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One hundred fifty years ago, Southern Maryland hosted both a huge prisoner-of-war camp for Confederate soldiers and a major recruiting station for African-American men to join the Union forces as the Civil War continued into its second full year.

Approximately 4,000 rebels died at Point Lookout of the 50,000 or so who came through, and nearly 5,400 free blacks or runaway slaves joined the Union and trained at Benedict, both starting in 1863.

The same year, the St. Mary’s Beacon newspaper was suppressed for almost six months because of a critical editorial. In northern St. Mary’s, a wealthy plantation owner fled after a Union lieutenant was shot and killed trying to recruit his slaves, which caught the attention of the president.

Union troops occupied the three Southern Maryland counties at the start of the Civil War. It was no secret that with its great number of slaves, the region shared its sentiments with the Confederacy.

“Southern Maryland is considered Virginia in miniature by the Confederacy,” said Don Shomette, author of several maritime histories of the region. A resident of Dunkirk, he is working on three new books, one of them titled “Silent Rebels: Southern Maryland in the Civil War.”

Some 22,000 Marylanders joined to fight for the Confederacy, many from Baltimore. Southern Maryland provided some 700 white men to the rebel side, according to Shomette’s research. Only a handful of white men joined the Union, other authors have written.

With its land surrounded by tidal waters, and a Union railroad and forces to the north, “Southern Maryland is at the mercy of the Union,” Shomette said. “They develop this spy network, this supply network” from Baltimore and into Virginia.

General Joseph Hooker’s division bivouacked in western Charles County until March 1862, with artillery facing Virginia to prevent any invasion toward Washington, D.C., and discourage Confederate artillery shelling, said John Wearmouth of Port Tobacco, co-author of “Times of Port Tobacco.”

Union forces camped in Leonardtown from December 1861 to May 1862 after contraband materials were found being shipped across the Potomac River to the Confederacy.

Leonardtown was left to itself again until late February 1863, when 150 Union troops came back to monitor the town after 168 cases of boots and shoes intended to go south were seized.

The April 2, 1863, edition of the St. Mary’s Beacon, which relayed the re-occupation, also contained an editorial called “The War Upon Women.” The editorial “was considered by the agent of the Government as treasonable,” the Beacon later said. Co-editor James Downs was arrested April 15 and taken to the Union-held Point Lookout, then to Baltimore. Because of Downs’ arrest, “this paper will be discontinued for the present,” the Beacon said on April 23, 1863.

The newspaper emerged again on Oct. 1, 1863, as the St. Mary’s Gazette, under editor Walter Thompson. “In view of the great public inconvenience to which the people of this county have been subjected, by the suppression of the Saint Mary’s Beacon, I have determined to publish the St. Mary’s Gazette during its further suspension,” he said. The paper also noted that Downs had returned home and resumed the practice of law, “we are authorized to state.”

Calvert County did not have a newspaper of its own to detail weekly life until 1867, with the Calvert Journal. In Charles County, the Port Tobacco Times continued publication during the Civil War, but many issues went missing afterward.

“The disappearance of the issues for the Civil War period is tragic,” wrote Roberta Wearmouth, John’s wife, who compiled the abstracts of the newspaper.

“Somebody stole them” after the war, said John Wearmouth.

The Wearmouths have spent much of their lives collecting artifacts of the Civil War and writing Charles County history. They now are working to liquidate the collection to libraries and museums. John Wearmouth said he is the last living member of the Charles County Civil War Centennial Commission, which did its work in the 1960s. He said he was the only northerner in the group, which established roadside historical markers that highlighted the escape route of John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in April 1865.

No longer a resort spot

During the Beacon’s suspension, the Battle of Gettysburg marked a turning point. The Confederate Army under General Robert E. Lee reached its northernmost point during the three-day battle from July 1 to 3.

After that battle, the Union had more Confederate prisoners than it had space for, and several locations were hastily made into prisoner-of-war camps.

Formerly a summer resort destination, Point Lookout was already opened as the Hammond Hospital for Union troops in August 1862. After Gettysburg, a 40-acre prison compound was built north of the hospital on the narrow, sandy peninsula between the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay.

It was an ideal location for a Union stronghold. “It is remote, and it is easily defended,” Shomette said.

The number of Confederates there in August 1863 was 1,700, according to the National Park Service. On October 12, 1863, The (Baltimore) Sun reported 4,000 rebel prisoners at Point Lookout with 2,000 more expected. Many more would come.

