I can remember sitting in George Benson’s fifth-grade classroom at the Friends School of Baltimore, learning about the Civil War. No one could weave a story the way Mr. Benson could, and one of his favorite stories was that of Wilmer McLean—a rather unlucky fellow, whose life was forever altered by the events of that conflict.
“The war started in his front yard and ended in his front parlor,” Mr. Benson told us. And, in a sense it did.
It’s a famous phrase among Civil War enthusiasts—supposedly uttered first by McLean, himself. But is it true…? Did the war really start in his front yard and end in his front parlor?
To answer in short: no.
Or, at least, not exactly…
McLean is a great talking point in classroom discussion because his story proves that even the most ordinary of people can have a large impact on history. But to reinforce the veracity of McLean’s famous claim is to ignore an awful lot of other historical events; to suggest that they didn’t really matter. A foolish mistake that would be!
So, if McLean and his family didn’t really witness the beginning or the end of the war and the Confederacy, then whose did? Well, perhaps no such family—not even Wilmer McLean’s—bookended the American Civil War better than the Scotts of Baltimore City.
The Scotts were an unusually ubiquitous bunch: there was a Scott involved in the very beginning, the middle, and the end of the war. All three of these individuals—a father and his two sons—witnessed extraordinary events, and lived to tell the tale. (Sometimes, even cheating death a time or two along the way.)
This is their story…
A Spark in Harper’s Ferry
During the 1850s, as the country was suffering through the aches and pains of antebellum political discourse—or lack thereof—Thomas Parkin Scott’s eldest son, Henry Chatard (pronounced shuh-TARD) was in the process of studying to become a doctor. A member of one of Baltimore’s staunchest Catholic families, he had attended both St. Mary’s College in Baltimore City and Mount St. Mary’s University in the far-off mountains of Emmitsburg. But, opting not to enter the family law practice, he chose the other profession that seemed to come naturally to the Scotts: medicine.
His paternal great-grandfather, Dr. John Scott, had graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1747, and served as a surgeon in the Continental Army’s hospital at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, during the Revolutionary War. Family lore even has it that Dr. John inoculated 500 soldiers against small pox as the army was passing through Chestertown, and it is possible that he did. The story contends that his patriotism was so vigorous that he would “take no fee for his services” … though perhaps this is a convenient way of skirting the fact that not a single scrap of documentary evidence exists.
Whatever the case, H.C. flourished under the tutelage of Nathan Ryno Smith at the University of Maryland, and upon graduation in 1855, began a private practice in his hometown. Like his great-grandfather, he even became the surgeon in a local militia unit called the Baltimore City Guard. A rakish young man, one can only presume that Henry Chatard Scott cut quite a dashing figure in uniform.
Throughout the decade, political tensions across the country escalated: the Fugitive Slave Act, the Compromise of 1850, Bleeding Kansas, the caning of Charles Sumner on the Senate floor, the Dred Scott decision. Each of these events pushed the country toward an inevitable breaking point. Heading into 1860 and the upcoming presidential election, the atmosphere was so unstable that it seemed as if a single spark could ignite the nation in warfare.
In Harpers Ferry, (not-yet-West) Virginia—then spelled with an apostrophe, Harper’s Ferry—an abolitionist named John Brown, who had been a rabid anti-slavery “Jayhawker” during Bleeding Kansas, organized a small group of white allies and free blacks. His plan was to raid the federal armory in town and start a national uprising. On Sunday, October 16th 1859, after months of waiting, Brown and his band of raiders made their move. President Buchanan sent a detachment of US Marines, soldiers, and local militia companies from Maryland and Virginia in to stifle Brown and his plans. This detachment, commanded by Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee of the 2nd US Cavalry, included Dr. Henry Chatard Scott’s outfit, the Baltimore City Guard. The casualties from the raid included one killed Marine, one wounded, six killed civilians, nine wounded, 10 killed abolitionist insurgents, seven captured, and five escaped. Perhaps the most important of all, however, was John Brown himself. Badly wounded, it was Scott—the 31-year-old surgeon of the Baltimore City Guard—who was called on to dress the raider’s wounds before his execution.
After being tried and convicted, Brown was hanged on Friday, December 2nd 1859, in nearby Charles Town. Though the raid might not have gone as planned, John Brown became a martyr for the northern abolitionist movement in the ensuing months, and his death did much to hasten the onslaught of war.
Lincoln’s victory in the 1860 presidential election turned the country on its side, and by April of ’61, all Hell had broken loose. P. G. T. Beauregard’s rebel troops bombarded Robert Anderson’s federals in Fort Sumter on the 12th, and while the fort was surrendered without any casualties, it had become clear that it would only be a matter of time before the first blood was drawn.
