Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A College Divided: University of MD (Maryland Agricultural College) During the Civil War

150 years  before the Terrapins were sporting  the Maryland state flag on their helmets, their campus predecessors were choosing whether to don gray or blue uniforms in a fratricidal conflict tearing apart their state and nation.  This weekend, I visited a new exhibit at the University of Maryland's Hornbake Library, "A College Divided: Maryland Agricultural College and the Civil War," which explores the impact that the Civil War had on the then fledgling institution.  Through a series of posters, the exhibit highlights significant roles, both for the Union and Confederate causes, played by students, faculty and alumni.

The Maryland Agricultural College (MAC), the forerunner of the University of Maryland at College Park, had been in actual operation for only two years when the Civil War broke out.  Chartered in 1856 by the Maryland Legislature, it was one of the first agricultural research colleges in the country.  Diminished agricultural yields led the southern Maryland planter class to push for a college to advance "scientific agriculture."  The college began operations in 1859 on 428 acres of land near Bladensburg owned by Charles Benedict Calvert, the leader of a group of Maryland planters who had helped secure a state charter for the school.  The school's initial student body consisted of 34 students.

Circa 1865 photograph of the Maryland Agricultural College's' first building, the Barracks.  This six-story ivory-painted brick structured designed in the gothic style was located on the campus hilltop.  It contained eight lecture rooms, an auditorium, kitchen and living quarters for up to 104 students.  Its modern conveniences included bathrooms and steam heating.  The building burned down in the 1912 campus conflagration.  (Library of Congress)

Sandwiched in between Washington and the the North, this slave holding border state would have to be forcibly held into the Union.  While some parts of the state were strongly pro-Union, particularly the northwestern areas, Prince George's County and other southern counties had a number of slaveholders, most of whom harbored sympathy for the Southern cause.  At least 16 of the college's first 24 trustees were slave owners.    Furthermore, at least five of these trustees were arrested for disloyalty or had to flee the state to avoid detention.

Maj Joseph Hart Chenoworth
(Lemuel Chenoworth House)

 The Baltimore Sun noted in June 1862 that "The institution, like everything else, has felt the bad effect of the war, losing some Southern students thereby..."  The Fall 1860 term had began with 78 students, but only 17 remained in July 1861. Some faculty members also headed south to enlist in the Confederate cause.  The chair of the Mathematics Department, Joseph Hart Chenoworth, joined the 31st Virginia and was killed at the Battle of Port Republic on June 9, 1862.  

Although many of the students and faculty of the agricultural college were southern sympathizers, the college continued to operate during the war despite the turmoil engulfing Maryland and the nation.  It graduated its first class in July 1862.  The federal government did consider commandeering the college for a 500 bed military hospital, but this never came to pass. Due to its proximity to Washington and a key B&O railroad route, there was a significant Union army presence near the campus.  For example, an editorial in the Washington National Republican in September 1861 complained of drunken soldiers in nearby Bladensburg and the need for the Provost Marshal to enforce the prohibition of alcohol sales to soldiers.

Section of a 1865 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Map of the "Portion of the Military Department of Washington embracing lower counties of Maryland."  The Maryland Agricultural College, located just eight miles from the D.C. border, is shown on the upper right-hand corner and is adjacent to the Baltimore-Washington Pike (now Route 1) and just west of the important Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, Washington's key link to the rest of the North.
The Lincoln Administration may not have "feared the turtle, " but  genuinely feared Maryland joining the Confederacy.  Extraordinary measures were taken to suppress the activities, both real and imagined, of Southern sympathizers in the state. including some with ties to the college.   In 1862,  the 26-year old son-- Jesse-- of MAC college professor  Dr. John Wharton, was arrested as a Confederate spy and detained in Washington's infamous Old Capitol Prison where he was subsequently shot and killed by a guard for sticking his head out the window.

Samuel Boyer Davis, a student in the college's starting class and nephew of Confederate Major General Isaac Trimble, briefly served as the acting commander of the notorious Andersonville POW camp in Georgia.  Late in the war, he couriered Confederate messages to Canada, but was arrested in Ohio as a spy when recognized by former Union POWs.  Only high-level intervention and a last minute presidential commutation of his sentence saved him from the scaffolds.

John Merryman

John Merryman, a college trustee and prominent Baltimore County farmer, was arrested in May 1861 by military authorities for allegedly burning railroad bridges north of Baltimore.  With the suspension of habeas corpus in Maryland, Merryman was detained at Ft. McHenry by the military despite the lack of a warrant. His case, Ex Parte Merryman, would lead to a critical constitutional challenge when Union authorities ignored Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney's writ ordering them to bring Merryman before him.  Merryman was released later that summer.  In the 1870s, he served as state treasurer and a a term in the House of Delegates.

Just as the war pitted the proverbial "brother versus brother," there were at least nine Maryland Agricultural College students who answered Lincoln's call to save the Union.  Rudolph B. Hitz attended the school from 1861 to 1863 before dropping out to receive medical training and serve as a Union Army surgeon. 

Despite the departure of a number of students to serve in the Confederate and Union armies, the Maryland Agricultural College continued to operate during the war as shown in this January 1863  Baltimore Sun advertisement.  The school's 1859 catalogue summed up its mission:  "The object of the Institution is not so much designed to teach the pupils to be farmers, as to make liberally educated gentlemen."

