As the nation roars its exaltation that Osama bin Laden is no longer in a position to do us harm, we celebrate the heroic and dedicated work of our military; so many have served so bravely in this ongoing battle to stave off the threat from terrorists—many giving their lives. Building a memorial for them is an honor, and we do it proudly without controversy.
But what about a memorial to honor those from Poolesville who served the South during the Civil War?
I must admit my first thoughts were: Why? Why now? Maybe it would be better to avoid this controversy, especially in a world already deluged with hot and divisive disagreements.
When Poolesville High School student Matthew Heimbach made the proposal to the town commissioners, he made it clear that the notion was not intended in any way to honor slavery. Rather, he explained that it would be to recognize the historically-correct dominance of Southern sympathizers living in Poolesville at the time and to further educate that all who served in the Civil War “were American.”
While Northern troops marched to the music that echoed “to make men free,” I think it very reasonable to accept that the vast majority of those fighting for Dixie, especially of lower ranks, did not fight and die so that a few powerful landowners could own slaves. More likely, in their hearts, they fought and died for home and their fellow comrades-in-arms. It is difficult for us today to understand the level of state pride and identification held by Americans 150 years ago. Even General Robert E. Lee, a West Point graduate, and someone Lincoln hoped to have on his side, was torn by whom to fight for, but, in the end, he decided he could never fight against Virginia.
As she did during our post-revolutionary time, Maryland again hedged her bets on taking sides, dragging out a decision to secede or not. On the one hand, I suspect then as now, many Marylanders depended on the federal government for their livelihood and supported the North. On the other, it should not be surprising that many living in the wilderness (yes, that is what Poolesville was back then) far from the capital, but very close to Virginia, identified with the South, indeed, considered themselves Southerners through and through; however, this was not the historically-significant role of Poolesville during the Civil War. The fact that up to 20,000 Union troops were stationed here for the better part of the war, making sure that Washington, D.C. would not be cut off from the North, was its role, and that role should not be diminished. At an auspicious moment, thousands of Southerners crossing the Potomac River to storm Washington could have completely changed history.
Jerry Klobukowsi recently sent me an interesting note. While he and his six-year-old granddaughter were visiting the American Civil War Museum in Gettysburg, he noticed an interesting bit of information: Maryland citizens enlisting in the Union Army numbered 46,638 while those doing so for the South were 3,323. Many in the Union ranks for Maryland were actually from other states, but it is clear that when the final decision had to be made, Marylanders sided with the North.
The young man making the proposal should be applauded for his sincere desire to give honor to those brave souls from Poolesville who fought and died so their fellow solders might live, and we should also applaud the thousands of Union troops who, for a short time, were Poolesvillians, too—men fully prepared to sacrifice their lives in like manner.
I support a memorial that honors all Poolesvillians who fought, were wounded, or died during the Civil War and a remembrance that recalls the historical significance of the town’s critical role in the war. Such a memorial should also give honor and remembrance to those Poolesvillians who were enslaved then emancipated and whose freed descendants have contributed so much to the town and who, through the generations, have helped make the town what it is today.