The Confederate Army's "Old South Ball" at the University of Maryland: Fact or Fiction?

A depiction of a stereotypical "Old South Ball."
A depiction of a stereotypical "Old South Ball."

Being south of the Mason-Dixon line, Maryland is technically a southern state, although today many in the state and further south would vehemently disagree. But in 1861, Maryland was assuredly a slave state and a hotbed of Confederate sympathy. In fact, had it not been for the Federal Army’s occupation of Baltimore, many historians assume the Old Line State would have seceded from the Union. (The state anthem, to this day, is a call for secession, urging Marylanders to “spurn the Northern scum” and “burst the tyrant’s chain” – full text here. Bizarrely, it’s also set to the tune of “O Christmas Tree.”) These pro-Southern sentiments – musical and otherwise – provide an intriguing backdrop to one of the University of Maryland’s most persistent rumors.[1]

In the 1860s, the University was a much smaller institution known as the Maryland Agricultural College. Campus legend has it that the Confederate army camped at the College during its 1864 advance on Washington, and that the college president threw the soldiers an “Old South Ball,” providing them with a banquet, entertaining officers at the University’s Rossborough Inn, and inviting the whole town to party with them. George Callcott summarized the rumored shindig in the 2005 edition of his history of the University:

"...Confederate General Bradley T. Johnson, a Marylander, swept through with at least 400 men, threatening Washington from the rear. On July 11 [1864], Johnson set up headquarters in the Rossborough Inn, and his men camped around it. Students and officials at the College welcomed them warmly. That evening, College officials provided food for the soldiers, and young women appeared from the surrounding neighborhood. Fifes and fiddles came out, and partying lasted into the night[.]"[2]

But concrete details are sketchy because, as the legend goes, the University covered up the incident when questioned by the Union army. Indeed, even today, several official University sources take care to distance the institution from rumors of Confederate sympathies, calling them “accusations, never substantiated.”[3]

So did this “Old South Ball” actually take place?

Many at the time certainly thought so. A few days after the supposed ball, a large controversy erupted after an extremely dramatic article in the pro-Union Washington Republican, later reprinted in the Baltimore American, condemned the supposed actions of the College: “Who invited five hundred invaders to a collation where the luxuries of the season were supplied with a lavish munificence? Do you know, President Onderdonk of the Agricultural College? Do you, Dr. Johns and Dr. Wordon?” and later declaring “Better far that it should have been burned to the ground by the enemy than thus disgraced.”[4]

The College vigorously denied holding the “feast”, with President Henry Onderdonk and chemistry professor Montgomery Johns - who were both named in the original article as inviting and welcoming the Confederates - publishing public refutations of the accusations in the American.[5] Onderdonk said that the people at the College gave the Confederates “nothing but bread and butter,” and that he was not even present at the time. Johns’ account claimed that the Confederates “occup[ied] in their transit over College farm about forty-five minutes.” If Johns was to be believed,[6] the Southerners barely had enough time to stretch their legs, let alone attend a lavish ball. Despite the faculty's protests, however, a government investigation ensued, as part of the loyalty investigations headed by Levi C. Turner and Lafayette C. Baker. Witnesses testified to federal officials as early as July 15, and one officer recommended that six professors, including Dr. Johns, should be "arrested at once." [7]

President Henry Onderdonk, on the left, and Confederate General Bradley T. Johnson, on the right. (Image Sources: St. James School Archives and Library of Congress, respectively.)
President Henry Onderdonk, on the left, and Confederate General Bradley T. Johnson, on the right. (Image Sources: St. James School Archives and Library of Congress, respectively.)

There is a jumbled and confused mess of accounts both modern and historic, contradicting each other in many ways. Reports vary as to how many Confederates were in Gen. Johnson’s party, ranging from 400 to 2,000.[8] Claims range from faculty being forced to give the Southerners bread at gunpoint to them opening up a special store of whiskey to the officers. Further complicating the story is the fact that the College’s records of the Confederate visit and subsequent investigation, if they ever existed, were almost certainly destroyed in the fire of 1912, which consumed almost every building on campus.

The Rossborough Inn in the early 20th century. (Source: Library of Congress.)
The Rossborough Inn in the early 20th century. (Source: Library of Congress.)

However, there are a few facts we can be sure of. Confederate Gen. Bradley Johnson’s troops were undeniably on the College’s campus on July 12, 1864 (not July 11th as claimed above), while on the way to Washington. They arrived at about 5 or 6 PM, and Johnson set up his headquarters in the independently owned Rossborough Inn, where he was served food and drink. It is also undeniable that there were significant Confederate sympathies at the Maryland Agricultural College, both during and after the war. Twenty-seven students and faculty from the College left to join the Confederate army, while only nine students joined the Union forces.[9] (Considering the college had an enrollment of only 78 in 1860, these numbers are quite significant.)

