Here’s Mudd in Yer Eye

Roadsign for Dr. Samuel Mudd Rd

A Road to Somewhere

I spend a great deal of my biking life doing one of three things: commuting, training, or participating in events.  While those activities are often singularly enjoyable, what they all lack is another primary source of cycle-related pleasure: exploration.  Perhaps inspired by my recent sojourn in New Zealand where my partner and I did a lot of exploring by bike, I’ve been trying to throw in a few more exploratory rides myself.

Riding on the shoulders of Giants

Recently, inspired by an article in the Washington Post I decided to head over to St. Mary’s peninsula and check out some of the sites associated with Doctor Samuel Mudd.  This would also act as a check-out ride for Gypsy Rose in advance of the first 300k of the season.  Since my 200k, she has had her rear-hub re-greased (it was almost completely empty of grease which definitely explained the source of some of the odd clanking sounds she had begun to manifest; I thought the sounds were just me!), a new chain, and the replacement of her Contact tires with the Compass Bicycles Stampede Pass, saving nearly a pound and a half in rotational weight (despite being narrow (32mm versus Conti’s claimed 37 but actually 35mm) these tires are both more comfortable and faster rolling; highly recommended).  Gypsy has also had some major issues with her electrics, which undoubtedly have their origins in the recent underwater 200k with its impromptu creek fording.  The wisdom of doing a checkout was proven; despite having had Bicycle Space get the lighting system working it was once again non-functional.  Grrr.

Starting in the Smallwood State Park, I saddled up and headed East toward La Plata.  Once you get past the large featureless expanse of the Indian Head pine plantations, this is a lovely area of the country to bike in.  The terrain is gently rolling and most of the main roads are better for biking than the side roads due to their massive shoulders.  The only exception was a short stretch on Leonardtown Rd/MD 5.  Not only was there so much traffic that I thought everyone must be fleeing the region for some reason, but the wide shoulder was, uncharacteristically for this region, corrugated as an “anti-dopey-shit driver” measure and every other square inch of the shoulder was completely covered in debris.  Good chance to check out the puncture resistance of the tires.  Because changing tires by the side of that road would have been special.

Fortunately, as I said, it was short, and soon I was making the turn onto Dr. Samuel Mudd Rd.  A short distance further on and I was rolling up the dirt driveway toward the Mudd residence.

The Difference between the Hippocratic and Hypocritic Oaths

The Samuel R. Mudd residence

The Samuel R. Mudd residence, just north of Bryantown, Maryland.

For those who fell asleep during their US History classes and only woke up for the fighting bits (which is most Americans), Samuel Mudd was the physician who diagnosed and set John Wilke’s Booth’s broken leg.  (For many years historians relied on Booth’s own account that his spur caught in the bunting of the presidential box as he leaped to the stage after shooting Lincoln, but some historians have since challenged that claim and feel it is more likely that Booth’s horse tripped and fell on him as he made his hurried escape South).

That Mudd set Booth’s leg is about all anyone agrees upon, however.  It is clear why Booth ended up in this region in the first place.  The St. Mary’s peninsula is carved down the middle by the massive Zekiah swamp (considerably smaller today than it was in the past); in fact, biking around the area you can appreciate how much of the area is still either swamp, recently reclaimed swamp, or only barely not-swamp.  The swamp was a highway of sorts for smugglers and confederate agents who used it to make their way down to the Port Tobacco area where they could hire someone to ferry them across the Potomac to Confederate territory in Virginia.  Booth followed suit.

It may, however, have been less than a coincidence that he ended up in Mudd’s upstairs guest room.  Despite Mudd’s initial claims that he didn’t know Booth, he had met him several times and was familiar enough with him to introduce him to friends and to have a drink with him while in DC.

