By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2015-2016, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the January 2016 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
The opening lines of the official state song of what was once one of the 13 original colonies are as follows. “The despot’s heel is on thy shore, Maryland, my Maryland. His torch is at thy temple door, Maryland, my Maryland.” In light of the uncomplimentary things that were written in the Declaration of Independence about King George III, it is not surprising that the state song of one of the 13 original colonies refers to a despot. But what may be surprising to many people is that the despot referred to in the state song of Maryland is not George III, but Abraham Lincoln. In other lines Lincoln is referred to as a tyrant and a vandal, and near the end of the song there is a line that calls opponents of secession “Northern scum.” These sentiments are expressed in this song because this song, which is titled “Maryland, My Maryland,” was not written at the time of the Revolutionary War, but was written in late April of 1861 as a poem urging Maryland to secede from the Union. In spite of the fact that the song advocates secession, “Maryland, My Maryland” remains the state song of Maryland.
“Maryland, My Maryland” was written by James Ryder Randall, who was born in Baltimore. By 1861 Randall had been living in the South for several years, and he came to consider himself a Southerner. He was an ardent secessionist, and he wrote “Maryland, My Maryland” as a reaction to what happened in Baltimore on April 19, 1861. On that day a Massachusetts regiment was moving on foot through the streets of Baltimore on its way to Washington when a mob of secessionists began throwing stones and bricks at the troops and even shot at them. Eventually the Massachusetts troops fired back at the mob. By the end of the riot 15 people were dead, 4 soldiers and 11 civilians, and many more were wounded. After James Ryder Randall heard news of the riot in the city of his birth, he wrote a poem as a plea to Maryland to join the Confederacy, and those words became the lyrics of the song “Maryland, My Maryland.” Randall’s poem was published in newspapers throughout the South, and by May 1861 the poem had made its way to Maryland, where Jennie Cary, a daughter in a prominent secessionist family in Baltimore, set the poem to the tune of “O Tannenbaum” after tweaking the words slightly to better fit the melody. The song became very popular in the South during the Civil War, and according to some accounts Robert E. Lee had the men in the Army of Northern Virginia sing that song as they marched into Frederick, Maryland during Lee’s first northern invasion. “Maryland, My Maryland” has been called the Marseillaise of the South, although other songs also lay claim to that nickname.
Maryland never actually seceded, Maryland was never part of the Confederacy, and Maryland never had a star on the Confederate flag, in contrast to Kentucky and Missouri, which, like Maryland, were never part of the Confederacy, but unlike Maryland were claimed by the Confederacy and had stars on the Confederate flag. In spite of all of this, the Maryland legislature adopted “Maryland, My Maryland” as the official state song, and this happened in 1939. It is not clear why this decision was made at that time, but maybe there was a 20th Century eruption of secession nostalgia in Maryland. “Maryland, My Maryland” is sung each year at the Preakness horse race, the second leg of horse racing’s triple crown, which takes place in Baltimore, the location of the riot that prompted James Ryder Randall to compose “Maryland, My Maryland.” For the past 18 years, “Maryland, My Maryland” has been sung at the Preakness by the United States Naval Academy Glee Club, which leads to the question of whether it is appropriate that cadets of one of the branches of the United States Armed Forces publicly sing a song which advocates dissolution of the country that these same cadets swear to support and defend.
The song mentions the surnames of several prominent individuals from Maryland’s history including the Carroll family, of which one member is John Carroll, after whom is named John Carroll University, a private Jesuit university that is located in a suburb of Cleveland. But the song’s impassioned invocation of revered names from Maryland’s past was used simply as an appeal to Marylanders to join the cause which had as its goal separation from the Union in which Maryland was a charter member. It is at least questionable whether the secessionist sentiment extolled in “Maryland, My Maryland” is appropriate for a song that is intended to represent one of the 50 United States. This is especially so when the song refers to the person who is arguably the greatest president in U.S. history as a despot. Moreover, even without a careful reading of the lyrics of every state song, it is reasonable to conclude that “Maryland, My Maryland” is the only state song in which people who live in a particular geographic region of the U.S. are called “scum.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, the use of “Maryland, My Maryland” as the state song of the Old Line State has come under criticism. In 2002 a member of the Maryland legislature named Jennie Forehand introduced legislation to change the state song of Maryland. Her bill failed, as did another such bill that was introduced in 2009. Still another bill to change Maryland’s state song was introduced in 2015 by Karen Lewis Young, but that bill will not be debated until 2016. During 2015 in the aftermath of killings in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, there was intense debate about the flying of the Confederate battle flag at government buildings. One person who was vocal about removing the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse was former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley. O’Malley was in office as governor in 2009, when one of the bills proposing to change the state song of Maryland was introduced, but he did not speak out on that issue. Evidently O’Malley believes that removing secessionist symbols from South Carolina is a necessity, but doing so in Maryland is not. Maryland’s current governor, Larry Hogan, stated that he agrees with the decision to remove the Confederate battle flag from South Carolina’s capitol, and he worked to remove the battle flag from any Maryland license plates that had it, specifically the Sons of Confederate Veterans license plates. However, Hogan has publicly proclaimed his opposition to removing “Maryland, My Maryland” as Maryland’s state song. Clearly Hogan feels that some secessionist symbols should be removed, even in Maryland, but Hogan evidently believes that secessionist symbols are worth preserving if they refer to Abraham Lincoln as a despot and call Northerners “scum.”
The issue of the Maryland state song is a lesser known aspect of the issue that includes the controversy over the Confederate battle flag. In light of the controversy regarding the Confederate battle flag, a question that is worth considering is whether, like the flying of the Confederate battle flag at government buildings, it is appropriate for a state to officially celebrate its heritage in a song that advocates secession.