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The Civilian Front

Lay Historian Charles W. Mitchell Takes Different Approach For Exploring Civil War

Christopher Myers

By Anny Hoge | Posted 1/2/2008

Native Marylander Charles W. Mitchell had always been interested in the Civil War, but he had little knowledge about his state's role in it. And what a role it was. Being a border state so close to Washington, President Lincoln knew that keeping Maryland in the Union was a key to success. But residents of the state were highly polarized on the matter, economically dependent on the North while remaining ideologically sympathetic to the South.

After watching the Ken Burns 1990 documentary miniseries The Civil War, Mitchell, 53, wanted to learn more, especially about Maryland. His interest led to his recently published book Maryland Voices of the Civil War (Johns Hopkins University Press), which is a collection of letters, memoirs, and newspaper articles delineating the far-reaching effects of the war on the state. The project took close to 13 years to complete.

Born and raised in Ruxton, Mitchell--a medical publisher for Lippincott, Williams, and Wilkins for the past 10 years--has always loved writing. "I had always liked to write even when I was in middle school," he says. "In college, I wrote a weekly column for the Penn State Daily Collegian."

After finishing up Penn State and grad school at the University of Maryland, Mitchell wrote for The Sun as a travel writer. "I wrote nine to 10 weekly travel columns about historical travel destinations in the Mid-Atlantic area," he says. This interest in the past eventually led to Voices.

He sought to illustrate what he calls the "fascinating human dynamic" of the Civil War and to "puncture some of the myths" that have been passed down through the decades. "I wanted to tell the story about the Civil War with a depth that had never been seen before," Mitchell says. "And I wanted to provide a foundation for other [Civil War] researchers."

Unlike other Civil War books, Voices focuses on the civilians that left behind written documentation about their experiences. "To see families splitting and fracturing can be gripping," Mitchell says.

Focusing on the civilian experience proved a difficult task, though. "The biggest challenge was finding material because so much of it is in archives and libraries," Mitchell says. "And the hours are usually limited, [so] getting access to material was always a hurdle to surmount. Certainly, getting images was always difficult. You have to find out who owns the rights, where the original is held, and get permission to use it. Then paying the fees and getting them to send it to you in a format that the publisher can reproduce is full-time work for someone."

The majority of Mitchell's research was conducted at the Maryland Historical Society. He also received valuable information from the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland, and from colleges and universities up and down the East Coast. By using personal documents and photographs, Mitchell allows readers to experience the war through the eyes of civilians. "It was a great thing to tell the stories and to bring the stories to life," he says.

For Voices, Mitchell balances his use of documents and narrative to tell those stories. The book is divided into three parts--"Indecision," "Occupation," and "Liberation"--and in each one Mitchell pens an introduction to the researched documentation. "I think the structure of the book . . . gives each chapter some degree of narrative drive," he says. "It is the best of both worlds, because I had an opportunity to write, but at the same time I allow the people to tell their stories in their own words."

"Indecision" documents events in Maryland after the infamous Baltimore riot of April 19, 1861, where the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment, loyal to Lincoln's Union, was attacked by civilians while on its way to Washington. Known as the Pratt Street Riot, it left 12 Baltimoreans and two Massachusetts men dead and more wounded, marking the city as the site of the Civil War's first fatalities. And following the riot, many Marylanders took it upon themselves to burn bridges and destroy railroads, such as the Northern Central, to prevent further Union troop passing to the South. Mitchell writes:

"Maryland men were slipping into Virginia and points south to join the Confederate army, and many who remained were seething at the ubiquitous presence of federal troops in Baltimore. Family fissures widened between siblings, sons and parents, and friends as attitudes hardened and positions were staked."

Mitchell goes on to show that for many Marylanders the war created irreconcilable differences, and in "Occupation" he discusses how the federal government kept the state from stirring up trouble by forcing it to remain part of the Union. For one, Lincoln dispatched troops to occupy Annapolis and Baltimore. Voices details the differing political sympathies of Marylanders from Baltimore all the way down to the Eastern Shore. Many Marylanders were willing to commit treason for the Southern cause, such as "Mrs. T," who attempted to smuggle goods to Confederate troops, carrying gray flannel for uniforms quilted in her skirts and "a quantity of letters in an India-rubber bag, and some packages of quinine, morphine, and strychnine, which last she had made into a `bishop' and hid around her waist under her dress," Mitchell writes.

In "Liberation," Mitchell addresses the plight of slaves and black troops and the implications of Lincoln's assassination. Many Marylanders were unwilling to eradicate slavery. As Mitchell notes in his epilogue: "For more than a century after the war, animus and segregation characterized Maryland's racial history, stoked by black activism--and corresponding white backlash--in the wake of landmark events such as Brown v. Board of Education and passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1965. Indeed, in Baltimore and several smaller Maryland cities, racial riots that exploded a hundred years after Appomattox remind us of the war's legacy, and that race and reunion remain entwined."

It's a prescient way to conclude a book on the Civil War, and not what Mitchell originally had in mind. He intended on ending his book with the assassination of Lincoln, but after conferring with his editor he decided to take a different tact. "I wanted to show how both sides, North and South, memorialized the war, and how each spun [the outcome] to their own advantage," he says. "I really learned a lot because I had never really thought about that topic too much."

Currently, Mitchell is working on a travel book about the Mid-Atlantic region. "It will be my own writing with letters and diaries about historical destinations in Maryland, Delaware, D.C., and Virginia," he says.

He's also considering a book about Maryland voices of the Revolutionary War--that is, if there is enough material. And he's also considering a project about slavery in the state. "Time will tell, but I am really interested in that topic," Mitchell says. "There are few books about Maryland slavery. I want to tell the whole story from the 1600s through Emancipation."

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