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Frederick, Marylandís Commemoration of its 1861 Season as the State Capital




3-days of special exhibits, events and programming tell the story of Maryland’s burning question – and unusual outcome – on whether to secede from the Union in 1861


Frederick, MD, April 14, 2011– In April 1861, an unprecedented set of events quickly unfolded, leaving the Nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., vulnerable during the early days of the Civil War.  On the heels of Virginia’s secession, Maryland’s legislature began the debate on whether it, too, would leave the Union, an action that would have left the capitol surrounded by enemy territory.  During this time, extraordinary measures were taken to keep the Union capital safe.  For the first and only time, Maryland’s state capitol was moved to Frederick, Maryland in April 1861, and the debate over the burning question of secession took center stage.


Friday, April 29 through Sunday, May 1, 2011 marks the 150th Anniversary of Frederick as the State Capitol in 1861, at the outset of the Civil War. “Frederick will commemorate this historic event over a 3-day period of special activities,” says John Fieseler, Executive Director for the Tourism Council of Frederick County (TCFC). Visitors can experience reenactments of the debate over Maryland’s fate, dramatic readings capturing the reaction of local residents, living history interpretation, special exhibits, dedications, interactive family activities and more. The event is a collaboration by the TCFC, the Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area, the City of Frederick, and numerous museums, historic sites, and churches working together.  


While this special weekend of events will be held at the end of April, it is just the beginning of Civil War 150th Anniversary commemorations across the region.  For a list of 150th Anniversary of the Civil War Events for 2011 and beyond in Frederick County, MD, visit


On Friday at 1:30 p.m., City Hall will host a commemoration kick off and viewing of the 1961 film, “Highlights of the Civil War: Maryland Secession Legislature.”  Later, a new Civil War Trails marker will be dedicated at Kemp Hall, the building where the Maryland General Assembly met during the special session in 1861. On Friday and Saturday, the dramatic reading at the Cultural Arts Center, “Meeting at Kemp Hall,” features local reaction to the events of 1861. Throughout the day on Saturday and on Sunday, hear legislators debate, then you can decide the fate of the state yourself during “Debate: Union or Disunion!”  Special exhibits planned for the 3-day commemoration include an exhibit on slavery in Maryland at the Roger Brooke Taney House, “The State of Medicine in 1861” at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, and a variety of secession displays at Monocacy National Battlefield Visitor Center. 


On Sunday, May 1, visitors can take part in a hands-on bucket brigade and see living history demonstrations and displays of antique fire apparatus at Courthouse Square. The activities commemorate the 1861 burning of the Frederick County Courthouse, which was fueled by the heated secession debate. Open houses, tours, and more will be available during the weekend commemoration.


Cards entitled “The Burning Question of Secession:  The Maryland Legislature Meets in Frederick” detail weekend activities and are available at the Frederick Visitor Center, 151 S. East Street, Frederick, MD. For event details and a comprehensive guide to weekend programs and activities, visit or call (301) 600-4047 or (800) 999-3613.


Putting the Past Into Perspective

“Understanding the series of events immediately preceding the 1861 Maryland legislature’s move to Frederick is important in understanding its historical significance,” explained John Fieseler, Executive Director for the TCFC.  In April 1861 the Union garrison of Ft. Sumter was fired upon and seized by Confederate troops.  Within days of this event, Virginia seceded from the Union.  The Southern states were making ground, and quickly.  Maryland was a state with divided loyalties, and the Federal government could not guarantee its people would side with the Union. In April, Federal troops occupied Baltimore and Annapolis in part to fortify and protect Washington, D.C. Riots erupted in these cities over the Federal occupation and confirmed fears that Maryland’s allegiance was divided.  Southern sympathizing mobs dismantled infrastructure used by the Federal troops and threatened the Union’s stronghold around the capitol.  Maryland Governor Thomas Holliday Hicks called a special session of the Maryland General Assembly to discuss the unfolding crisis.  Fearing anti-Union emotions from the occupation of Federal troops, he convened the legislature in Frederick, Maryland instead of Annapolis or Baltimore.


“Buffered by nearby Pennsylvania to the north and with a belief that Frederick was strongly pro-Union, he held the Special Session of the Maryland legislature here,” explains Fieseler. Kemp Hall, on the corner of North Market and East Church Streets, housed the Maryland General Assembly for a season and entertained debate over whether Maryland would secede from the Union. 


“Interestingly, Maryland never voted on the issue,” explains Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area Director Elizabeth Scott Shatto.  From April through August when the legislature met in Frederick, Federal troops and Baltimore police officers arrested Southern sympathizing legislators.  The vote was scheduled for September 17, 1861, but never happened. “Constitutional rights were suspended when these legislators were imprisoned for how theymight have voted.  The whole notion of this is quite shocking by today’s standards,” she explained.  A quorum was never reached, and Maryland never voted on the issue of secession.  This kept the Union capitol from being encircled by states in rebellion.


“By commemorating the 150th Anniversary of this event, we are also recognizing the significant role Frederick, Maryland played during the early years of the Civil War,” explains Shatto.  “It wasn’t the last time Frederick became heavily embroiled in the Civil War, either,”
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