On the morning of the 18th, a Baltimore town meeting was called to order in Taylor’s Hall on Fayette Street to discuss secession. By that point, seven states had already left the Union, and with Virginia voting to secede the day before (pending a May 23rd referendum), that number would soon rise to eight. If Maryland were to follow, that would leave Washington City surrounded and would have effectively marked the end of the war right then and there. Keeping Maryland in the fold was a crucial step in what had already become an uphill battle to save the country.
Presiding over the meeting in Taylor’s Hall, Thomas Parkin Scott—just one day shy of his 57th birthday—tried to keep things from getting out of hand. According to an account in George William Brown’s Baltimore and the Nineteenth of April 1861—A Study of the Civil War (pages 38-39), a series of speakers, including William Byrne, stood up before the packed room and made speeches that were denunciatory toward the Administration and the North, exciting the crowd into a frenzy. Wilson C. N. Carr, who had stumbled into the meeting by chance, entered the room as T. Parkin Scott was trying to calm the crowd, urging them to “do nothing rashly” and “not to interfere with any troops that might attempt to pass through the city.”
This mentality was nothing new to Scott. Five months earlier, in December of 1860, he had anonymously authored The Crisis, a pamphlet in which he recommended that Maryland citizens “be calm and forgiving,” yet “firm” as well. “Act not rashly,” Scott said, “[i]f our Northern brethren will now do us justice, forgive and forget the past; but yield no more.” His viewpoint was not the one of the majority, however—at least not at Taylor’s Hall. Describing the scene later in life, Carr said:
I went up, but had no intention of saying anything in opposition to what Mr. Scott had advised the people to do. I was not there as an advocate of secession, but was anxious to see some way opened for reconciliation between the North and the South. I did not make an excited speech nor did I denounce the Administration. I saw that I was disappointing the crowd. Some expressed their disapprobation pretty plainly and I cut my speech short. As soon as I finished speaking the meeting adjourned. (Brown 39)
Try as Scott and Carr did to prevent the masses from attacking federal troops as they passed through the city, the next morning, their advice went unheeded. Since Baltimore was the nation’s first railroad hub, there was no line that went all the way through the city. Rather, lines started in Baltimore and branched outward, to their respective destinations. This meant that anyone who traveled north or south through the Baltimore had to either walk, or take another form of transport, from one train station to the other, in order to continue their journey: a dangerous task for federal troops navigating their way through a Confederate-sympathizing hotbed.
On the 19th of April, as the 6th Massachusetts Infantry was marching down Pratt Street, from the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad’s President Street Station to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s Camden Station, a full-on riot broke out (with Thomas Parkin Scott’s son, Henry Chatard caught in the thick of it). Broken store windows and damaged property was just the beginning. By the end of the day, four soldiers and twelve civilians had been killed. The day after the riot, on the 20th, the same mob attacked a German-language newspaper office, destroying the building, threatening the lives of its editor and publisher and compelling them both to leave town for fear of personal safety. This mob-mentality turned Baltimore into a war zone, and the city’s administration was eager to diffuse the situation. In an effort to bring peace, Mayor Brown had railroad bridges north of the city limits burned in order to keep federal troops from inundating the town and exciting the population even more; a plan which quickly backfired. It caused the federal government to take control: more troops were sent in, and the area was put under martial law.
Imprisoned Without Cause
By May 25th, President Lincoln had suspended the writ of Habeas Corpus, and less than four months later, after a group of Maryland State Delegates had convened in Frederick to discuss the escalating nature of current events, on September 13th, Thomas Parkin Scott, Mayor George William Brown, Frank Key Howard, Severn Teackle Wallis, and several others were arrested without cause and detained by Union troops in Fort McHenry.
What a strange turn of events this must have been for Scott. During the Battle of Baltimore, as a ten-year-old boy in 1814, he undoubtedly witnessed the British Royal Navy’s bombardment of Fort McHenry from the rooftop, or upstairs window, of the Scott residence on St. Paul Street. Now, exactly 47 years to-the-day later, he—with Francis Scott Key’s grandson, no less!—was being detained without cause or trial, by his own Government, inside the same fort that had previously defended his American Liberty under the real Star-Spangled Banner… The irony was not lost on anyone.
Scott was imprisoned for fourteen months in total. The morning after his arrest and detainment in Fort McHenry, on September 14th, he was transferred to Fortress Monroe by the order of General Dix. From there, he was then moved up to New York and Boston, where he served time in Forts Lafayette and Warren. These were nasty places to begin with, and even worse for those who were deemed “enemies” of the State.
