Share This Article

Divided Voices: Maryland in the Civil War

Maryland Historical Society through April 2015, with annual updates

Two artifacts on view at the Maryland Historical Society capture the breadth not only of its “Divided Voices” exhibit, but in some ways the war itself. One extreme is reflected in the ravaged artillery jacket worn by Confederate Richard Snowden Andrews, who survived nearly being disemboweled at Cedar Mountain. On the other hand there’s the elaborate shadowbox designed by John Philemon Smith, a Sharpsburg resident during the Battle of Antietam, who captured the story of the battle in a remarkable work of folk art using tiny flags, a figurine and Minié balls arranged like stars. A common bond between these two artifacts is that their original owners both used them to educate people about the war after it ended. Andrews, who survived another wound at Gettysburg, brought his bloodstained coat with him whenever he gave lectures on the war. Smith, a teacher, used the shadowbox he’d made to explain Antietam to students and others.

Today those pieces continue to fulfill an important educational role as part of the Baltimore exhibit, which may prove to be one of the most important steps Maryland takes to commemorate the Civil War Sesquicentennial. The state has failed to name a formal Sesquicentennial commission, but if this exhibition is any indication, the historical society seems perfectly capable of carrying the standard for the state during the commemoration.

Scheduled to run through the next four years, Divided Voices reflects Maryland’s tortured status as a border state. The state sent some 60,000 soldiers to fight for the Union, and about 20,000 fought for the Confederacy.

In all, more than 300 objects and images are on display in the exhibit, which has a muted, almost old-fashioned feel. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Museums have toiled so diligently to attract 21st-century visitors that some exhibits seem like little more than a parade of interactive video screens. The historical society’s show, by contrast, is refreshingly low-tech.

Near the entrance, visitors can don 3-D glasses to view a fascinating computerized slideshow of historic stereoscopic images from the Ross Kelbaugh collection and the Center for Civil War Photography. Tellingly, one moves from this screen almost immediately to a beautiful 1863 landscape painting of Harpers Ferry by Augustus Weidenbach. From there, the exhibit mostly lets the artifacts and interpretive panels speak for themselves.

The downside of this approach, however, is that the exhibit lacks strong narrative anchors. The press materials say that it views the war as a tragedy in three acts: the romantic war, the real war and the long reunion. This is a fine organizing concept that could have been made even more explicit in the execution. The objects and panels offer terrific information, but sometimes the through-line is not abundantly clear. Despite that criticism, however, there is much here that fascinates, informs and delights.

Two flags are particularly significant. One is a 34-star flag that a Baltimore family flew at their house at the beginning of the war to show their Union loyalties and also at its end, when President Abraham Lincoln’s casket arrived in the city. The other is a battered 4th U.S. Colored Troops flag made by “the Colored Ladies of Baltimore” and carried in the battle of New Market Heights by Christian Fleetwood. The Baltimore native and sergeant major rescued the standard after two color guards had fallen, and was eventually awarded a Medal of Honor for his bravery.

Fleetwood’s story is just one of four historical vignettes performed Saturday and Sunday afternoons by the Maryland Historical Players, who also offer guided tours and are a wonderful supplement to the exhibition. Divided Voices will be updated annually with new storylines and artifacts, so attendees have ample reasons to revisit the exhibit again and again.

Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.