- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 16, 2002

In Maryland’s historic lore, there is a story of the Old South Ball held at the Maryland Agricultural College now the University of Maryland at College Park.

The story goes that during the Civil War a raiding party of Confederate cavalry came into Maryland with the mission of disrupting rail and telegraph traffic between Washington and Baltimore. The evening of the raid, Prince George’s County gentry and faculty at the college, who were all Southern sympathizers, threw a ball for the soldiers of the raiding party at the old Rossborough Inn on the campus. The tale has been passed down through generations, but the question remains: Was there an Old South Ball? To answer that question, we have to look at preceding events.

It did not take long to learn through research that this was not a little cavalry raid but a major undertaking; if successful, it would have changed the course of the war.

Early’s raid

In July 1864, Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, sent 15,000 men under Gen. Jubal A. Early to attack Washington from the north and capture the city, taking pressure off Lee’s Army at Petersburg, Va. Early’s army crossed the Potomac River from Virginia into Frederick County on July 5, and he engaged a smaller Union force on July 9 at the Monocacy River. After seeing that the road was clear to Washington, Early gave his cavalry commander, Gen. Bradley T. Johnson, his orders.

Johnson was to proceed to the east around Washington, destroying communications as he went, moving through southern Maryland to the Union prison at Point Lookout by July 12, where he would free 15,000 men, arm them and return with them to Washington to assist Early. When he arrived at Point Lookout, he would receive support from the sea.

The Confederate naval ship Tallahassee, under the command of John Taylor, carried 20,000 weapons, several field pieces, and 500 Confederate marines under the command of Gen. George Washington Custis Lee, Robert E. Lee’s brother. The marines would attack from the sea, and Johnson would attack from the land.

The success of this mission relied on the fact that most of the men were Marylanders fighting for the Confederacy. Gen. Johnson was well known in Maryland. He had practiced law in Frederick before the war, was a member of the gentry, former states attorney for the county and former chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party. His great uncle Thomas Johnson was the first governor of Maryland after Independence.

Under Gen. Johnson’s command were the First Maryland Cavalry, the Second Maryland Cavalry and the Baltimore Light Artillery; these were the men to be honored at the Old South Ball.

Ride to Beltsville

The brigade entered Prince George’s County on the morning of July 12 at about 10 near Laurel. Capt. Thomas Griffin, commander of Company A, First Maryland Cavalry, led the way, followed by Johnson and the long column of cavalry, wagons and artillery. Their first objective was to disrupt railroad traffic in and around Laurel, cross the tracks and head to Upper Marlboro and southern Maryland.

They soon learned from scouts, however, that there was a large contingent of Union infantry in Laurel. They, therefore, slipped south toward Washington by way of Powder Mill Road, about 6 miles, to Beltsville, where they would cross the tracks. At Beltsville they tore up the tracks and set fire to a number of railroad boxcars. They also captured 500 mules, which would be useful to transport prisoners back to Washington from the camp at Point Lookout.

The brigade stopped at Beltsville to feed the horses and rest. They had just reformed the column about noon and started their march on the Marlboro Road when Johnson received a message from Gen. Early that fresh Union troops had arrived. Johnson was directed to abandon the enterprise and rejoin him at once in Silver Spring. Early would wait for Johnson until 9 p.m.

The column proceeded down the Washington Turnpike (today’s U.S. 1) to the Agricultural College. Johnson’s main concern now was to join up with Early by 9 p.m., and he knew he had to pass under the guns of three forts on the northeast side of Washington. He evaluated the logistical problem and decided that he would hold up at the college until dark before moving on to Silver Spring. He most likely sent scouts to the college, announcing that they were coming. (Not known to Johnson or Early, the sea attack by the Tallahassee had been compromised and called off by President Jefferson Davis.)

Skirmish line

Meanwhile, the Union fortification on the northeast side of Washington was poorly manned and was not in a position to send scouts to see what was going on. They did have the services of an Indiana cavalry troop of 500 men, however, who were back from Richmond for fresh horses.

These were sent to explore the smoke and fire coming from Beltsville. Proceeding to a position on Paint Branch at about 1:30 p.m., where Washington Turnpike crosses, they dismounted and set up a skirmish line along the creek. This is just north of present-day University of Maryland at College Park.

Gen. Johnson, from a hilltop not far away, could see that the Union horses were green, and he knew his horseflesh. He ordered the Baltimore Artillery to fire into the waiting horses. The horses panicked and ran, and the Union soldiers vacated their position and retreated. (Capt. William Nicholas took off after the horses with Companies E and F and drove them back to the safe fortification of Fort Lincoln near Bladensburg.)

