Brookeville, Maryland: Capital for a Day

The War of 1812 is commonly known as a forgotten war. It may have given us our National Anthem, but beyond that, it’s pretty much been skimmed over. But being raised in Maryland, the War of 1812 surrounds us almost to a degree of suffocation. Washington, D.C. and Baltimore bore the brunt of the battle in 1814, and even drove President Madison and his babe of a wife, Dolley, from the White House. Hey, speaking of the Madisons…

“Come on James,I’ve got the Declaration of Independence, put on your coat, let’s go!”

If you ever wondered where our shortest president scurried off to while his home was being turned to ashes by British soldiers, wonder no more.  The escaped to a small, quaint town a little over 20 miles outside Washington, D.C.

Before Dolley famously saved the a portrait of George Washington, her husband was observing the soldiers advance on Washington. As the city started to burn, President Madison fled south to Virginia before turning around and hightailing it back to the Old Line State (that’s Maryland) and finally reached Brookeville late in the evening on August 26, 1814.  (Don’t worry y’all, Dolley was safe first in Georgetown and then escaped into Virginia.) Rumor has it that Madison lugged a safe that carried the entire U.S. Treasury during the entire journey.

Madison reached the home of Caleb Bentley, whose wife Henrietta Thomas was a close friend of his wife Dolley.

Here,  President Madison stayed up all night, dictating orders to his officers while American soldiers kept watch outside. The next morning, President Madison learned that the British had moved on to Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, and so he thanked his hosts for the lodging and returned to the smoldering Washington and his lovely wife.  Today, the Bentley home is now known as the Madison House. The home was purchased and restored in 2007. (You can read more about it here)

Today, Brookeville remains a small, quiet town of less than 200 residents. But for those that pass through it, it holds a very important piece of history.

Do you have any areas of historical significance in your hometown?

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Spotlight on Forgotten Founders: John Dickinson

You’ve been drilled on the names of the men who signed that famous piece of parchment in 1776. Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, and Hancock are cemented in the American canon but there were sixty four men who fought and argued and begged for John Adams to shut up during that hot American summer. It would be impossible for schools to devote time in the already packed curriculum, so that’s why you have me. Dying to know about the men who weren’t  American superheros but still made impacts that we still feel today? Buckle in, kids, this could take a while.

Meet John Dickinson.

“Hey, Ladies.”

Dickinson was born November 13, 1732 on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in Talbot County.  Like most members of the future Congress, he was born well-off, and studied law at the Middle Temple in London for three years.  After his father died, he inherited one his Delaware plantations, known at Poplar Hall. (It’s open for tours!) Seems pretty average for a man of his time so far, right?

If he sounds familiar, you probably remember him as the guy who got into the wicked cane fight with John Adams in 1776.

“Fight! Fight! Fight!”

The 1770s hit America kicking and screaming. And it also hit Dickinson’s social life. In July 1770, Dickinson married Mary Norris, whom he affectionately called Polly. Mary was well educated, owned a 1500 volume library, and ran her own property in Philadelphia. Dickinson was smitten. The two moved to Mary’s Philadelphia property, called Fairhill, and with their combined income, the couple was stupidly wealthy.

Poplar Hall, one of the Dickinson’s many residences

Dickinson was a member of both the First and Second Continental Congress starting in 1774 and 1775, respectively, as a representative from Pennsylvania. Oh yeah, and he was adamantly against declaring independence from Great Britain.

Wait, how could a Founding Father be against independence? No wonder we’ve forgotten him!

First of all, rude. And second, chill out and hang on.

Dickinson was far from a Loyalist. (Hell, he wrote a song called “The Liberty Song“) He repeatedly fought for an Olive Branch Petition to be sent to King George, which passed and obviously failed. On July 1, 1776, Jefferson presented his Declaration of Independence while Dickinson continued to rally that it wasn’t quite time. And when you think about it, he wasn’t stupid to think so. Great Britain had the largest, strongest Navy in the world and, at the time, were squatting right outside the Island of Manhattan, poised to attack. America had no navies and no foreign alliances. If we declared independence, we would be declaring war and would be left defenseless on the seas.

On July 2, he was either not present, or abstained, from voting for or against the Declaration. He also refused to sign the document.

One of the dramatic, yet touching, moments in 1776 is when Dickinson refuses to sign. He stands and says:

“I’m sorry, Mr. President, I cannot, in good conscience, sign such a document. I will never stop hoping for our eventual reconciliation with England. But because–in my own way–I regard America no less than Mr. Adams, I will join the army and fight in her defense–even though I believe that fight to be hopeless. Goodbye, Gentlemen.”

