With its blend of chic downtown stores, Federal Period architecture, a vibrant art scene and plenty of restaurants to choose from, it's easy to overlook Frederick, Md.'s connection to the Civil War. But if you look closely, you'll find it's everywhere. Especially this year, the 150th anniversary of the 1862 Maryland Campaign, a calculated endeavor orchestrated by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in his effort to secure Baltimore and Washington for the Confederates, and an eventual victory for the South. Most agree the Civil War represents one of the bloodiest periods in United States' history. But its impact on the millions of ordinary citizens who survived the war and the widespread cultural and economic changes that emerged at the end of it has been largely forgotten. The five-year series of events commemorating the sesquicentennial and organized by the National Park Service is a way to heighten awareness among the public.A recent visit to the city of Frederick, about an hour's drive from Washington, D.C., helped put it all in perspective for my husband and I as we walked the city's 50-block historic district and visited the nearby battlefields of Antietam, Monocacy and South Mountain.
One of our first stops was the National Museum of Civil War Medicine located on East Patrick Street, otherwise known as the National Road, a stretch of highway that goes from Cumberland, Md., as far as the Ohio River. Making our way through two floors of lifelike exhibits, the true medical story of the Civil War unfolded before our eyes. Doctors at the start of the war had no knowledge of germ theory and were just beginning to use antiseptics to treat the wounded. But as the war dragged on, the need to treat patients with more than a swig of whiskey or a shot of morphine became increasingly clear. From a field-dressing station, the wounded were taken to field hospitals, usually located in barns or nearby tents. There, patients were divided into groups of three, including the mortally wounded, the slightly wounded and surgical cases. Three out of four battlefield operations were amputations, and photographs of amputees are on display throughout the museum. The work of nurse and humanitarian Clara Barton is also a highlight of the museum's exhibits, as is the heroism of other women, many of whom served as paid and volunteer nurses throughout the war. Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, is the most well-known. She worked on the frontlines, attending to wounded soldiers from both sides and often bringing her own medical supplies to the edge of the battlefield. She has also been credited with establishing modern ambulance techniques. The museum intends to showcase a number of artifacts that once belonged to Barton during her time as director of the Missing Soldiers Office in Washington, D.C. Items unearthed from the office building in 1996 will be on display at the Frederick museum next year. They include a soldier's sock that Barton may have been repairing for redistribution to the sick and the wounded, a rubberized canvas tent and office signs.
Everywhere you go in Frederick, the name Barbara Fritchie seems to pop up. The cultural phenomenon that came out of Fritchie's alleged encounter in 1862 with Confederate troops is recounted in detail at the Museum of Frederick County History. The building was once home to several prominent Frederick families and was later turned into a school for orphaned girls.Some historians deny that Fritchie ever hung the Union flag out the top-floor window of her home, inciting rage among Gen. Stonewall Jackson and his troops as they marched through downtown Frederick.There's plenty of memorabilia to be found around town hailing the gutsy 96-year-old, but to get a clearer picture of how this story turned into one of the nation's most successful marketing machines, we felt a visit to the museum's exhibit, "The Fritchie Phenomenon: Barbara Fritchie in Popular Culture," was in order. The exhibit examines the marketing of Fritchie and the use of her name on several products in the early 20th century. In addition to the museum's efforts, a reconstructed version of Fritchie's home, which originally stood along Carroll Creek, and is now located on the National Road, is frequently visited by tourists and is also one of the stops on the city's popular Candlelight Ghost Tours of Frederick. Master storyteller Tiffany Ahalt, a Frederick native, led the tour we signed up for, a leisurely 1.2-mile jaunt through dark streets and alleyways. With Ahalt dressed in period costume and lantern in hand, as well as mentioning that paranormal activity is frequently recorded on participants' cameras and cellphones, the possibility of seeing Fritchie's ghost and other spirits was tantalizingly possible.
If you do nothing else but walk around Frederick, on your own or on an official weekend walking tour, you'll quickly realize the importance of history to this city of "clustered spires." The tour, organized by the Museum of Frederick County History, took us on a journey that goes right through downtown Frederick, showcasing a number of historic churches, among other notable sites. They include Trinity Church, where Frederick native Francis Scott Key was baptized (Key penned the national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner") and where Jackson worshiped during a visit to the city. The Greek revival-style Evangelical Reformed Church, located on West Church Street, is the place where Fritchie was an active congregant.City hall, the site of Frederick's first courthouse, is another important stop on the 90-minute tour. It's where Frederick citizens burned effigies of government officials in protest of the Stamp Act, the first public uprising against Great Britain and seven years before the Boston Tea Party. Brewer's Alley, the popular restaurant located on North Market Street, has its own story to tell. It served as a town hall and market house during the Civil War and at this site in 1864, Confederate Gen. Jubal Early said he would burn down the city if he did not receive a ransom of $200,000. The original ransom letters are currently on display in the upper level of the restaurant. Apart from its close ties to Civil War history, Frederick is a great place to spend some time. The city has a vibrant cultural arts scene, and to whet the appetite of the discerning shopper, it has more than 100 stores to choose from. Outside the city, there's plenty to do also, including an array of wineries and micro-breweries to explore, scenic byways to meander and covered bridges to see.