Johnson proceeded to the Agricultural College and at about 3 p.m. was greeted along the way by college President Henry Onderdonk, who was most likely concerned that the brigade’s presence on the campus would harm the property. A few months earlier, Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside with 6,000 men had camped there on the way to Richmond and caused a great deal of destruction.

On to Silver Spring

At the college, Johnson set up headquarters at 5 p.m. at the Rossborough Inn, then a private residence of a faculty member, and asked professor Montgomery Johns for the best route to Silver Spring that would not disturb the campus grounds. Johnson ordered his adjutant, Capt. George Wilson Booth, to seek out troopers who knew the roads to Silver Spring. They chose Adelphi Road, to Riggs Road, to Piney Branch Road, to Silver Spring, keeping in mind they had to be careful not to alert Union troops in the nearby forts.

They moved out soon after sunset at 7:34 p.m., keeping the noise down as best they could, and going slowly, so as not to kick up too much dust. It took a considerable time to cover the 10 miles, as there were 1,200 to 1,300 men and horses, 500 mules, a great number of additional horses, supply and hospital wagons, and the Baltimore Light Artillery with their five caissons.

At various crossroads leading into Washington, Confederate pickets were sent out and occasionally fired on from Union outposts. Capt. Booth arrived at Silver Spring at 9 p.m., just making the deadline Gen. Early had set. Johnson did not arrive until after midnight. He was exhausted and took up the rear of the brigade. Evidently, the college was a staging area for the troop evacuation, and some were still eating there as late as 11 p.m.

Gen. Early wanted Johnson’s brigade back with the main force because Early was in full retreat. At noon the day before, advanced elements of his army had reached Union defenses at Fort Stevens, two miles inside Washington, near present-day Georgia Avenue and Piney Branch Road. Early discovered that the works were but feebly manned, but he could not attack because his army was not up. He engaged the next day, but soon found he was faced by the Union VI Corps that had been rushed from Richmond by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to defend Washington. Early ordered a full retreat toward Rockville on the evening of July 12.

A persistent legend

Now to the question of the “Old South Ball.” A legend persists that a ball was held at the college on the night of the 12th, attended by all Confederate officers, college faculty and pro-Southern gentry of Prince George’s County. For many years after the war, small squares of land were preserved at places on the campus where guards had been posted around the site of the ball. It isn’t probable that the ball took place at the Rossborough Inn, as this was a private residence. The most likely place would have been the Old Main Building, where the soldiers were fed.

When we think of a ball, we think of preplanning. The head of the college, professor Onderdonk, however, had no knowledge that the troops were coming until about 2 p.m. on the 12th. (Remember that the objective of Johnson’s mission was Point Lookout.) Johnson arrived at the college at about 5 p.m. and had his hands full until 11 p.m., evacuating his men. No time for a ball.

A diarist, Florida Clemson, granddaughter of John C. Calhoun, lived in nearby Riverdale and attended many functions at the college, but her diary is silent about the night of July 12. After the war, three officers, including Johnson, wrote about the raid with no reference to a ball and little reference to the Agricultural College. Newspapers articles at the time did not refer to a ball.

On July 15, Lafayette Baker, special agent for the Judge Advocate’s Office, was directed to investigate the incident at the Agricultural College for disloyalty to the Union. Judge Advocate Levi Turner told him to wrap it up quickly, which he did by July 28. He interviewed about 25 people at the College and in nearby Bladensburg.

Baker established that the college was a nest of rebels, but he could not establish that Johnson’s arrival was planned or that the college prepared food for the raiders. The conclusion was that the college had been taken over by the Confederates, who took what they wanted.

There was no reference to a ball. There was a slight indication that passersby along the road reported that they imagined they heard music and that they saw carriages of ladies going toward the College. There is no documentary evidence, however, that a ball ever took place.

College ‘chemistry’

What took place at the college was most likely exaggerated over the years in local lore. The truth may never be known. We do know, however, that some of Johnson’s troops were there from 5 to 11 p.m. on July 12 and that they were fed at the Old Main Building, a place where balls in the past had been held. We also know from the Turner/Baker investigation that there were a number of young daughters of professors and staff present. The report mentions that some people from the community visited with Johnson on campus. Someone from the college or the cavalrymen could have provided music. The final ingredient is the chemistry between flashy Maryland cavaliers in their gray uniforms with red capes and the daughters of staff and faculty.

Cavalrymen were the rock stars of their day. Thus, from a combination of young girls and dashing young cavaliers whose average age was 19, was born the story of the Old South Ball.

Robert Crawley writes from Camp Springs, Md.

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