And Adams starts a slow clap and everyone cries and it’s great.

But actually, Dickinson did just that. Though we have no way of knowing what his exact words were (except for his Speech Against Independence, delivered July 1, 1776) he did join the Pennsylvania militia at the rank of a brigadier general, and lead 10,000 to defend Staten Island from the British.

But his story doesn’t end there. He resigned from service in December 1776 and by 1777, he was Delaware’s wealthiest farmer and largest slaveholder. And during this time, he freed each and every one of his slaves. He was the only Founder to do so prior to 1786. However the process was not done overnight and took until 1787 until his slaves were legally free.  Many continued to work for him for pay.

So he’s more than funny quips in a  (fantastic) musical.

dickinsonBut Dickinson’s fabulous life didn’t end there. He prepared the first draft of the Articles of Confederation way back in 1776. donated his library to John and Mary’s College (now known as Dickinson College), represented Delaware at the Annapolis Convention, and served as President of Delaware from 1781-1785.

John Dickinson died on Valentine’s Day, 1808 and is buried in a modest Quaker grave.

Who’s your favorite forgotten Founder? Leave a comment below!

Reasons Why Edwin Booth is the Saddest Man to Ever Exist

Ok so I might be being dramatic. But if melancholy be the food of dramatics, read on.


If you recognize his surname, it’s thanks to his brother. You know, the man who shot President Lincoln? Yeah, Edwin was the big brother to John Wilkes Booth. Both were actors, both were incredibly wealthy, and both were incredibly famous in their day. But thanks to the events of April 14, 1865 the Booth name is no longer synonymous with an acting dynasty but with tragedy.

Edwin Booth was more famous than his brother, but his life was far more depressing. What reads like something out of a lonely Lifetime movie actually happened to a real man who really existed (and most of it, far before John Wilkes ever knew Lincoln’s name).

1. Edwin left home at age 12– to babysit his alcoholic father.

Junius Brutus Booth, Edwin’s father, was the most famous actor in America. He also had a drinking problem and was known to down an impressive number of drinks, streaking through public streets, or pass out immediately before curtain, rendering him incapacitated. While Edwin’s siblings stayed home on the family farm in Bel Air, Maryland, hismother sent him to tour with his father to “keep his eye on him.” That’s right, a tiny, adolescent boy was expected to keep tabs on a burly 50 year old man.

“I got you, Dad.”

For seven years, Edwin was his father’s keeper and even once stepped into his shoes when Junius was too drunk to perform. In 1852, Junius struck ill and was sent on a steamboat back to Baltimore. He died of cholera on the voyage. When Edwin’s mother found out her husband was alone when he died, she blamed Edwin and forbade him from returning home.

Edwin returned to Baltimore in 1856 with his pockets full of gold to repay the family’s debts. Forgiven, his mother was overjoyed to have him return and his sisters fawned over his stories from California and Australia, where he had most recently toured with famed actress Laura Keene.

In later life, Edwin noted that his childhood died the day he left to tour with his father.

2. He married the love of his life–only to have her die three years later.

In the late 1850s, Edwin met Mary Devlin, a gorgeous, talented actress, and the two soon fell in love. The two married in 1860 and their daughter, Edwina, was born in 1861.

Mary Devlin Booth and Edwina

The two were passionately in love. In 1863, when Mary was only 22, she became incredibly ill. Edwin was in New York, and was sent urgent telegrams regarding her condition. However, like his father, Edwin was an alcoholic and was too inebriated to even read the telegrams. By the time he was sober enough to reach Mary in Boston, she had already passed. The death of his young wife sent Edwin into a tailspin. He swore off drinking and threw himself into his work.

In 1869, he married his acting partner, Mary McVicker. She was far less talented than his first wife, and her poor performances combined with a failing economy drove Booth’s company into bankruptcy. The two had incredibly clashing personalities and the marriage was not a happy one.

Mary McVicker and Edwin

3. He was the target of an assassination.

Though Edwin was a known Union-supporter (he only voted once in his life, and that vote was for Abraham Lincoln), he took the brunt of hatred directed towards his brother. On April 23, 1879, Edwin was performing the title role in Shakespeare’s Richard II. During his final soliloquy, a man in the balcony was holding a pistol and a copy of the script, following along with Edwin. The man fired three times, and Edwin calmly rose and pointed in the direction of the shots. Audience members restrained the man and Edwin silently left the stage. The man was found to be Mark Gray, a traveling salesman from Iowa. A letter was found in Gray’s hand stating he intended to murder Booth.