There is no doubt that the people at the College did provide some aid to Johnson and his troops when they arrived; if the eyewitness reports are to be believed, that aid was significant. By all accounts, the people at the College certainly gave the Confederate soldiers food. Witnesses from the town claimed that they saw President Onderdonk “wav[ing] his hat” at the approaching Confederate troops, inviting them onto College grounds. One witness even claimed that he saw Dr. Johns leave with the Confederates to show them the way, not returning until the next day. This evidence was pretty damning in the eyes of the investigators, and by August 1, Union Maj. A. Bingham called on presidential authority to issue an order for Onderdonk’s arrest.[7]

A memo regarding Major Bingham’s arrest order. (Source: National Archives)
A memo regarding Major Bingham’s arrest order. (Source: National Archives)

Still, although the College seems to have helped the Confederates a great deal, there remains no evidence that any kind of ball ever took place. While the Confederate soldiers certainly spent time on College grounds, the soldiers don’t even seem to have spent the night at the College, with the troops supposedly having left by 11 PM - certainly, not enough time for a ball.[10] There was also no record of a ball in the papers of Gen. Johnson or the letters of the townspeople, including one young woman who had kept records of many other events held at the College.[11] Eventually, the College and the faculty were cleared of the charges of disloyalty, although Onderdonk ended up resigning the next year under the weight of the scandal.

Despite the legends and conflicting reports, the University of Maryland’s “Old South Ball” seems to be strictly in the realm of legend. However, with all the Confederate sympathies at the College, you can see why people would believe this story; it’s an apt summation of how deep pro-South feeling ran in Civil War-era Prince George’s County.

More information:

“A College Divided: Maryland Agricultural College and the Civil War” - 2011 exhibit at the University of Maryland’s Hornbake Library showcasing the college’s involvement with the war: https://www.flickr.com/photos/digitalcollectionsum/sets/72157627926445918/. Special thanks to Anne Turkos and Malissa Ruffner, the authors of this exhibit, who were both extremely helpful in pointing me towards useful sources.

Richard P. Cox, Civil War Maryland: Stories from the “Old Line State,”  (The History Press, 2008.)

Footnotes

  1. ^ In the early years of the College, slaves worked on the “model farm” along with the students, and many of the early College buildings were built by slaves, in whole or in part. (George Callcott, A History of the University of Maryland, (Maryland Historical Society, 1966), 158.)
  2. ^ George Callcott, A History of the University of Maryland, (New York: Noble House, 2005), 28. This quote can be found on the University tour’s website. “University of Maryland Virtual Tour: Then & Now - The Rossborough Inn,” accessed June 10, 2015,http://www.umiacs.umd.edu/~jimmylin/LBSC690-Final-Project-Gallery/200709-UMD-virtual-tour/rossborough.html.
  3. ^ “Past Presidents,” accessed June 10, 2015,http://www.president.umd.edu/pastpres/onderdonk/.
  4. ^ “Disloyalty Unmasked [From the Washington Republican.]” Baltimore American, July 22, 1864.
  5. ^ “The Maryland State Agricultural College,” Baltimore American, July 27, 1864; “Another Contradiction of the Republican’s Statement,” Baltimore American, July 27, 1864.
  6. ^ He wasn't.
  7. a, b Turner-Baker files, case file 4091, National Archives.
  8. ^ Ibid.; United States War Department, The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Volume XXXVII, Part 2 (Government Print Office, 1891), 283.
  9. ^ “A College Divided: Maryland Agricultural College and the Civil War” The Confederate ties at Maryland Agricultural College go far beyond just that; one future faculty member, Thomas Nelson Conrad, was a Confederate spy during the war, passing information about Union General Ambrose Burnside’s movements to General Robert E. Lee. Three subsequent presidents of the College were ex-Confederate officers; Robert E. Lee’s son was even nominated for MAC president not two years after the war was over, but he - probably wisely - declined.
  10. ^ Robert Crawley, “People still wonder about Old South Ball,” Washington Times, February 16, 2002.
  11. ^ Ibid.; George Callcott, A History of the University of Maryland, (Maryland Historical Society, 1966), 158. This young lady, Floride Clemson, was both a social butterfly and John C. Calhoun’s granddaughter, so you can bet if there was any Confederate-centric social gathering she would have been at the center of it.
Last Updated: 
December 15, 2020