School Days

I’d always thought Maryland’s nickname, “the free state,” had originated in the 1860s around the time of the Civil War. But it turns out that the name is actually tied to Prohibition—an example of how little I know about American history. Another part of history that I didn’t know much about was the huge numbers of African-American soldiers that fought for the Union in the Civil War. Nearly 180,000 served in what was called the US Colored Troops (USCT), including 9,000 from the state of Maryland. Many of these soldiers were highly decorated, and 15 members of the USCT were recipients of the Medal of Honor.

Until we stumbled onto a cemetery in Delaware a few months ago, I wasn’t really aware of the scope and size of the USCT. I’ve since learned a bit more through a recent bike trip on the Eastern Shore.

Our route was the “School Days Trail” near Easton, a circuit that took us past an 1885 school house, some church ruins, Pickering Creek Audubon Center, and the historic village of Unionville.

We hadn’t heard of Unionville until we literally rolled into it, but what an inspiring tale it tells. Located in Talbot county near Frederick Douglas’s birthplace, it was founded just after the Civil War by a group that included 18 veterans of the USCT. Most were in the 7th Regiment Infantry, which saw a lot of action in Virginia. The unit was in battles at Petersburg and Richmond, and it suffered significant losses in the Battle of New Market. The 7th Regiment Infantry was also at Appomattox for the final battle of the Civil War.

Unionville was originally named Cowgilltown, after the abolitionist Quaker family that leased and eventually deeded the land. In 1870, Cowgilltown was renamed Unionville to acknowledge the cause that had brought the founders together. The name was a bold statement for its time; Maryland was part of the Union, but there were quite a few secessionists in Talbot County.

We arrived in Unionville and its cemetery in the afternoon and we weren’t sure if we’d be able to finish our ride in the daylight. But we didn’t want to rush, as this was a place that was deserving of our time and respect. So we parked our bikes and spent a good while walking the grounds, thinking about the lives and legacies around us.

These veterans overcame long odds to join the Union Army during a dark time for our country, and they left quite a record of service. A New York Tribune article from 1864 included this passage: “The 7th U.S. colored troops (Maryland) on the first day carried with fixed bayonets, a line of rifle pits, and carried it without a shot, but with a loss of thirty-five; it was one of the most stirring and gallant affairs I have ever known.”

The 7th Regiment Infantry was stationed in Texas when the war ended, but the lure of home brought the founders all the way back to Talbot County. And they made that return trip during a time when travel was incredibly difficult for them, even dangerous. Once in Unionville, they had a hand in building an entire community, including St. Stephen’s AME Church, which still serves Unionville today. A line of headstones in the cemetery near the trees marks their final resting place–back at home, all in a row, as if in perpetual formation.

I still have a lot to learn about history, but Unionville is a great teacher; it didn’t take much imagination to give this place a voice. As we finished our ride in the last of the daylight, we were still thinking about the cemetery and the men who overcame so much to serve their country. Today’s Unionville is a quiet place, but with a clear and reassuring voice—one that is still sharing stories, still offering lessons from the past.

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