November 1, 2012

Antietam's Untold History: The Stories of Hilary Watson, Jeremiah Summers, and Tolson's Chapel

  • By: David Weible

The Civil War has always been my favorite topic in American history, so I was thrilled to work on Nicholas Redding’s article about saving land and protecting viewsheds at Antietam in Sharpsburg, Md. While I was fact-checking Redding’s article, which will appear in the Fall Issue of Preservation, I also discovered the often overlooked stories of the people enslaved on the farms near Sharpsburg, and how, unlike those enslaved in secessionist states, they were not freed by the Emancipation Proclamation.

To learn more, and to uncover the history of Tolson’s Chapel, a historic African-American church close to the battlefield, I caught up with Edie Wallace, a historian and president of Friends of Tolson’s Chapel, the nonprofit working to restore the structure and preserve an untold history.

Edie reminded me that part of the reason the battle is so well-known, apart from being remembered as the bloodiest day in American history, is that its outcome precipitated the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. But “I’m not even sure if [people enslaved near Antietam] were aware that it would have been issued because it didn’t have any bearing on them,” she says.

That’s because the proclamation only applied to states that had rebelled. For the time being, slave-holding states that never seceded, like Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, could keep on with the practice.

So while slavery had been abolished in the South, men like Hilary Watson remained enslaved on the Otto Farm at Antietam, harvesting grain and cutting wood for winter fires. In May of 1864, Watson was even drafted into the Union Army before his owner paid the $300 exemption fee.

On November 1, 1864, a new state constitution finally gave the 90,000 enslaved Marylanders their freedom. Most left the farms where they had been enslaved, but Watson stayed on as a laborer, eventually earning enough wages to buy a plot of land in Sharpsburg and build a log house with his wife. In 1877, he became a trustee of Tolson’s Chapel, the 1866 African-American Methodist church Wallace and her organization are working to restore near the battlefield.

Jeremiah Summers would also join the congregation at Tolson’s Chapel after the war, but at the time of the battle, he was 13 and enslaved on the Piper Farm where he helped his owner’s family flee before Confederate General James Longstreet made the property his headquarters. In April 1864, African-American soldiers on a recruiting trip forced him into Union military service. Protests from his owner would eventually return Summers into slavery and, after gaining his freedom six months later, he remained on the Piper farm for the rest of his life.

Watson died in 1917, and Summers followed in 1925. Both are buried in the graveyard at Tolson’s Chapel where Wallace says you can still find their gravestones.

Starting in 1868, the church also functioned as a Freedmen’s Bureau school. Repairing the makeshift chalkboards is just one small part of the more than $100,000 restoration project led by Wallace’s organization.

“We see [the Emancipation Proclamation] as this great thing in retrospect, but I think at the time it was maybe not as immediately important to people,” Wallace told me. For the people enslaved in Sharpsburg during the battle, the suffering was very similar to what anyone else in the area would have experienced, “an absolutely horrific episode in their lives.”

David Weible was the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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