Visit to the Civil War Exhibition at the Maryland Historical Society

Back at the end of October, I was able to check out Divided Voices: Maryland in the Civil War at the Maryland Historical Society. I must be honest and say that this is not a true exhibit review as I have not any knowledge of the budget, availability of artifacts, time or other constraints imposed by the institution. Also, regrettably photos were not allowed so I don’t have any for you in this post.

The exhibit had some really interesting artifacts even though I was impatiently waiting to see the 4th United States Colored Troops’ (USCTs) American flag. Among the artifacts I found interesting were a massive albeit tranquil painting of Harper’s Ferry; a carbine and pikes associated with John Brown’s 1859 raid at Harper’s Ferry, an original sock that had been worn by a Maryland soldier, and of course the 4th USCT flag.

The flag of the 4th USCT (you can see a treatment plan and images of the flag here) is one of less than 25 that still survive among banners carried by black soldiers during the Civil War. Additionally, this flag was rescued by Christian Fleetwood on September 29, 1864 in the battle of New Market Heights after a previous color bearer had been wounded. Fleetwood recalled:

It was a deadly hailstorm of bullets and it was not long before [Arthur Hilton] also went down, shot through the leg. As he fell he held up the flags and shouted, ‘Boys, save the colors!’ Before they could touch the ground, Corporal Charles Veal had seized the blue [regimental] flag, and I the American flag, which had been presented to us by the patriotic women of our home in Baltimore.

It was very evident that there was too much work cut out for our regiments. I have never been able to understand how Corporal Veal and I lived under such a hail of bullets, unless it was because we were both such little fellows.

 

After the Battle of New Market Heights, Major General Benjamin Butler commissioned silver medals by Louis Comfort Tiffany to present for bravery to 14 black soldiers including Fleetwood. The War Department eventually awarded the Medal of Honor to these same men. So as a long-time student and professional historian of the Petersburg Campaign, I was very excited to see this banner.

Overall, I think the exhibit was well done. Maryland residents had divided loyalties during the war and I believed that the text panels and objects did a good job balancing the Unionists’ sympathies and Confederate sympathizers. I also found that they did a good job in showcasing how close Maryland came to rejecting the 1864 state constitution that outlawed slavery and what the implications of that was in 1865 and beyond. It’s clear that this exhibit situates some “newer” themes of historical study such as maimed bodies and veterans issues which were not always glorious and neatly tidied up with the war’s end.

I think my only critiques were:

  1. I found the timeline of events hugging the wall to be useful; but, I was not sure when I was supposed to go toward the center of the exhibit space that was filled with women’s clothing and some soldiers’ clothing and ephemera.
  2. I wanted to know and see more related to Maryland women’s Civil War experiences. Many of the clothing items were on loan from other institutions or people (including a friend of mine). But I was not able to draw a direct line of why these items not a part of the Maryland Historical Society’s collection matter to Maryland women during the Civil War.
  3. There was a section on Chief Justice Roger B. Taney. In the text it said “Taney is best known for the Dred Scott decision of 1857, the inflammatory ruling that allowed slavery to spread into the United States territories and denied black citizens the same rights as whites.” I admit, I recoiled from the use “black citizens.” As a person of African descent, I readily admit I despise His ruling made it law that black people (including my family in nineteenth century America) were not nor intended to be citizens. I select these parts of the Chief Justice’s opinion:

 

The words “people of the United States” and “citizens” are synonymous terms, and mean the same thing. They both describe the political body who, according to our republican institutions, form the sovereignty, and who hold the power and conduct the Government through their representatives. They are what we familiarly call the “sovereign people,” and every citizen is one of this people and a constituent member of this sovereignty. The question before us is, whether the class of persons described in the plea in abatement compose a portion of this people, and are constituent members of this sovereignty? We think they are not, and that they are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word “citizens” in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the government might choose to grant them.

 

He went on:

 

In the opinion of the court, the legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the Declaration of Independence, show, that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves, nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people, nor intended to be included in the general words used in that memorable instrument.

It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in relation to that unfortunate race, which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted. But the public history of every European nation displays it in a manner too plain to be mistaken.

They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it. This opinion was at that time fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race. It was regarded as an axiom in morals as well as in politics, which no one thought of disputing, or supposed to be open to dispute; and men in every grade and position in society daily and habitually acted upon it in their private pursuits, as well as in matters of public concern; without doubting for a moment the correctness of this opinion.

 

I am very pleased that in the years since Taney died this country has changed and I (as a black person) can enjoy the rights of citizenship, but, black people during the Civil War were only residents (not citizens) of the United States due in large part to Taney and the associate justices of the Supreme Court.

  1. Lastly, I wished that the other USCT residents of Maryland who received a Medal of Honor had been mentioned somewhere near the 4th USCT flag. Of the black soldiers who received a Medal of Honor during the war, Decatur Dorsey, William Barnes, the aforementioned Christian Fleetwood, James Harris, and Alfred Hilton were all born in Maryland. Charles Veal was a resident of Maryland (though born in Virginia).

The exhibition opened in the spring of 2011 and will be up at least through spring 2015. Admission prices and hours of operation can be found here.

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