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When a State Song Is a Confederate Battle Cry

Critics say “Maryland, My Maryland" is a disgrace. The governor disagrees.

Wikimedia Commons

What do you do when your state song calls on citizens to rise up in rebellion against the United States government? That’s the question facing Maryland, which is debating whether to scrap the song “Maryland, My Maryland,” whose first line reads: “The despot’s heel is on thy shore.”

Delegate Karen Lewis Young thinks it’s time for Maryland to change it.

“It was a Civil War battle song for the Confederacy,” Young told me. “It calls Abraham Lincoln a tyrant and a despot, it is the only state song that encourages a group of civilians to rise up and rebel against the Union, it makes a reference to ‘Northern scum,’ and I think it’s divisive. I think that—while it does reflect the division in Maryland at the time of the Civil War—it’s not relevant today.”

Young has introduced a bill that would modify “Maryland, My Maryland” by removing the “divisive” language. It would be replaced with words to a different poem about Maryland by John P. White.

“By keeping the third verse, I believe that constitutes a compromise,” she says.

Other legislators want to do away with the song entirely. State Senator Cheryl Kagan introduced a bill that would repeal the “offensive and divisive state song,” and sponsor a contest to create a new one.

“Seven states have chosen their state songs that way,” Kagan said. “With support from state archives and the State Arts Council, historians, and musicians, we would narrow the entries down to between three and ten, and post the finalists on the State Arts Council’s website for people to vote for their favorite. And then next year, the legislature would enact legislation to codify the new state song.”

Not everyone thinks changing the song is a good idea. In fact, a likely detractor of both proposals will be Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican.

“It’s political correctness run amok,” Hogan told The Washington Post in December. “Where do we stop? Do we get rid of the George Washington statues out here and take down all the pictures from all the people from the Colonial era that were slave owners? Do we change the name of Washington County, Carroll County, and Calvert County?”

Legislators have tried and failed to change “Maryland, My Maryland” eight times since it was made the official state song in 1939. But other high-profile controversies over Confederate symbolism have yielded changes in recent months. Most prominently, South Carolina last year ended its 54-year practice of flying the Confederate battle flag on the Capitol grounds after nine black churchgoers were murdered by a Confederate sympathizer in Charleston. And in September 2015, Baltimore County changed the name of Robert E. Lee Park to Lake Roland Park. Given this political climate, a change to the Maryland state song seems imminently possible.

It might seem odd that Maryland—which remained in the Union during the Civil War—has a pro-Confederate anthem as its state song. But Maryland is a border state, torn between North and South in its culture, politics, and economy. The state has a deep and conflicted connection to the Confederacy.

Southern Maryland’s light, sandy soil is perfect for growing tobacco. In his 1988 book Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, historian Eric Foner writes that the state’s 87,000 slaves labored mainly on tobacco plantations, which “recalled the social order of the Deep South.” This meant that—for a minority consisting mainly of wealthy planters in this particular region—there was an economic interest in keeping slaves. And when the Civil War broke out, this same powerful minority supported the Confederate cause.

Before “Maryland, My Maryland” was the state song, it was a poem of the same name by James Ryder Randall. The poem tells the story of Baltimore’s Pratt Street Riot from an anti-Union perspective.

The Pratt Street Riot occurred on April 19, 1861. Following the Battle of Fort Sumter, 75,000 militia soldiers were ordered to Washington to fortify the Union army. When the 6th Massachusetts Infantry changed trains in Baltimore on their way to the capital, they were attacked by Confederate sympathizers. The armed mob threw paving stones at them. Then they fired shots. The militia fired back. By the end of that day, eight rioters, one bystander, and three soldiers were killed. An additional 24 soldiers were wounded, along with an uncounted number of civilians. It was the first bloodshed of the Civil War.

As Randall’s poem goes:

The despot’s heel is on thy shore,
His torch is at thy temple door,
Avenge the patriotic gore
That flecked the streets of Baltimore,
And be the battle queen of yore,
Maryland, My Maryland!

Maryland remained a hotbed of Confederate sympathies throughout the war. In June of 1861, the state voted to secede from the Union, but couldn’t, because it was occupied by Union troops and operating under martial law. As many as 25,000 Marylanders went south to fight for the Confederacy anyway. A group of women known as The Brown Veil Club (or the Monument Street Girls) sewed uniforms for some of these men. And the Confederate battle flag—the infamous stars and bars—was sewn in Baltimore by sisters Hetty and Jennie Cary. The Cary sisters were also responsible for setting Randall’s poem to music. They chose the well-known melody of “Lauriger Horatius”—better known as “O Christmas Tree.”

Interestingly, Unionists wrote a pro-Union version of “Maryland, My Maryland.” But it was the pro-Confederate version of the song that was picked to represent the state in 1939, one of many measures across the South in the post-Reconstruction era that served to undercut the legitimacy of the Union’s cause and reassert white supremacy. 

The controversy over “Maryland, My Maryland” is not without precedent. The neighboring state of Virginia retired its state song, “Carry me Back to Old Virginny,” in 1997. The song was a minstrel ballad sung from the perspective of a slave. “Carry me back to old Virginny/There’s where the cotton and the corn and taters grow,” the song pined. “There’s where the birds warble sweet in the spring-time/There’s where this old darkey’s heart am long’d to go.” Kentucky’s state song, “My Old Kentucky Home,” also contains the word “darky.” A law passed in the 1980s changed the word to “people” for state functions. (Ironically, the song is actually a ballad criticizing slavery.)

There is even controversy over a line in the national anthem. “The Star Spangled Banner”—written by another Marylander, Francis Scott Key—proclaims that, “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.” (The song as commonly sung omits three of its four verses.)

“That line was basically a shot at the slaves who agreed to fight with the British in exchange for their freedom,” writes D. Watkins. “Who wouldn’t want freedom, and how could he not understand them opting out for a better life?”

“You can’t change history, and we’re not going to be able to rewrite history,” Hogan told The Washington Post. “And I don’t think we ought to be changing any of that.”

It’s true that history can’t be changed. More importantly, the profits reaped from slaveholding cannot be erased by merely changing a state song. In a way, “Maryland, My Maryland” is the song Maryland deserves. It hangs like a chain around the state, linking it to a slaveholding past that is often overlooked.