, a newspaper reporter described the scene as the Confederate flag, "the hated rag of oligarchy," was hoisted above the courthouse in Frederick.

Early and his officers, tired from their exploits, entered the United States Hotel, where they enjoyed a few rounds of celebratory drinks.

While able to remove some stores, retreating Union troops had abandoned more than a quarter of a million dollars' worth of supplies.

It wasn't long before Mayor William G. Cole received the first of two ransom notes, both dated July 9, 1864. They were signed by "W.J. Hawks, Chief Com. C.S. Army of Va."; Early had commissioned him to write and deliver the notes.

The first - "for use of the troops" - was for supplies: 500 barrels of flour, 6,000 pounds of sugar, 3,000 pounds of coffee, 20,000 pounds of bacon and 3,000 pounds of salt.

When Early discovered that residents had helped the Union troops flee, he grew angry and made additional demands in the second note, which was for $200,000.

Early promised to make good on his threat to burn the city if the ransom wasn't met.

At first, the bankers balked and demanded a discount, and when the Confederates proved unyielding, they began withdrawing the necessary funds from the various hiding places where they had been placed for safekeeping, and carried them in baskets to City Hall, where they were turned over to Early's quartermaster, a Major Braithwaite.

Picking up a pen, the major wrote a terse receipt, dated July 9, 1864: "Received of the Mayor, Alderman and Common Council of Frederick, the sum of two hundred thousand dollars, in full payment of said sum, which this day was levied and demanded to be paid to the Confederate States of America by said Corporation of Frederick," and then signed it.

Early made good on his word, and Frederick was spared.

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