After what must have seemed like a lifetime had passed, finally, on Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, November 27th 1862, Scott, Brown, Howard, and Wallis, were all unconditionally released. While technically they were free—in a country that could imprison them at any moment on a whim, without rhyme or reason—how much freedom did they really have? Released to the public, weak and ill from poor treatment in four consecutive military prisons, 400 miles from home, it must have been difficult for Thomas Parkin Scott to be thankful for much of anything on Thanksgiving Day, 1862.
Sentenced to Hang
Thomas Parkin Scott’s youngest son, 25-year-old John White Scott, was reading law in the family practice at the outbreak of the war. With the Jacksonian-Democrat political leanings of his father and the energetic zeal of a youthful adventurer, on May 11th 1861, J.W. found himself in a milk wagon headed for the B & O Railway depot. Once there, he caught a Richmond-bound train and headed for rebel territory. On May 24th, in the Virginia capital, he and a number of other Marylanders formed Company B of the 21st Virginia Regiment, captained by J. Lyle Clarke of the Baltimore Greys.
Though John White was eager to fight, his time with Lyle’s Company was short. During the fall of ’61, after his father’s arrest in Baltimore, he and Carroll Jenkins both came down with a bad case of camp fever and were sent to Bath Alum Springs to convalesce under Dr. Crump. It was thought that Scott would die and Jenkins would survive, but the opposite happened. On January 3rd 1862, Scott was given an honorable, medical discharge.
Without the ability to serve in the field, John White spent much of 1862 performing desk duty as the Secretary to the Commander of the CSS Arkansas. By August, he was working in the Medical Department in Richmond (likely, in close proximity with his brother, H.C.), and after several months of hard work, he and two others—Pierre Chatard Dugan, and Simon Ignatius Kemp—secured a three-week furlough from Dr. Johns, Medical Purveyor at Richmond, with the privilege of going across enemy lines. Scott, Dugan, and Kemp made it as far as Northumberland County, and were waiting to cross the Coan River when they were apprehended and arrested as spies by a raiding party of Michigan Cavalry.
According to the May 24th 1913 edition of the Baltimore News, John White Scott said in his diary:
The most thrilling episode of my career down South was when I was sentenced to be hung . . . . [three of us] were arrested March 5th, , taken . . . . before Gen’l Hooker, and tried (without counsel) before Gen’l Daniel E. Sickles, pres. of Court Martial . . . . When asked if we had anything to say, I replied — ‘When I left home I was a student of law, but had only read a few pages . . . . of Blackstone, and am therefore unable to try my own case, and counsel has been denied us, but I think that the evidence for the prosecution is good enough defense for anyone.’ The Gen’l was furious and ordered us away. We were confined for awhile in the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, then transferred to the Carroll House Prison, where we were told by a Yankee soldier that we had been sentenced to be hanged.
As luck would have it, when the case crossed Abraham Lincoln’s desk, the president realized that the men had been apprehended in Northumberland County, Virginia—which was Confederate territory—and could not rightfully be tried as spies. With this, he commuted their sentence to prison during the war, signing his initials ‘A.L.’ on the folder. Jefferson Davis, who was still under the impression that the three were waiting to hang, took three Union officers and held them as hostages, threatening to deal them the same fate. In May of ’63, crisis was averted and the prisoners were exchanged.
The Flight of Jefferson Davis
J.W. might have viewed his brush with death as the most “thrilling” event of his southern career, but the most important event, without question, was still to come. After his close call in ’63, Scott was asked to join Isaac Trimble’s staff in Maryland, and immediately made his way northward. Following a several-day delay in Winchester, he broke across enemy lines—only to find out that the Battle of Gettysburg had been fought and that the whole army was in retreat. J.W. spent a month volunteering in the 1st Virginia Cavalry, before heading back to the Hospital Department in Richmond. Later that fall, he was transferred to the Field Transportation Department in Wadesboro, North Carolina, and remained there until war’s end.
By the spring of ’65, all hope for the Confederacy had been lost. After the Fall of Richmond and the evacuation of the Confederate government on April 2nd, just one week later, on April 9th, Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse (enter Mr. Benson and his favorite character—Wilmer McLean). Following a brief stay in Danville, Virginia, Jefferson Davis, along with the Confederate Baggage and Treasure Train, headed southward to North Carolina.
A temporary stop in Greensboro was interrupted on April 14th, as Davis, his cabinet, and his personal escort, were forced to leave town, and move to Charlotte. With them, they carried the Confederate Archive, their personal baggage, as well as $35,000 in gold from the Confederate Treasury (approximately $534,000 in today’s money). It was here that John White Scott, issued with a picket pass from Jefferson Davis’s private secretary, convened with four other Marylanders, from the Eastern Shore—Capt. Fred Emory, William Sidney Winder, William Elveno Dickinson, and Tench Francis Tilghman—and continued on with the baggage train.