Clearly damning evidence?  Well, the intriguing part is whether or not he recognized Booth when the actor showed up with his co-conspirator David Herold.  Booth was disguised, wearing false whiskers and elaborate heavy stage make-up.  On the one hand, enlightened modern individuals such as we are likely to think that such a ruse would have been utterly transparent, especially to a man like Mudd who proved himself constantly to be a man of serious intellect and acute observation.  It is, however, a mistake to think that the way we look at things is necessarily the way they did back then.  When I say “look,” furthermore, I am not just talking about it in the philosophical, speculative sense, but rather in terms of what people actually saw.  What counts as “realistic” is not an absolute, but is rather a product of the shifting cultural conventions of any given time period.  Nowhere was this more true than in the US theatre, where illusions which to our eye would seem both contrived and examples of melodramatic overkill were, nevertheless, praised by theatre-goers and critics as realistic and affecting.  People also were not as familiar with the kind of detailed, relentless facial scrutiny that becomes possible in the age of mass photography, and which we have now raised to the nth power with the world of social media.

So it is in fact more than plausible that Mudd didn’t recognize his former acquaintance.  However, given his role as a doctor in a part of the country renowned for both smuggling and secessionist activity, it is exceedingly unlikely that he didn’t realize the two men at his door were engaged in some shady dealings.  Nor would Mudd have been terribly upset to learn that Lincoln had been offed (a fact he claimed not to have learned until later).

At any rate, the Fedral Government didn’t buy the “But he was disguised, your honor” defense.  They convicted him promptly and exiled him to an old military fort in the Dry Tortugas.  If you have no idea where that is, that is precisely the point.  Think about all the worst aspects of Florida with none of the best bits: hot, dry, lots of people on the brink of death, with no strong drink and no wet T-shirt contests.  While there, however, Mudd distinguished himself with both his skill and ingenuity in caring for other inmates, particularly after a Yellow Fever outbreak incapacitated the fort’s existing medical staff.  Both inmates and soldiers spoke highly of Mudd and their testimony was influential in persuading president Andrew Johnson to pardon Mudd in 1869, whereupon he returned to his farm.

It’s History, Jim, But Not as We Know It

Farm Machinery

Abandoned farm machinery lies near the rolling fields of the Mudd Farm, set on high ground above the surrounding swamp.

All of this rather murky history becomes even more murky upon visiting the house (named St. Catherine’s; Mudd, like many in the region, was Catholic).  Now I should say at the outset that this is not a professional operation.  The property is administered by a kind of family foundation, staffed entirely by volunteers, and is only open three days a week (Wednesday, and the weekend).  Yet it is in many respects a very well curated operation.  They have, for example, spent a lot of money restoring some parts of the house such as the kitchen, and the house itself is filled with artifacts that are either original or period-appropriate.  The people working that day were all cheerful, friendly, and accommodating.  In fact they were (pardon the pun) swamped; with many of the schools on spring break, they had had so many visitors that they had been forced to call in extra help.  I am always going to be delighted by people taking an interest in history and it seems churlish to complain about flaws in the presentation of that history.  Yet there are some pretty important problems in the way this history is being presented.

While Mudd was pardoned, he was never exonerated and achieving “justice” for Mudd is the goal of the site. So there is a definite agenda behind the tour that you get.  Having an agenda, of course, isn’t necessarily a problem; there is no such thing as “objective” history, and historical interpretation is always just that, “interpretation.”  The goal of responsible historical interpretation, however, is first and foremost, not to ignore available evidence. Yet it should also try and achieve a couple of other things, I believe.

If you are trying to give people today a sense of why people in a former age did what they did, you first need to give them a good sense of how those people lived.  People’s beliefs tend to be heavily influenced by their everyday realities; in contrast our guide tended to focus on the dramatic, but something is only dramatic by virtue of the fact that it is set against the everyday.  Many of the basic elements of the Mudds’ lives were presented in a decidedly murky fashion, even down to where everyone slept in the house (the fact that the house as it is currently configured only has two bedrooms and a guest room for a large family (the Mudds eventually had 9 living children) caused a few questions which our guide couldn’t answer).  Was this just a problem of people who were amateur historical guides?  Possibly.  But some of the murkiness was, it seemed to me, strategic.

