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Maryland: The Civil debate

Is Maryland a Northern state or a Southern state? The question has eluded Marylanders since the first shots of the Civil War. And though Maryland never joined the Confederate States of America, it hasn’t stopped generations from debating where the Old Line State truly stands, literally and figuratively.

Lawmakers, however, have made a decision. Earlier this month they successfully petitioned to have Maryland switched from the Southern Region of the Council of State Governments to the Eastern Region, again bringing to life the question of the state’s true regional allegiance. While a civil war or an issue such as slavery didn’t prompt this change in allegiance, mutual interests did. The 77-year-old Council of State Governments is used by state officials to share ideas, the thinking being that lawmakers from the same general region of the country will have the same concerns and issues.

But these differences in priorities and divisions between liberal and conservative are not the result of any great migration or grassroots movement. They’re the remnants of a sectional division from the republic’s earliest days that culminated with the Civil War. And Maryland has been constantly stuck in the middle, longingly searching for a place to fit in.

Most view Maryland as a Northern state today, citing that the state never seceded. But Maryland has produced its fair share of Southern history. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, who in 1857 delivered the infamous Dred Scott decision stating that blacks were inferior to whites and thus could not be considered citizens, was from Calvert County and is memorialized by a monument in Annapolis. It was the Pratt Street Riot in Baltimore, where Southern sympathizers opened fire on Union troops in 1861, that led to the suspension of habeas corpus. In 1864, ratification of a new state constitution abolishing slavery was hotly debated and could have been defeated were it not for the votes of Union soldiers. The state song, “Maryland, My Maryland,” makes reference to “Northern scum.” And it was a Maryland actor named John Wilkes Booth who shot and killed President Abraham Lincoln.

Despite its small size, Maryland is a state that encompasses a conflicted history of ideas that can confuse the best of us. Even today, social and political beliefs vary across the state. The national divisions between the North and the South exist within the state itself much along the same lines as they did more than a century ago, with liberals in urban areas and conservatives in rural areas.

The Civil War has cemented itself in American culture as a bizarre reproduction of carnage and make-believe. The disconnect and confusion with Maryland’s own history is no less complicated. But things are never so black and white. Much as the state debated secession in the early days of the Civil War, the debate about regional alliance, even if just figuratively, is no less convoluted.

But maybe the answer is somewhere in the middle. At the Gettysburg battlefield, a monument stands on Culp’s Hill to a Union infantry regiment. Not far from that monument stands another to a different regiment: the Second Maryland Infantry of the Confederacy. And perhaps, that’s where the answer lies. Not in the state’s history of slavery and Southern sympathies, nor in its current political dominance by Democrats, but the green grass in-between, a mixture of the good and the bad, the old and the new. Legislators might be able to change state government councils, but they can’t change history.

Justin Snow is a junior history major. He can be reached at snow@umdbk.com.

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