The Old South Ball on Campus?
As part of Confederate General Jubal A. Early's July 1864 invasion of Maryland and attack on Washington, General Bradley T. Johnson, a Maryland native, was tasked to lead a 400 man cavalry force on a raid to Point Lookout, a POW camp in southern Maryland, to free and arm Confederate prisoners.  Johnson's force made it as far as the Maryland Agricultural College and camped on its grounds on the night of July 11, 1864.

Henry Onderdonk
(Archives of Saint James School)

 The Confederate cavalrymen were said  by  anonymous eyewitnesses to have been warmly welcomed by Henry Onderdonk, the college's president.  Onderdonk took to the local press to vigorously deny that he had even been present on the College grounds, let alone thrown a banquet, when Johnson's passed through.  Despite an official investigation that found no evidence of wrongdoing by Onderdonk and the school, stories of an "Old South Ball" thrown by the campus for the Southern visitors persisted.  Amidst this distraction, which drew the attention of the Unionist state legislature, and mounting financial difficulties at the college, Onderdonk resigned  in late 1864.


The old Rossborough Inn, located on Baltimore Avenue (Rt. 1), was also included in Charles B. Calvert's donation to the college and was used for classroom space.  Confederate Brigadier General Bradley Johnson used the Rossbourough Inn as his headquarters.  (Photo by author)

Charles B. Calvert. (Library of Congress)
Charles B. Calvert, the prime mover and shaker behind the college, was a descendant of Lord Baltimore and a prominent Prince George's County plantation owner, agricultural booster and sometimes politician.  He served multiple terms in the state legislature and advocated improved agricultural practices in the state including crop diversification, fertilizers, and horticultural innovations.  As part of this advanced agricultural agenda, he and other like minded planters use their influence to secure a charter for a new agricultural research college to be located on land that he donated.  Calvert was elected to a single term in Congress in 1860.  Despite owning at least 40 slaves on his Riversdale plantation,  Congressman Calvert was a pro-Union man.  He sought to encourage the Lincoln Administration to adopt policies less onerous to his slaveholding constituents; over 50 percent of the population of Prince George's were enslaved African Americans..  On August 3, 1861 Congressman Calvert wrote the president requesting the return of Maryland slaves that were being harbored in military camps.  With his May 1864 death, the Agricultural College sorely missed his leadership and guidance through the rest of the war and the postwar period.

Postwar Period

After the war, the Maryland Agricultural College had to overcome significant financial hurdles and a reputation, whether justified or not, as having welcomed Confederate raiders with open arms. A lasting Civil War legacy for the University of Maryland was the 1862 Morrill Land-Grant College Act.  Despite this government support and the sale of some of campus property, the college faced financial difficulties and briefly shut down in 1866 before receiving further state assistance.

The Maryland legislature stipulated that it may withhold funds from the school "in case of the occupancy of the professorship or presidency of said college by any man who has been in the confederate army."  Despite this admonition, the college's Board of trustees hired a series of presidents who had served the Confederacy.  They even went as far as offering the position to George Washington Custis Lee, the son of Robert E. Lee,  who declined it following public outcry.  Through this period, the university suffered from "frequent changes in leadership, fluctuating enrollment, financial problems and curricular change."

 Franklin Buchanan, the senior most Confederate naval officer, served as the college's president from 1868-69.  Buchanan brought higher-ed administrative experience with him, having served as the first superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy before the Mexican War.(Library of Congress)

A College Divided: Maryland Agricultural College and the Civil War
Audrey Armistead Ruckert Reception Foyer, Hornbake Library, First Floor,University of Maryland, College Park, MD
August 31, 2011 – July 15, 2012
Regular foyer hours: Mon-Thurs 8am-10pm, Fri 8am-6pm, Sat 12noon-5pm, Sun 1pm-10pm


Baltimore Sun, August 20, 1862.
Callcott, George H.  A History of the University of Maryland.  Baltimore, MD:  Maryland Historical Society, 1966.
"Calvert, Charles Benedict," Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
Davis, Samuel B, Escape of a Confederate Officer From Prison, What He Saw at Andersonville.  Norfolk, Virginia:  The Landmark Publishing Company,. 1892.
 Knowing Our History:  African American Slavery & The University of Maryland, 2009.


  1. Steven--Great post. I am less familiar with the Maryland side of the story around here (there is just so much in NOVA to cover!), and certainly had not heard about the University of Maryland and the Civil War. I'd like to check out the exhibit, but not sure I will make it up that way.

  2. Ron. Thanks for the feedback. I also really like your site and have learned a lot about the smaller engagements in this area, such as Lewisnsville, from it.

  3. Thank you for your interest in our exhibit A College Divided: Maryland Agricultural College in the Civil War!

    You’ve highlighted some of our fascinating stories, and we hope, inspired a few folks to visit campus for the complete package! We wanted to point out that several of the images included in your post were provided to the University of Maryland Libraries by other institutions. The picture of Joseph Hart Chenowith came from the Lemuel Chenowith House in Beverly, West Virginia, the historic home of Joseph’s bridge-building father. The image of Henry Onderdonk was provided by the Archives of Saint James School in Hagerstown, Maryland.

    One of the benefits of researching individual stories has been to “put faces to names” for individuals whose stories were previously known.

    You also included a picture of the historic Rossborough Inn and we want to assure you and your readers that it is still known by that name. It has served a number of purposes over the years; student- led tours depart from it these days.

    Thank you again for introducing your readers to the exhibit!

    Anne Turkos, University Archivist, and Malissa Ruffner, Exhibit Researcher

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