With such a large family it seemed obvious that a family that was simultaneously a farming family (with the tremendous amount of work that entailed) and a professional family (and therefore with a little higher standing and income) would need additional help which they would also be able to afford.  So I wasn’t surprised when the our guide referred a couple of times to various things being done around the house by servants.  I asked how many servants they had.  “Well,” she said, “I mean. . .they had slaves.”  Not many, she assured us hurriedly.  Seven (Some sources claim 5)..

Seven, in fact was a relatively large number of slaves for a small (about 200 acres at the time) farm.  Furthermore, Dr. Mudd had an ongoing agreement with his father, a large plantation owner just down the road, to borrow additional slaves for peak times like harvests.  “Where did the slaves live?” I asked.  “Oh,” she said, “They had some buildings nearby.”

No trace of these buildings or the slave presence on which the lives of the Mudds depended, remains.  In fact, in a rather unfortunate symbolic instance, the kitchen has been restored complete with a ladder leading up to what would have been a trapdoor into the loft where the slave and (after the war) freed slave cook would have slept. . .but the opening appeared to be boarded over.  The place does, however, have an entire shed devoted to farming equipment, another devoted to some Civil War displays, and a third that houses Mudd’s original tombstone (since replaced by a more modern one).  But no trace of the slaves who worked the farm remains and no effort is made to foreground their contribution to the Mudds’ existence.

Visitors are, therefore, being asked to support the attempt to “exonerate” and to secure “justice” for a man who believed that it was just (in fact that it was God’s will) to hold other human beings in bondage.  The fact that slavery wasn’t foregrounded at all meant that the larger regional context was also obscured.  Southern Maryland, including the Eastern Shore, was a hotbed of both slavery and secessionist sympathy, in a state that was as bitterly divided as any of the border states. . .which in fact it was (while the majority of Maryland units fought on the side of the Union, about half a dozen military units of cavalry, infantry and artillery fought for the confederacy).  Anti-Union sentiment was strong in the region; Lee’s first invasion of the North (leading to the bloodbath at Antietam) was deliberately designed to tap into what were presumed to be strong secessionist loyalties waiting to be freed from Union tyranny.  Given his upbringing, his family, friends, and connections, it is therefore highly unlikely that had Mudd known that his two house guests had been involved in assassinating Lincoln, that he would have been morally offended, although he probably would have taken much greater steps to protect his family, and the fact that he did not may be the best argument in his defense).

That is the other thing that good history tries to do, supply the missing context, the invisible elements that fade away with time but which weighed heavily on the minds of people.  For example, we were in the room that was described as the girls’ bedroom, and our guide informed us that it was from “that window” that Mrs. Mudd watched the Federal soldiers destroying her farm.  They apparently tore down the fences, trampled crops, killed some of the livestock, etc.  The woman on the tour with me was outraged and asked how they could do such a thing.  The woman responded that people didn’t care too much about civilians back then, and that such regard is in fact a relatively recent evolution.  Now a modern historian would at this point step in and point out that in fact our recent conflicts, starting with the “good war” (WWII) have been notable for a trend that clearly suggests the opposite: declining numbers of military deaths relative to the deaths of civilians (get thee to Google if you don’t believe me: look up Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War I & II. . .).

In fact, the explanation for the Federal soldiers’ actions more than likely has a lot to do with the elephant in the room: Lincoln’s assassination.  I can confirm after reading quite a few original letters from Union soldiers, and many more in published collections, that Union soldiers would complain bitterly about their officers, their commanders, their living conditions (rarely their pay, interestingly, which was quite generous by the standards of the time), political corruption, even the wisdom of freeing the slaves, and the policy of arming them (contrary to what we would like today to be true, very few Union soldiers gave a crap about African Americans as human beings, even as they abhored slavery in the abstract). . .but they were extraordinarily devoted to Lincoln.  His death set off a wave of mourning that was particularly strong in the armed forces, and was accompanied by not a little rage.  Imagine then that you as a Union soldier are let loose to search the farm of an alleged conspirator in the plot to kill your Commander in Chief.  We can’t condone the destruction of civilian property, but we can at least understand it in this context, and such understanding is not well served by pretending that people’s actions are part of some abstract side effect of “war” or “human nature.”