4. He had to live in his brother’s shadow.

Edwin was far more talented than his younger brother, but after 1865 he was forever living with his ghost. He withdrew from the stage for eight months after Lincoln’s assassination, fearing for his own life. Even though he never spoke his infamous brother’s name in public, he repeatedly wrote to President Johnson for his body so he could be interred in the family plot in Baltimore. Shortly after his brother’s death, Edwin wrote to their sister, Asia; “Think no more of him as your brother; he is dead to us now, as he soon must be to all the world, but imagine the boy you loved to be in that better part of his spirit, in another world.”

Though the two frequently fought over political views, one instance even involved Edwin picking John up by his shirt collar and literally throwing him out on the street, Edwin was forced to repeatedly take the blame for him after John’s death, as if being the elder brother, he could have done something to prevent it.

5. Pretty much everything he did was dripping with melancholy.

“I’m Edwin Booth and I’M SAD.”

Sometime after the assassination, Edwin attended a New York party, when he noticed a bronze cast of someone’s hands on the mantel. He picked them up, and asked the host who they belonged to. When the host said “Abraham Lincoln,” Edwin silently placed them back on the shelf.

Even his onstage persona was full of sadness. His Hamlet was so revered because of his new acting style. While his father was loud and dramatic, Edwin was more subtle, quiet, and softer–popularizing realism.

There are numerous accounts of John Wilkes’ womanizing ways and his charm. Edwin appeared to be the exact opposite, quiet, withdrawn, and dedicated to his work, especially after the death of Mary Devlin. Though I suppose a lifetime of heartache and the fast road to adulthood won’t make you the life of the party.

Though the Booth name is thought to be traitorous today, in New York City, Edwin is remembered and respected within the theater community. The city that Edwin called home for much of his life holds numerous monuments to the famed Shakespearean actor. The Booth Theater on West 45th street was named after him in 1913 and remains to be the first and oldest theater named after an actor. (Though one of their first productions, however, was Our American Cousin- the comedy Lincoln was attending when assassinated). Near Union Square is Gramercy Park, a small private 2-acre park that is only accessible by residents who pay an annual fee or Player’s Club members, which holds a statue of Edwin at the center. Booth founded The Player’s Club in 1888 to promote “social intercourse between members of the dramatic profession and the kindred professions of literature, painting, architecture, sculpture and music, law and medicine, and the patrons of the arts . . .” His apartment, which lays upstairs from the actual club, remains the same as it did when he died on June 7, 1893.

Edwin’s bedroom. Unseen, but a photo of his infamous younger brother is placed on the mantle.

Further Reading:

Prince of Players: Edwin Booth by Eleanor Ruggles
My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry That Lead to the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln by Nora Titone
Genius, and other essays: Edwin Booth by Edmund Clarence Stedman
The Player’s Club website

“It was an awful affair altogether”: The Battle of Gettsyburg

This past Sunday, I was able to take the trip North to visit Gettysburg. I’ve been interested in the Civil War since my love of President Lincoln was kindled in 2009 so a trip to the most famous battlefield was a mandatory pilgrimage.

Upon arriving, we by passed the introductory film but for those who are unfamiliar with those three bloody days in July, it’s probably worth shelling out the $12.50. (You also get admission to the museum and cyclorama of Pickett’s Charge) There are also options for bus and private tours of the nearly 6,000 National Park, but we opted for the free self-guided auto tour. You can pick up an auto tour map in the Visitor’s Center that provides information of the events that happened along the route.

Auto Tour route sign

The auto tour starts at McPherson Ridge, to the northwest of the town of Gettysburg, where the battle began on July 1, 1863 at 8am when Union cavalry confronted Confederate infantry. Continuing on, is the Eternal Light Peace Memorial, where at 1 pm on July 1, the Confederates fought back at the Union soldiers on McPherson and Oak Ridge. On the 75th anniversary of the battle, Civil War veterans dedicated this memorial with President Franklin Roosevelt.

Eternal Light Peace Memorial

Eternal Light Peace Memorial

Panorama of Oak Ridge, where Union soldiers fought Confederates until 3pm, when they were forced to retreat.

Panorama of Oak Ridge, where Union soldiers fought Confederates until 3pm, when they were forced to retreat.

Our next stop was the Virginia Memorial, which was also the location of Pickett’s Charge on July 3.  The memorial is located to the east of Spangler Woods with General Robert E. Lee and his favorite horse, Traveler, looking out across the field of Pickett’s Charge.

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There’s a short path that leads down to the location of Pickett’s Charge, but it’s easy to miss if you’re not looking for it. Pickett’s Charge was a devastating blow to Confederate forces, with over 50% of the men in grey killed in action. The reason for the huge Confederate loss was due to an oversight; Emmitsburg Road, which ran between the Confederate and Union lines, dipped into a valley and was bordered by a fence. Basic wartime tactic: you never want to be below your enemy.

