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As Long as We Remember...

April 25, 2011

Secession: Frederick’s Burning Question

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

This coming weekend marks the 150th anniversary of a Special Session of the Maryland General Assembly. Events of 1861 presaged the great and climactic war that was to come, the war for the very heart and soul of our young nation.


It began in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, with the Confederate attack on the Union garrison at Fort Sumter in that beautiful port city. Southern states, seizing an opportunity to strike back at the broad federal powers being imposed by President Abraham Lincoln and the troops of the north, fell like dominoes to the cause of the Confederacy.


Maryland’s genteel western neighbor, Virginia, was quick to rally to the southern cause. Maryland, her allegiances less clear, saw herself divided nearly equally, with the more urban populations and northern border counties tilting to the Union, while more southern and rural counties naturally tended toward Confederate sympathies.


Maryland Gov. Thomas Hicks, himself more inclined to support the Union and President Lincoln, saw the inevitability of a Special Session of the state legislature to deal with the issue that was roaring through the states, the question of whether to remain loyal to the federal government and President Lincoln, or to throw Maryland into the ever-growing list of Confederate states.


Governor Hicks had a more immediate problem. Riots were breaking out all over Maryland, with Baltimore and Annapolis streets running red with blood. Federal troops were sent in, inflaming the passions of Confederate sympathizers even more.


Governor Hicks announced a Special Session of the legislature in the one place where he believed that Union sympathies might allow him to hold a vote refusing to secede. He chose the City of Frederick, thinking that our common border with Pennsylvania might quell the southern leaning.


President Lincoln had federal observers closely monitoring the debate, as the special legislative session ran from April to September of 1861. It became increasingly evident that the vote might not produce Mr. Lincoln’s desired outcome; that being a repudiation of the Confederate cause.


President Lincoln ordered federal troops and local police loyal to the Union to arrest and detain legislators whose votes were in questions. If President Lincoln couldn’t control the vote through the debate, he intended to suspend basic constitutional protections in order to prevent another northern state from leaving the Union.


Today, 150 years later, the Maryland Code specifies that a member of the Maryland General Assembly may not be detained by law enforcement for anything other than a felony crime. All other matters will wait until after the session is completed before being adjudicated. This isn’t to grant special favor to our state legislators, this is simply a protection against another intrusion into the right of the state to chart its own course, something President Lincoln himself tried to deny 150 years ago.


It takes a good imagination, but a stroll down to the corner of East Church and North Market streets places you squarely in the heart of this amazing chapter in our state’s history. There, in a brick building across from Juliette’s Italian Deli, stands what was once known as Kemp Hall. Owned by the Frederick Evangelical Reformed United Church of Christ, the name is still on the door, now it houses a number of area non-profits.


It was in this building, up on the second and third floor, that the Maryland legislature met in the spring and summer of 1861, ultimately unable to cast a vote one way or the other thanks to the iron fist of the Union, and the suspension of state’s rights through the imprisonment of legislators.


Imagine the conversations on this corner back in 1861, the long hours of debate, and the arguments over a meal or mug in one of the several taverns that lined the downtown streets. The passionate struggle to keep our state together would make the foolishness of current day Annapolis politics look like child’s play.


So, why the mini-history lesson? Well, for one thing, we ought to care more about our past than we typically do. For another, this history took place on the same streets we now walk, the same buildings we use for modern purposes. Finally, this coming weekend, all of this grand and glorious history will once again come to life.


The Tourism Council of Frederick, along with the Historical Society of Frederick County, will be hosting a series of events surrounding the 150th Anniversary of the Special Session. There will be dramatic readings and historical reenactments, tours, and even a recreation of the actual debate using cards, letters and diaries of the participants. These events tell a story of our past that many don’t know, and add richness to our cultural and historic tapestry.


Take some time this coming weekend to learn more about Frederick City’s role in the most important moments in the history of our nation. You can see the events lists at the Tourism Council’s website:


If you do go (and you really should), stop Liz Shatto and thank her for her passion and commitment to the history of our community. You’ll know her; she’ll be the person trying to be in all places at once, keeping these events on track and task.


You owe it to yourself, your children and your forefathers to understand the significant role Frederick played in Maryland and America’s history. A trip downtown this coming Friday through Sunday will open those doors for you. You'll be given the chance to decide the burning question of secession yourself.


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