As they left Charlotte on April 26th, the party consisted of five wagons and a cavalry escort. According to Tilghman’s diary, Capt. Emory, who had been placed in charge of the five wagons, was “drunk continually,” and was soon relieved of his duties and replaced by Capt. Watson Van Benthuysen. With each passing day, as the Confederate cavalcade continued southward, the gold in its coffers dwindled. Eventually, the number of people started to dwindle as well. By early May, the baggage train had diminished to one wagon and one ambulance. On the 6th, near Sandersville, Georgia, Jefferson Davis abandoned the group, with a cabinet member and two aids. Captain Micajah Henry Clark, acting Treasurer of the Confederacy, Van Benthuysen, Tilghman, Dickinson, Winder, and Scott—along with Van Benthuysen’s two brothers—were all that remained. Their plan was to continue to Florida, where they would rejoin Davis near Madison or Tallahassee. This plan was squashed when Davis’s faction was captured.
The Cavalcade’s treasure had started at $35,000 at the outset of the journey, but once $10,000 had been spent, Captain Clark made the decision to pay his associates a fair salvage from the gold. Van Benthuysen laid aside one quarter of the fund—roughly $6,790 (approximately $104,000 today)—for the benefit of Mrs. Davis and her children. Additionally, $1,940 in gold sovereigns (approximately $30,000 today), was distributed to the Van Benthuysen brothers, Clark, Dickinson, Emory, Tilghman, Winder, and Scott each, with another $55 (approximately $840 today) to cover traveling and miscellaneous expenses. With the treasure divided, and Davis captured, the group went its separate ways. Dickinson, Tilghman, Winder, and Scott surrendered to federal troops in Jacksonville, Florida on May 23rd. After initially refusing the Oath of Allegiance, they later took it at Hilton Head, South Carolina, and were then allowed to go anywhere in the country. Tilghman, who was the last caretaker of the Confederate Archive, supposedly buried it—along with part of the treasure—in an undisclosed location, deep in a forest, somewhere in Florida or Georgia. Since he died two years later, in 1867, without revealing the true whereabouts of either, both are likely lost to history—just like the Confederacy itself.
After his time as a POW, physically unable to take up arms for the southern cause, T. Parkin Scott went back to his law practice in Baltimore. Henry Chatard took his medical talents to Richmond and served much of the war in the Confederate Hospital Department at Jackson Hospital. And as for John White, well—you know the story.
These men lived in a complicated time and place. Looking back on their careers, it can be a tricky task to truly decipher their nuanced political stances. Thomas Parkin Scott stood for states’ rights; he was an advocate for the poor, frequently offering legal counsel to those who could not afford to pay him for his services. Yet, as noble as he was in his regard for the economically disadvantaged, he was clearly not an advocate for all men… As he wrote in his pamphlet, The Crisis, “perfect, social or political equality amongst all men has never existed, and never can exist.” He continued, saying “[w]e cannot recognize the social or political equality of the negro with the white man ; the Creator has made the distinction which now exists ; they are an inferior species, and their protection, as well as our own, requires that we should hold them in subjugation.” Well, then.
His views on racial equality—or, rather, inequality—look pretty damning to 21st-century readers. But a closer inspection of T. Parkin Scott suggests that he, as a person, might not be so easily defined… As Mayor Brown noted on page 39 of his previously-mentioned book, Baltimore and the Nineteenth of April, etc., Scott “was a strong sympathizer with the South, and had the courage of his convictions, but he had been also an opponent of slavery, and I have it from his own lips that years before the war, on [the] Fourth of July, he had persuaded his mother to liberate all her slaves, although she depended largely on their services for her support.”
How are we to reconcile this with his statement in The Crisis, a pamphlet in which he argues for the “subjugation” of blacks?
Perhaps Thomas Parkin Scott maintained that blacks were an “inferior” people, while simultaneously being opposed to their physical enslavement. When he argued for their subjugation, was he arguing for legal subjugation, as opposed to physical subjugation? A complex distinction, that. And, yet, it’s an important distinction to make. Even abolitionists, who were opposed to slavery—not all of them maintained that blacks and whites were equal across the board.
All of these men were flawed. This whole country was flawed.
And that’s not to say that 19th-century America was unique in this way. This inherently flawed way of thinking permeated American politics well into the 20th century, until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
In fact, perhaps the “subjugation” conversation is relevant even today, as countless modern-day Americans are being oppressed due to their sexual orientation.
All these years later, and we’re still fighting a civil war…