Historical Society unveils large Civil War exhibit

It includes flag hand-stitched and flown outside West Baltimore home during war

  • Kofi Owusu, an actor who will be playing Christian Fleetwood, a Union soldier who was the first black man to win the Medal of Honor, adjusts his cap during rehearsal, as preparations were being completed for the Maryland Historical Society's new exhibit, "Divided Voices: Maryland in the Civil War."
Kofi Owusu, an actor who will be playing Christian Fleetwood,… (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy…)
April 13, 2011|By Jacques Kelly, The Baltimore Sun

An 89-year-old Arizona man worried that no one showed interest in a U.S. flag hand-stitched by his grandmother and her mother 150 years ago.

By chance, his concerns found their way to the Maryland Historical Society, where a curator said her eyes filled with tears as she gently unwrapped the rare, homemade 34-star flag that flew above a West Baltimore street during the Civil War.

"I had this feeling this was something special, extraordinary," said Alexandra Deutsch, the society's chief curator. "When I received it, I was overwhelmed. It was one of those amazing moments in every curator's life. It is a Baltimore story, an everyday story that is nevertheless totally remarkable."

The flag has a starring role in "Divided Voices: Maryland in the Civil War," an exhibition billed as "the largest Civil War exhibit in the museum's 167-year history." Many of the treasures featured in the show, which opens Saturday, have not been shown publicly since the 19th century, said Burton K. Kummerow, the society's director.

At an unveiling Wednesday, curators said the large show "reveals the conflict's impact on the people of Maryland."

As it turns out, the women who made the flag showed their loyalty to the Union by displaying it from a West Lafayette Avenue window at the beginning of the Civil War and again at President Abraham Lincoln's death as his coffin arrived at Camden Station in Baltimore.

The donor, John W. Starrt, moved to Arizona in 1971 and stored the giant flag in a pillow case in a cedar chest. He knew it had been made by his grandmother, Alice McClellan, and her mother, Eleanor Miranda Dixon White. Other family members wrote down details of its story.

"I folded up the flag military-style and kept it safe," said Starrt from his home in Sierra Vista, Ariz. "For years I've been trying to give it to somebody. The Smithsonian turned me down."

He eventually made a contact with the Maryland Historical Society.

"Only 2 percent of Marylanders voted for Lincoln," Deutsch said. "And yet, when he died, we have accounts that say all Baltimore was draped in flags, and this is one of them."

She said that Maryland sent 60,000 men to serve in the Union army. More than 20,000 fought for the Confederacy. The figures, she said, show how divided a state Maryland was.

The curators emphasized that the show's themes will be related through personal items, such as an 1860s hoop skirt and its steel frame, wherein women kept muslin tote bags to smuggle medicines behind the lines to Confederate soldiers.

"Women brazenly wore the Confederate colors, even though Baltimore was a city occupied by federal forces," Deutsch said as she pointed to a type of apron that Southern sympathizers wore over a dress. At the same time, there was also women's apparel inspired by the New York Zouaves, a Union military outfit that wore exotically embroidered uniforms.

Among the artifacts is a dress coat worn by Richard Snowden Andrews, who was wounded at the Battle of Cedar Mountain in Virginia. Military surgeons cut away his coat and operated on a deep wound. He survived and was wounded again at the Second Battle of Winchester. He lived until 1903 and gave lectures attired in his bloody coat.

There is also a Massachusetts bayonet preserved from the April 19, 1861, Pratt Street Massacre, regarded by many historians as the first bloodshed of the Civil War. The Historical Society has pistols fired in that incident. It will also display a replica stone of the type used to pave Baltimore's streets. These heavy stones were pulled up during the riot and thrown as weapons.

Other objects include a piece of the wallpaper that lined the presidential box in Ford's Theatre in Washington the night Lincoln was assassinated. It was acquired by Asia Booth, sister of assassin John Wilkes Booth, who was born near Bel Air.

"Asia Booth was obsessed with her brother and what he did," said Deutsch.

Kummerow said visitors will see Robert E. Lee's camp chair, John Brown's carbine and Lincoln memorabilia from the Civil War era, as well as photographs assembled by local collectors Ross and Nancy Kelbaugh, who have also re-created a 19th-century photographer's studio.

The Civil War exhibit will run for the next four years and will be updated annually.

Get more information about the "Divided Voices: Maryland in the Civil War" exhibit at the Maryland Historical Society.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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