By the time the camp closed in the summer of 1865, more than 50,000 rebel prisoners had passed through, making it the largest prisoner-of-war facility in the north, according to the National Park Service. For a brief time, there were 30,000 men there all at once, Shomette said. There were so many Confederates at Point Lookout that Lee made plans to invade it and free the prisoners, Shomette said. But Lee didn’t know that most of the men were not in fighting condition.

The Beacon did not report much on the activities at Point Lookout, but the facility was large enough that it had its own newspaper, the Hammond Gazette, which published from 1862 to 1864, according to the Library of Congress.

There are diary accounts from prisoners there and a collection of watercolor illustrations that still remain.

Yancey Malone of North Carolina wrote in his diary when he first arrived there in the winter of 1863, “Our rations at Point Lookout was 5 crackers and a cup of coffee for Breakfast. And for dinner a small ration of meat 2 crackers three Potatoes and a cup of Soup. Supper we have none. We pay a dollar for 8 crackers or a chew of tobacco for a cracker.”

Housed only in tents with fewer blankets than men in January 1864, Malone said, the prisoners were cold and hungry. A rat was caught and cooked.

Edwin Beitzell, in his book “Point Lookout Prison Camp for Confederates,” said that there was one blanket for every three men.

Black guards new to the Union forces were brought in to man the parapet around the enclosure, much to the consternation of rebel prisoners. “They’re sticking Southern Maryland in the butt by using black troops,” Shomette said of the Union.

Malone wrote that some of the guards played with their guns, accidentally shooting each other, and that another accidentally shot himself through the head. Others wrote in their diaries of fellow prisoners shot and killed by guards.

“Very rarely has any complaint of ill treatment on the part of our soldiers toward the prisoners ... been made,” testified Union Brig. Gen. James Barnes to the Committee of Congress on the Conduct of the War in April 1865. “I cannot at this time recall a single instance ... of any moment.”

The prisoners bathed in the salt water of the bay, to which they had free access during the day. Their captors were unconcerned because the rebels were told that the bay was up to 100 miles across to extinguish any hope of escape. At times, the tides would bring the bay flooding into camp, accounts said.

In his account of prison life, prisoner Luther Hopkins said, “Many of the prisoners had a peculiar affection of the eyes, caused, perhaps, by the glare from the white tents, the sand and the reflection from the water. There was nothing green to be seen anywhere, consequently many of the prisoners became blind for a portion of the 24 hours.”

The prisoner-of-war camp at Andersonville, Ga., run by the Confederacy, was infamous for its cruelty. Its commandant, Capt. Henry Wirz, was executed as a war criminal a few months after the war ended. “Point Lookout is the exact same thing,” Shomette said, “except it was due to the criminal activities of officers’ raking off materials for their own.”

The prisoners had to make due for their own comfort and survival. “They developed their own sewer system, their own pottery,” he said. They were afforded their own school house and post office.

The prisoners caught, cooked, traded and ate blue crabs decades before there was a market for them.

In his watercolors, John Jacob Omenhausser of Virginia depicted a waterfront scene called, “The Reb who never saw a crab.” One man holds up a live crab saying, “Mr. just smell this bug it’s the sweetest thing you ever smelt.” The other man leans in to smell the crab, only to get pinched on the nose. He said, “Make him let loose or I’ll knock his brains out.”

President Lincoln was largely a hated man in Southern Maryland, but he and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton slipped in to visit the camp at Point Lookout on Dec. 28, 1863, on the way back to Washington, D.C. “It is understood that they satisfied themselves that not less than a thousand [of the prisoners], or about a tenth of the whole number, are ready to enter the service of the United States,” reported the New York Tribune the next day.

Assembling new recruits

After the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on Jan. 1, 1863, following the Union victory at Antietam, “It’s not a long jump to arming free blacks,” Shomette said. However, Lincoln’s proclamation only applied to slaves in areas in open revolt. Maryland was forced to remain with the Union — “a union state with slaves,” Shomette said.

Union recruiting stations were established in October 1863 at Forrest Wharf, Leonardtown, Benedict and Lower Marlborough, where slave owners were offered $300 per slave but were never paid.