Panorama of Pickett's Charge

Panorama of Pickett’s Charge

Another major battle location was Little Round Top, and subsequently Devil’s Den. On July 2, Union forces successfully defeated Confederates who were firing from the nearby Devil’s Den. Though the Confederates were guarded by the natural protection of the boulders of the den,  they were still firing at an enemy that was situated higher above them. Little Round Top provided sweeping views of large sections of the battlefield, making the location incredibly desirable.

Panorama of Little Round Top. The Devil's Den can be seen to the rear left.

Panorama of Little Round Top. The Devil’s Den can be seen to the rear left.

Gettysburg is ranked #3 on “most haunted places in America” and the Devil’s Den is perhaps the most haunted place within the battlefield. The location is where Confederate snipers hid to fire at Union forces located on Little Round Top History remembers this location from the infamous picture of the Confederate sharpshooter taken by photographers Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan.

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Devil’s Den

There are numerous reports of camera batteries suddenly draining at the location of the photo of the sharpshooter and capturing images that weren’t there, or capturing nothing at all. On our trip, we saw nothing out of the ordinary, though rumor has it the solider haunts the area because the photographers moved his body from it’s original location to stage the photograph.

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On top of Devil’s Den. You can see Little Round Top ahead.

And of course, there’s Abraham Lincoln. On November 19, 1863, President Lincoln visited Gettysburg to dedicate the Soldiers’ National Cemetery and delivered his famous Gettysburg Address.

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Memorial to President Lincoln

Memorial to President Lincoln

Graves of Unknown Soldiers

Graves of Unknown Soldiers

Soldiers' National Monument, approximate location of where Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address

Soldiers’ National Monument, approximate location of where Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address

Though I’m a big fan of Lincoln, I didn’t know too many details about the battle. Being submerged in the actual location is perhaps one of the best ways to learn; seeing the same sights soldiers saw 150 years ago is quite surreal and humbling.

It’s impossible not to think of the thousands of lives who fought and how their loss completely changed our history.

Gettysburg Tips:

  • Plan plenty of time when visiting Gettysburg. We didn’t arrive at Gettysburg until about noon and didn’t finish our tour until about 4pm.
  • The park also offers hiking and bridle trails, if you prefer a more authentic experience.
  • It’s hot in the summer. I’m not sure what it is about historic areas, but they seem to be about 10 degrees hotter than any surrounding area. Dress accordingly.
  • It might be helpful if you brush up on some Civil War history. Unless you enjoy learning through submersion, which is cool too!
  • It’s practically free (unless you choose the add-ons) and you have literally no excuse to pay this important historic park a visit!

More Than A Ghost Story: Harpers Ferry

This weekend, I took a drive with some old friends and visited Harpers Ferry, WV.  Known for it’s rich Civil War history (John Brown’s raid, anyone?), this pretty little town–a population of only 285–is perfect for a hike and a history lesson.

We started our day trekking up the most popular trail, Maryland Heights. Topping at 1,600 feet, Maryland Heights features picturesque views from the Blue Ridge mountain range.

We passed the Naval Battery, which protected Harpers Ferry from Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign in 1862. At the top of the mountain is the Overlook, where most of the pictures of the day were taken.

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A train came through the mountain while we were exploring!

From this height, you can see where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers combine, making the cusp of the town of Harpers Ferry. If hiking isn’t your ideal of fun on a humid summer day, there are a variety of tubing and kayaking tours that take you down the Potomac River.

After the hike, we made our way back down the mountain to explore the town. The main focus of downtown is the history of John Brown, the abolitionist who attempted to start an armed slave revolt by appropriating a national arsenal in town.

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The “fort” John Brown and his men barricaded themselves inside after they failed to retain the arsenal.

While some buildings are open and functioning as restaurants, shops, and inns, most are used as self-guided museums, allowing visitors to learn and visit at their own pace.

Downtown Harpers Ferry

Downtown Harpers Ferry

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White Tavern Hall

There are several exhibits throughout town, devoted to Storer College, the water conservatory, John Brown, Meriwether Lewis, and Civil War history. I was especially excited to see that Thomas Jefferson was a presence here, having visited briefly in 1783 while traveling to Philadelphia with his daughter, Patsy.

Jefferson stood on a rock, which still stands today, and commented on the view that he saw in his only published book, Notes on the State of Virginia. 

“The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature.”

Full quote can be found here.

The view Jefferson described.

The view Jefferson described.

Jefferson Rock

Jefferson Rock

Harper House, where the Jeffersons stayed while in Harpers Ferry.

