An explosive Civil War plot in Downtown Frederick
Frank Stringfellow, John Wilkes Booth, and a plot to blow up Mansion House along with the President of the United States? What an ending to the first season of Mercy Street.
The producers of the series were kind enough as to share the source material behind their use of the bomb plot in Alexandria, VA. Real explosives were found in the basement of Mansion House, with the fuse lit and set to detonate beneath the opulent hotel, turned Union hospital. It seems that bomb plots like these would be rare.
However, in researching the complex Civil War history of another hospital town, Frederick, MD, I discovered another attempted bombing. Today, Frederick is a vibrant town and home to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. During the Civil War, it was known as “one vast hospital” with churches, municipal buildings, and private homes all put to use caring for wounded soldiers.
Found in the records of the Frederick Examiner, the city’s Unionist newspaper, a small note in the December 9, 1863 issue reveals a plot reminiscent of guerilla tactics utilized in modern war.
A SHELL FOUND IN THE STREET – Last Thursday morning an explosive shell was found in North Market St., nearly opposite the store of Peter Sahm, Esq., which gave rise to considerable speculation as to the manner of its getting there. The impression prevails that some evil disposed person placed the shell there with the expectation of witnessing an explosion in the event of its being run over by a wagon. We can hardly think that anything beyond this was meditated by the person so placing the shell, although had an explosion occurred a great deal of injury and damage might have been inflicted.
Explosive shells like the one found in the city’s main thoroughfare were shockingly common. The newspapers from the region between Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and Sharpsburg, Maryland are littered with stories about live artillery shells being located on and off the old battlefields. There are many sad accounts of local residents, especially children, meeting an untimely demise while moving or playing around these shells.
That some “evil disposed person” would be able to find and place a live shell in the street with the anticipation of causing a deadly detonation is not difficult to believe. Relations between Unionist residents and Confederate sympathizers were notoriously fraught and the Union military occupation supplied a target for potential plotters.
I was stunned to come across this story, mainly because it looks very much like the “improvised explosive devices” (IEDs) utilized by insurgents against U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many of those devices were constructed from abandoned artillery shells that could be found on the old battlefields and in the stockpiles of previous regimes.
The parallels between insurgent tactics in American-occupied Iraq and the apparent plot in Union-occupied Frederick are striking.
About the Author
Jake Wynn is the Director of Interpretation at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. He also writes independently at the Wynning History blog.Tags: Diabolical Plot, Episode 6, Explosives, Frederick, Maryland Posted in: Mercy Street PBS