Then there was the simply ridiculous: ghost stories.  Supposedly a little girl had died in the girls bedroom and previous unspecified visitors had reported a “presence” tugging on them.  I congratulated myself on suppressing an eye roll that probably would have dislocated something optically.  Ghosts stories about dead children are particularly affecting to a modern audience precisely because in the developed world children die relatively infrequently.  But right up through the late 1800s infant mortality was, by our standards, appallingly high.  Death of children was common and it was expected, so much so that some couples would put off naming their children for a couple of years until they were reasonably sure they would live.  If even a small portion of the children who had died in the nineteenth-century came back as ghosts our cities would be overrun.  And there are already too many whiny little shits running about the place.

Thinking that that was as inane as it was going to get, I followed our guide into the gift shop at the end of the tour only to have her insist that we look through a photo album.  I thought it was going to show interesting photos of the family, but no.  It was pictures of “ghosts.”  By which I mean it was a collection of images, some of which appeared obviously and amateurishly doctored, and others of vague glowing things that looked like lens reflections or, in the case of one “ghost” that supposedly appeared in a photo of some encamped re-enactors, a vague flash of light that could have been some dude lighting his farts for all I could tell.

Again, despite my dismissive attitude, I understand this is a small operation, dependent largely on donations and tour fees (very reasonable, by the way) and they need to drum up trade.  Ghost stories appeal to the punters and for many people it seems that history isn’t history unless it is populated by ghosts.  There is an understandable irony in this: our present is, metaphorically speaking, richly inhabited by the ghosts of the past.  But it seems that a lot of people can’t connect at all with metaphorical historical ghosts and instead can only obtain some purchase on the idea that the past continues to influence the present through making that present “alive” in some way.  The problem with ghosts is that they betray people’s yearning for the phenomena in our observed world to be simple, and ultimately that makes ghost stories quite boring, because as explanations for events they are seldom as interesting as the more difficult explanations.  What is more interesting: that a baby pissed off about being dead comes back to haunt a house?  Or that a mother reacts to the death of her child by seeing the child everywhere (a phenomenon experienced by many following loss) and generations of people afterward, haunted by actual deaths of children or the everpresent potential for childhood death, and vulnerable (as we all are) to the power of suggestion, momentarily felt “a presence?”

But the problem with all this foolishness is that it pulls attention away from what makes this little corner of Maryland really significant.  In the attempt to introduce an even more overwrought sense of drama into a context where the drama level is already pretty high, the “We have ghosts!” routine ignores the fact that the importance of St. Catherine’s lies in its much more mundane elements.  It reminds us about one of the most remarkable and overlooked aspects of the Civil War: that the US government waged and won a war with its national capital located deep in enemy territory.  That the citizens of Maryland therefore spent the war in the midst of a vast armed camp, feeling themselves to be living in occupied territory.  The fact that there was a massive Federal encampment located a scant ten miles away from the Mudd residence was never in fact mentioned by our guide, which might at first seem odd given that it would have provided more evidence for why people like the Mudds would have been less than happy with the Federal government.

Admitting that the Mudds and their neighbors were ardent secessionists, however, is the one thing that was definitely not on the agenda of this site.  As UVA historian Gary Gallagher has pointed out repeatedly (in particular I’d recommend the pair of books The Union War and The Confederate War, as well as Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten about Hollywood portrayals of the war) these days we are all about the myth of reunification, the idea that after the war people came together and forget their differences and all just wanted to get along.  That is our dream, not the reality; 600,000 people don’t die without trailing a cloud of misery and resentment behind them.  That cloud also dissipates only slowly over time.  Thus another part of the story in which this site is embedded is that Maryland remains more than a little reticent about its “Federal occupation” period.  The sites that are marked today are those where you can still breathe the aroma (or at least catch a faint whiff) of Southern Glory; other sites that transformed the economy and even the physical landscape of the region, like the large Federal winter camp near Edwards Ferry, are unmarked and unremembered.