Harper House, where the Jeffersons stayed while in Harpers Ferry.

But another story from Harpers Ferry that’s lurking around every corner are the ghost stories. It seems that every soul that has stayed here has found it impossible to leave, from the likes of John Brown to John Wilkes Booth. The Harpers Ferry Ghost Tour has been rated #1 Ghost Tour on Trip Advisor, and they run every day at 8:00pm.   A selection of ghost stories from the area can be read here.

There’s no doubt the town is spooky, half the buildings look abandoned and there seems to be a permanent mist hugging the mountains, but we saw no paranormal activity on this trip.

Harpers Ferry is the perfect day-trip for those interested in hiking, history, or just looking to be transported back in time for a few hours. Though a lost cost trip–parking is $10, but everything else, excluding meals and souvenirs, are free, you’ll leave with far more than the chill down your spine.

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Panorama of Maryland Heights

Panorama of Maryland Heights

 

 

“Remember the Ladies.”

Men have written history books, but the women set the score. Here is a small sample of my favorite historical ladies.

1. Abigail Adams

There’s a reason Laura Linney was chosen to portray her in the John Adams HBO miniseries: it was simply perfect casting. Abigail tops many a badass ladies list not only because she married one president and gave birth to another. Abigail was unlike any woman of her time.

Where most men in the 18th century considered their wives only as cooks and baby makers, John Adams constantly sought out his wife’s opinion on many political matters. When John was in Philadelphia during the summer of 1776, she wrote to her husband, urging him to “remember the ladies” during America’s fight for independence. If you love a good romance, a selection of the hundreds of letters they wrote to each other can be found in My Dearest Friend. It’s because of these letters that we have such a documented grasp on the amazing woman she was. Abigail was also an advocate of a woman’s right to own property and education. She believed that women should not submit to their husbands, but should be educated and treated more as equals.

Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice or Representation.”

Abigail to John Adams, March 1776

Abigail is the definitive woman of the Revolution due to her wit, charm, and intelligence. She was unmatched during her time and still revered today.

2. Martha Jefferson

Unlike Abigail, we know practically nothing about the woman who stole Thomas Jefferson’s heart. We aren’t even completely sure the above silhouette is hers. But we do know she was supposedly incredibly beautiful and kind. She was described as exceedingly intelligent, very musical, advanced in needlework, and ran Monticello when her husband was away.

She started the production of beer at Monticello, which Thomas continued for the rest of his own life. Neighbors and even their own slaves adored Martha, and she was often found in the kitchen helping prepare meals when she wasn’t ill. During her term as First Lady of Virginia, she raised fund to support the American troops and joined with the Ladies Association of Virginia to raise $300,000 for linen shirts for Washington’s freezing army.

Martha died when she was 33, after being married to Jefferson for only 10 years. Jefferson never remarried. Her kind and caring nature lives on throughout the numerous places in Charlottesville, Virginia named after her, including Martha Jefferson Hospital.

3. Elizabeth Hamilton

Elizabeth (or Eliza or Betsey, as Hamilton called her) was the envy of all 18th century women when she won the heart of Solider heartthrob, Alexander Hamilton. Together they had eight children before Hamilton’s untimely death in 1804 (See Duel!). Eliza outlived her husband by fifty years, passing away at the age of 97 in 1854. Throughout her life, she staunchly defended her husband against critics and even stood by him during personal scandals. She devoted her life to protecting her husband’s image, hired assistants to sort his papers and recruited biographers to tell his story.

Even though her husband left her with a brood of children and mountain of debt, Eliza never remarried. Instead, she focused her energy on helping those less fortunate by co-founding New York’s first private orphanage, the New York Orphan Asylum Society. In her later years, Eliza lived in Washington DC, where she and Dolley Madison raised money to fund the Washington Monument.

4. Sybil Ludington

We all know the rhyme, “Listen my children and you shall hear/Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.” But Paul Revere wasn’t the only midnight rider, though he is the most famous.

On April 26, 1777, 16-year-old Sybil Ludington mounted her horse, Star, and rode 40 miles, more than twice the distance Revere rode, from Carmel, NY to Mahopac, to Kent Cliffs anad Farmers Mill before returning home, warning residents of the British marching on nearby Danbury, Connecticut.

During the nearly nine hour ride, she galloped through mud and rain, and defended herself against a highwayman with a large stick. Though the soldiers arrived too late to save Danbury, Sybil was hailed as a hero and was even congratulated by General George Washington.

Since 1979, the Sybil Ludington 50k Footrace is held in Carmel, NY and traces her famous route.

Do you have a favorite historical lady? Leave her name and cause in the comments below!