Letters and maps tell history of Laurel during Civil War

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Although no battles were fought in Laurel during the Civil War, the city's railroad was a strategic resource for the Union Army, numerous units of Union soldiers were stationed here and the military's presence added a different element to the city's social and cultural landscapes.

A new yearlong exhibit, "Stationed in Laurel: Our Civil War Story," opened Sunday Feb. 3 at the Laurel Museum and captures that segment of Laurel's history. In September, a mini-exhibit was displayed at the museum that gave a partial account of Laurel's Civil War past. Museum director Lindsey Baker said they decided to expand that theme for this year's major exhibit because of the response it attracted.

"A lot of people were interested in it and people came to see it who had never been to the museum before," Baker said. "It had only one panel and one case of items, and now the full gallery is used for the new exhibit."

When visitors enter the museum, they are met by two laminated cutouts of Union soldiers, erected on green turf, with an opening in the facial area for people to stick their heads through for souvenir photos. The drawings for the cutouts were created by Monica Sturdivant, the museum's assistant to the director.

"When they said they wanted two soldiers, I went online to see what their uniforms looked like and what they would be carrying," Sturdivant said. "One of them I drew from a picture and the other one is a combination of various uniforms of enlisted soldiers and volunteers I came across."

Next to the soldier cutouts are two divided areas that represent the two hospitals that were used by Union soldiers stationed in Laurel as they waited to be shipped to various battlegrounds. They were treated for illnesses such as diarrhea, typhoid fever, measles and smallpox in the hospitals.

According to museum officials, one of the hospitals was in a tent and when additional soldiers came to Laurel — which was called Laurel Factory at the time by locals and Laurel Station by federal officials — a larger one was opened in 1863 at 377 Main St.

Baker said one of the hospital display rooms was designed to represent what Civil War hospital worker Sarah Palmer's bedroom might have looked like during those days. Palmer oversaw the hospital on Main Street and wrote a book, "Aunt Becky's Army." The cozy room includes a single bed, an antique-looking small desk and chair, a wash basin and an oil lamp on the mantle. A mannequin wears a long black dress covered with a long white apron, an authentic nurse matron's uniform from that period.

Marlene Frazier, chair of the museum's collections committee, said the nurse matron's uniform was donated to the museum.

"Now the uniform of the soldier is a reproduction," Frazier said, referring to the Union uniform hanging on a rack in the adjoining display area of a typical hospital room during that time.

Discovering Laurel's history

"I had no idea that Laurel had a hospital then," Laurel resident Mary Hueffmeier said as she talked about the exhibit with her two children during Sunday's opening. "This exhibit is giving them a good sense of Laurel's Civil War history."

Tom Dorman, of Laurel, said he found the exhibit interesting as well, especially the section on the city's railroad line that was important in moving soldiers and supplies during the war.

"I'm into railroads and it was interesting to read about the bridges on the line that washed out twice across the Patuxent (River)," Dorman said. "It says that one was stone and collapsed and had to be rebuilt. A soldier died when it collapsed."

The exhibit also documents President Abraham Lincoln's numerous travels by train through Laurel during the Civil War years. It points out that there were many Southern sympathizers in Laurel and that the rail line was heavily guarded at all times, especially when the president rode through.

"I never knew about Lincoln's travels through Laurel or that the trains had to be guarded so they would not be attacked," said Margaret Gooden, who was visiting the museum for the first time Sunday.

Attic 'treasure'

In collecting items for the exhibit, because many of the soldiers stationed here came from Binghamton, N.Y., exhibit committee member Karen Lubieniecki went there to do research.

"My husband, Ken, and I went to Binghamton because you don't find letters and diaries on these soldiers in Maryland, but in museums in their home towns," she said.

Excerpts of several letters from various sources are included in the exhibit, which reveal how the soldiers felt about Laurel and how they thought they were perceived by local residents, and vice versa. Baker said for her, they had an almost Facebook quality to them, as soldiers documented daily happenings and wrote how their feelings changed at times to their surroundings and the people they met.

"The personal experiences from the letters and diaries bring to life what the soldiers were going through in adjusting to life in Laurel," Baker said. "Most were from faraway places and were used to different cultural societies. For some, Laurel wasn't to their liking."

Closer to home, Lubieniecki said the exhibit committee members found a treasure in the museum's attic that no one knew existed. It was a copy of a pencil map drawn by Civil War mapmaker Frederick Munther, that laid out the entire Union encampment area in Laurel.

"We went to the Library of Congress and saw the original, scanned it and put it in the exhibit. It shows the Patuxent River, the railroad tracks, Main Street and where the soldiers were housed in tents and log structures," Lubieniecki said. "To think we had it in our files all the time."

The exhibit also has a section where visitors can read columns written for the Elmira Weekly Advertiser in 1862 by Thomas Beecher about various aspects of military life in Laurel. He was chaplain of a New York unit and the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Lubieniecki said they discovered the columns at the Binghamton library on microfiche.

"I love how they were so thorough in their findings for this exhibit," said Laurel resident Jhanna Levin, who is a museum volunteer. "This exhibit focuses on what was happening in Laurel during the war and I don't think anyone knew of these things."

In addition to having a tent with an unlit campfire on display, which children seemed fascinated with at the opening, there are glass cases of Civil War mementos associated with Laurel. Much of it, such as swords, medals, bullets and photos, is on loan from former Laurel resident John Bowen, who collects Laurel memorabilia and now lives in Hawaii.

The exhibit also includes a small section on free and enslaved African Americans in Laurel during the Civil War.

"There wasn't a lot of information on African Americans but we found that there were four drafted (who were enslaved) and seven freed drafted during the Civil War. We're not entirely sure if they actually served," Baker said.

They are sure that there were 470 free residents in Laurel during the Civil War and 127 were free African Americans. Other facts revealed in the exhibit are that Nicholas Snowden, who was born at Montpelier Mansion in South Laurel, served under the Confederacy and was killed in battle; Richard Barry, a local cotton mill worker, is the only local resident on record to have joined the Union Army; and when Lincoln ran for office, only one Prince George's County resident voted for him.

"This exhibit makes me feel proud of Laurel," said former Laurel resident Terry Stetson. "It emphasizes the importance of Laurel and the railroad here during the Civil War and that often gets lost. You don't see these interesting facts in history books."

"Stationed in Laurel: Our Civil War Story" continues at the Laurel Museum through Dec. 22. Located at 817 Main St., Laurel Museum is open Wednesdays and Fridays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and Sundays, 1 to 4 p.m. Admission is free.. For more information, go to laurelhistoricalsociety.org or contact the Laurel Museum at info@laurelhistoricalsociety.org, or 301-725-7975.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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