The Sun cited the Port Tobacco Times on Oct. 12, 1863, that 40 or 50 slaves left out of Pomonkey in Charles County. “At this rate, our county is likely to be entirely drained of available working labor in a very short time,” the Times reported.

On Oct. 24, 1863, The Sun cited the St. Mary’s Gazette’s report that 50 black men left the Leonardtown area and were not heard from again. Fifty to 100 slaves in central St. Mary’s along the Patuxent River side “have left their masters during two days this week,” the paper said.

“The economy of Southern Maryland really suffers,” Shomette said in another interview. “It loses its white manpower and black manpower.”

On Oct. 20, 1863, a Union detachment from Benedict of four men arrived at the waterfront plantation known as The Plains — today’s Golden Beach neighborhood — to recruit slaves into the Union army. Col. John H. Sothoron and his son, Webster, met the recruiters with arms. Accounts differ on what happened, but 2nd Lt. Eben White was fatally shot in the head and chest. Sothoron and his son fled for the Confederacy, and the Union confiscated the farm and two others on the Patuxent River in St. Mary’s County, where crops were then grown for the Union.

After White was killed, Major Gen. Robert C. Schenck sent a telegram to Lincoln. Col. William Birney, recruiting and mustering officer for Maryland, visited with St. Mary’s County residents “and the only apprehension they expressed was that their slaves might leave them. It is a neighborhood of rabid secessionists. I beg that the President will not intervene and thus embolden them,” Schenck wrote.

The Maryland delegation had reported that the presence of black soldiers at the river landings was frightening citizens, according to the Library of Congress.

In a draft letter to Stanton, Lincoln wrote on March 18, 1864, that “the family of Southern [sic], who killed a recruiting officer last autumn, in Maryland. He fled, and his family are driven from their home, without shelter or crumb, except when they got by burthening our friends more than our enemies. [Sothoron] had no justification to kill the officer; and yet he would have been killed if he had proceeded in the temper and manner agreed upon by yourself and [Maryland] Gov. [Augustus] Bradford.

“But this is past. What is to be done with the family? Why can they not occupy their old home, and excite much less opposition to the government than the manifestation of their distress is now doing? If the house is really needed for the public service; or if it has been regularly confiscated and the title transferred, the case is different,” Lincoln wrote.

Upon his return to St. Mary’s, Sothoron was acquitted of the murder in the county circuit court as a justifiable homicide, the St. Mary’s Gazette reported on Nov. 29, 1866.

Soldiers train in Benedict

Camp Stanton, named after the sitting secretary of war, opened in Benedict on Oct. 23, 1863, just three days after the White murder, and remained open until March 1864. Some 5,398 black men were trained and led by white officers there, Shomette found. Its establishment was another psychological message of dominance to Southern Maryland from the Union, and its recruits mainly came from the area, as well as the Eastern Shore, he said.

Those who joined came “to fight against slavery. This must have been a monumental feeling, hard to depose,” he said. “These men go off to war and their record is tremendous.” They fought in several theaters, fighting “equal to the white troops and in some cases better,” he said.

In John Wearmouth’s “Times of Port Tobacco,” he wrote of the Nineteenth Regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops, “the black soldiers from Maryland were among the first Union troops to enter the Confederate Capital at war’s end.”

Of those men from Camp Stanton, 1,226 died of disease, accidents or combat, Shomette said.

Over the decades, both Point Lookout and Camp Stanton were picked over by waves of relic hunters, Shomette said.

Much of the shoreline on the Chesapeake Bay side of Point Lookout has eroded since the prison closed in 1865, washing away where the Confederate encampment was. “At least half of the land is under water now,” south of the causeway at Point Lookout, said Christy Bright, parks manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Erosion became a problem as early as 1869, when The Sun reported that some of the Confederate dead buried near the bay had become exposed. A local farmer, L.O. Smith, “has reinterred at his own expense fifty of the bodies,” the paper reported.

In his book, Beitzell wrote that the original burial ground was moved in 1870 to a location south of Tanner Creek, where a state monument later would be erected. Two different state appropriations were made, to first move the bodies and then four years later to finish the cemetery. The remains were moved again in 1910 to the federal monument site in Scotland.

Another monument was established on adjacent property in 2008 by a private group, Confederate Memorial Park.

Last year, the Unified Committee for African American Contributions opened a memorial in Lexington Park to those from St. Mary’s County who fought for the Union.

jbabcock@somdnews.com