The Civil War in Rockville

Rockville in the 1860s: Divided by loyalties, united by community.

Like small towns throughout Maryland and Virginia, Rockville got caught up in complicated issues and in a national war.  Rockville’s experience during this traumatic period was more social than military… how residents, merchants, farmers, slaves, children, and other local townspeople were affected by events around them.

Rockville in 1860 was a thriving center of commerce and local government.  Although small, the town was the intersection of several major roads, making it strategic to the movement of troops and supplies during the war.  A walk past the old homes on North Adams Street enables you to envision Rockville at this time… only with horses, hogs, geese, and goats running loose in the dirt streets.

In 1860, 365 people lived in Rockville.  Two-thirds were white.  Of the black population, about two-thirds were slaves.  Most people farmed or were skilled as millers, carpenters, and blacksmiths.  The linear business district was small, but it was the largest in Montgomery County and always busy with Courthouse traffic.  There were 3 hotels, 4 general stores, a post office, 4 doctors, 6 churches, 6 lawyers, and a slave trader.  In 1860, Rockville became the first town in Montgomery County to incorporate.

Due to Maryland’s situation as a slave-holding border state, Rockville citizens were caught in a tangle of sentiments and loyalties.  Soon after Lincoln’s election in 1860, political leaders assembled at the Courthouse to debate whether Maryland should secede.  Families, neighbors, and congregations split over issues of the day.  Federal intervention, in the forms of legal maneuvers and encamped soldiers, suppressed local sympathy for the Rebel cause.

Rockville citizens took both sides.  Richard Johns Bowie, a lawyer and owner of Glen View farm, was a Unionist.  His good friend, William Veirs Bouic, captained the Rockville Rifles and sided with the South.  Dr. E. E. Stonestreet exempted 233 local men from the Union army.  Reuben Hill was a slave who fought with the U.S. Colored Troops.  Anderson boys fought for the South, while the Dawsons and the Beall sisters favored the North.

Rockville saw action every year of the Civil War.  By spring 1861, some 10,000 Federal troops were stationed nearby.  Most of them camped on the Fairgrounds, now Richard Montgomery High School.  1862 saw the Courthouse used as a field hospital after the bloody Battle of Antietam and the beginning of arrests of local pro-South citizens for “disloyalty.”  In 1863, JEB Stuart arrived to a warm reception by townspeople.  A letter written by Dora Higgins described her husband’s arrest at Christ Church.  The Confederates took so long to capture a Union wagon train and to be charmed by local girls that they arrived late to the Battle of Gettysburg.

Rockville was the scene of hot conflict in July 1864, after the Battle of Monocacy.  Jubal Early’s cavalry skirmished in Rockville before and after their unsuccessful attack on Washington, D.C.  Somewhere in the confusion, the Confederates carried off the town’s records.  And, at the end of the war, George Atzerodt, one of John Wilkes Booth’s accomplices, rode the Rockville mail stage in his unsuccessful attempt to escape capture.

After the war, Rockville residents returned to the common social, economic, religious, and civic bonds they had created over a century of time.  Former slaves built new lives, aided by a local office of the Freedmen’s Bureau.  Public schools flourished.  Soldiers returned from the war to farm, teach, and practice law.  Men who fought for opposing causes resumed friendships and civic responsibilities together after the war.  Some vouched for the claims of others against property damage by Federal soldiers.  And little Rockville remained a sleepy town until the 1870s, when the railroad came through….