The two most remarkable aspects of the site are those that were for its inhabitants the stuff of the everyday.  That here, where you are standing, a group of people lived out their lives believing that they were entitled to own another set of human beings, and that they saw no conflict between that right and their laws or religion.  And then, in another story that was once alluded to by our guide but never discussed, after emancipation many former slaves stayed on to work on the farms of those who had once owned them body and soul.

Sadly, ignoring these histories is all too common, particularly (but certainly not exclusively) in the South, where there is a vested interest in portraying slavery as a kind of “add-on” bonus fact, as if it were somehow extraneous to the lives of southern slaveholders.  It wasn’t.  It was integral to who these people were and to how they lived, and you can’t understand them without understanding that their world revolved around owning other people.

Booth's escape route.

The trail stretching into the distance marks the escape route of Booth and Herold after they left the Mudd residence. Perhaps they were fleeing the ghosts.

The Great Leveler

St. Mary's Church

St. Mary’s Church. The original church was heavily damaged by fire in the 1960s and subsequently rebuilt.

From the Mudd residence it was a short run back through Bryantown to the church at St. Mary’s where Samuel Mudd and his wife are buried.  Actually there are a lot of Mudds buried there.  Apart from the 9 children that Samual and Sarah had, the extended family was a prominent one in the region.

I love poking around in old cemeteries.  Gravestones contain so many fragments of stories, and it is always fun to try and imaginatively fill in the missing elements.  The nineteenth-century was also the height of elaborate tombstone architecture.  For those that could afford it, that is; gravestones are thus often a rough indicator of the relative wealth of a family, and St. Mary’s offered no shortage of elaborate individual monuments.

Misguided Angel

Even Angels age badly.

I had some trouble locating the Mudds’ grave initially but the reason I missed it was because it was so prominent; a new headstone right up front near the parking lot.

Mudd Grave

Last resting place of Sam and Sarah Mudd.

What probably catches your attention, as it did mine, is the two little flags placed off to one side.  Forget about Mudd’s involvement or non-involvement in the assassination plot.  The fact that he was a secessionist and a slave-owner makes the inclusion of the Federal flag all but incomprehensible.  In fact, the vague rumbling noise I heard as I rode away from the church may have been Mudd spinning frantically in his grave.  Just more evidence of Gallagher’s thesis, however: that we now want to believe that people’s pre-Civil war beliefs were held so shallowly that everyone magically forgot all about their differences in the wake of the war.


No bike ride in this vicinity would be complete without a stop at one of my favorite places, St. Ignatius Chapel.  My partner and I stumbled upon this place by accident on a bike ride many years ago, then for a while couldn’t remember where it was.  Set high on a bluff overlooking the Port Tobacco river, St. Ignatius is one of the oldest Catholic parishes in the US.  When my partner and I first discovered it we arrived along St. Chapel road from the North which is lumpy and features a sharp little climb up to the chapel.  This time I approached from the east, a much gentler proposition.  But the view is still stunning, looking out across the surprisingly broad  Port Tobacco with the Potomac beyond, as vast as an inland sea near the point where it empties into the even more expansive Chesapeake.

The view from St. Ignatius

Looking over the Port Tobacco river from St. Ignatius chapel.

It is a quiet, calm, contemplative spot graced by another satisfyingly aged cemetery that spills down the hill toward the swampy fringes of the river.  I took some time just leaning against the cemetery fence, watching the late afternoon sun play across the water, listening to the stiff westerly breeze rattle the dry brush, still leafless as it waits for this spring that never seems to want to arrive.

In a day of exploring I accumulated about 60 miles and arrived back at the car tired, hungry, a little troubled–but also energized, happy, and intellectually stimulated.  The region’s vexed relationship with its history aside, the beauty all around made me keen to come back and do some more exploring.


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