Review and Commentary
Bart Talbert, Prince George’s County, Maryland native and professor of history at Salisbury State University, in his Maryland: The South’s First Casualty, poses a question that must be asked by any student of history: Why has a vital “socio-political and military topic like Maryland’s special role in the [War of Secession]…not received more attention and clarification”? As a result of this lack of close examination of the events in Maryland during the “Civil War,” the few people who think about the subject at all, almost to a person, glibly offer the canard that Maryland was an insignificant little “Yankee” state with surprising, in-congruent pockets of secessionist oyster “drudgers” and muskrat “skinners” subsisting in the marshes and down lands on an aberrant and remote Eastern Shore. As Dr. Talbert ably demonstrates, nothing could be farther from the truth: Maryland was at the center of the secession crisis and its separatist passions cannot be overlooked if the war and Northern imperialism is to be understood.
Because the revisionist construct that 60,000 plus “Marylanders” fought for the North has long been woven into reconstructionist mythology—it is now the lynch pin of the carpetbagger argument for the changing of the Maryland State Song’s separatist lyrics to less “offensive” ones—Dr. Talbert addresses the often ignored “creative” methods the Yankees employed to “help” Maryland reach her recruitment quota, a quota never filled. Many “Marylanders” (about twenty-five percent) who wore blue were foreigners, Raphael Semmes in his memoirs referring to them as the “canaille of Europe” hired to “throttle liberty on the American continent.” Many others were slaves and free blacks who joined or were conscripted (and Northerners recruited above the Mason-Dixon and designated as Marylanders). A Union-held Southern state—particularly one with a busy port of entry— would naturally have “contributed” more men to the Yankee army than an unoccupied Southern state. Mary Chestnut, in her Diary from Dixie, writes, “Thousands are enlisting on the other side in [occupied] New Orleans, Butler holds out inducements. To be sure, they are principally foreigners who want to escape starvation.”
The South’s First Casualty invites more inquiry into the suspect statistics of the advocates of Lincoln’s imperialism and delivers a strong refutation of their general question begging, half-truths and falsehoods. And there is hardly a better account than Dr. Talbert’s of the double-dealing of the word-parsing sunshine Southern patriot Governor Thomas Hicks, a man who received many death threats from his own people. His Hicks is no weak fool but a power-hungry schemer who as Jefferson Davis writes “kept himself in equipoise” in an increasingly restive pre-war Maryland. The same Hicks, Talbert tells us, who before a secessionist Baltimore crowd, sensing their murderous rage, quickly changed his Unionist tune vowing he’d rather his “right arm be torn from [his] body” than it be lifted against a “sister” Southern state, by the end of 1861, wholeheartedly embraced the “Providential blessing” of Northern invasion.
The story of the South’s first casualty and of her quisling governor, her complicated ante bellum and war time politics and her degradation by the North are solidly documented by Dr. Talbert. His concise, enjoyable and eye-opening book will appeal to a wide-range of readers, from the more “bookish” among us to the drywall man on the construction site who knows instinctively that something has been stolen from him and wishes to learn more about his history and heritage. Dr. Talbert of course will stir up controversy among mis-educated college students and their mis-educators at American universities as well as journalists and historians. The truth about Mr. Lincoln’s war always does.
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