Adapted from Civil War Guide to Montgomery County, Maryland, by Charles T. Jacobs and Montgomery County Our History
The American Civil War was fought from 1861 to 1865 and was a time of deep divisions between Americans living in the northern and southern states. Although the reasons for the war are complex, one of the issues at the center of the dispute was the continued practice and spread of slavery. At the beginning of the Civil War, the United States was divided politically and geographically by the issue. Northern states had already outlawed slavery and President Abraham Lincoln, elected in 1860, wanted to continue restricting the practice.
Viewing Lincoln’s election as a threat to their way of life, eleven slave-holding states in the South declared their independence from the United States, and formed the Confederate States of America (often referred to as the Confederacy) in 1861. Lincoln refused to recognize the Confederacy as a legal, independent nation, maintaining that the country should remain whole. But when Confederate forces attacked a Union military installation in South Carolina on April 12, 1861, the Union was forced to fight back, and the war officially began. Led by Jefferson Davis, the Confederates fought against the U.S. federal government (commonly called the Union), which was made up of all the anti-slavery states in the north and five slave-holding border states, including Maryland. The war would last four long years and be the deadliest and most divisive conflict in American history.
Although Maryland was controlled by the Union, it remained a slave-holding state until the Maryland Constitution outlawed the practice on November 1, 1864. Because of its position as a slave state on the southern border of Union controlled territory, the population contained both Union supporters and Confederate sympathizers.
Montgomery County was especially affected by this situation. Politically and emotionally, County citizens were split in their allegiance to the north or south. The citizens of northwestern Montgomery County, with more social, economic, and personal ties to adjacent Loudoun County, Virginia, tended to sympathize with the south, while the lower county was more evenly divided between the two governments. Many of the County men who sided politically with the Confederacy "went South" early in the war to join Confederate units. Those who remained behind – at least the more visible and vocal--were periodically imprisoned in Old Capitol Prison in Washington as a result of their views. Conversely, a few pro-Union citizens were subject on rare occasion to capture and/or harassment by Confederate forces in temporary control of areas of the county.
Because it shares a border with Washington, D.C., Montgomery County was subject to early occupation by federal military forces. As a result, the homes of suspected pro-southerners were raided, any arms found were seized, and the owners were arrested on many dubious charges and imprisoned without trials. Meetings held by suspected Confederate sympathizers were monitored and vocal anti-Union speakers arrested. Printing of the local newspaper, The Montgomery County Sentinel, stopped on several occasions due to the arrest and imprisonment of its pro-South editor. The unrest further split the population, turning long-time friends and neighbors against each other.
However, compared with neighboring counties in Virginia, Montgomery County suffered relatively little physical damage from actual conflict between Union and Confederate forces.
There were no major battles fought here, but the County’s critical geographic location resulted in both Union and Confederate armies marching and countermarching across the landscape. At one time, there were 18,000 Union troops encamped around Darnestown and another 20,000 at Poolesville. Confederate General Robert E. Lee led his army across the Potomac at White’s Ford in September 1862 resulting in cavalry skirmishes with the Union troops near Poolesville. The two armies later clashed in the bloodiest single day in American history along Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, west of Montgomery County.
In June 1863, en route to the pivotal battle of Gettysburg, Confederate cavalry general J.E.B. Stuart captured 150 Union wagons just south of what is now the corner of Veirs Mill Road and Rockville Pike. A month later, Stuart passed through the County again, returning from raids in Pennsylvania. In addition, Confederate troops under the command of Major John Mosby and Col. Elijah Veirs White frequently infiltrated the Montgomery County on raids.
A year later, in 1864, General Jubal Early attempted to lead Confederate troops on a raid of Washington. At Monocacy Creek, Early’s troops defeated Union forces then marched through Montgomery County and camped in Rockville. They proceeded to march to present-day Silver Spring, and launched an unsuccessful attack on Fort Stevens in the District of Columbia. During Early’s retreat, the Confederate cavalry skirmished with Union troops in the streets of Rockville.
Although battles were few in the County, considerable economic damage was caused by the occupation of federal forces who camped for extended periods of time throughout the area in towns, fields, and forests. Both sides frequently damaged the C&O Canal during the conflict, creating difficulties for those dependent on the Canal for their livelihood.
Thankfully, recovery from wartime wounds came somewhat easily for Montgomery County. The relatively small amount of physical damage to buildings and the landscape was soon repaired. Most prewar friendships and family relations were restored, and returning Confederate veterans resumed their prewar positions in county society, businesses, and government. One lasting effect of the war, however, was the freeing of some 5,500 enslaved African American residents of the county. Emancipated in 1864, they were now free to move, create businesses or farms, and to make their own way as citizens. To learn more about slavery and emancipation in Montgomery County click here.