Are we Northern? Southern? Yes.

March 28, 2010
Frederick N. Rasmussen

Brian Witte, an Associated Press writer, recently revived an old debate that’s been going on since Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865, when the Army of Northern Virginia stacked its arms, parked its artillery and furled its flags for the last time at Appomattox Court House, Va.

The bloody Civil War had at long last come to an end with a handshake in the parlor of Wilmer McLean’s house.

It was the first time the two opposing generals, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, had met since their days as young Army officers serving in Mexico during the Mexican War.

"Though Marylanders live just south of the Mason-Dixon Line, their attitudes and even their accents straddle that border," Witte wrote.

"These days, leaders feel they have more in common with states to the north. In one sign of the shift, lawmakers successfully petitioned to move from the Southern Region of the Council of State Governments to the Eastern Region, where they’ll be able to trade ideas with fellow officials from Pennsylvania, New York, and other states they consider more like-minded," he wrote.

State lawmakers such as Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, a Baltimore Democrat, told Witte, "I just don’t think we’re as Southern as people used to think" while Robert J. Brugger, author of "Maryland, a Middle Temperament 1634-1980," who is regional book editor for the Johns Hopkins Press, said, "It’s still too bad, inasmuch as Maryland really is North and South. It’s a shame to have to choose."

About every decade or so, that old chestnut of whether we’re residents of the Frostbelt or Sunbelt is dragged out of mothballs, and after the winter that just ended, folks might feel it’s the former.

But wait.

The searing heat and humidity of the coming Maryland summer is surely lurking in the furnace room of hell, and when it arrives, it can be just as horrifically uncomfortable as that found in such latitudes as Charleston’s Catfish Row or along the Mississippi Delta.

But regional distinctions and diversity are more than just simply weather-related. They’re about attitudes. Ethnicity. Social customs. Food. Business outlook. Regional interests. Geographic diversity.

Maryland is in many ways three states in one – all below the Mason-Dixon line, to be sure. Residents of far off Western Maryland, closer to Pittsburgh than Baltimore, tend to follow those professional sports teams. I remember being at Deep Creek Lake in the early 1980s trying to find a Baltimore newspaper and instead being confronted with stacks of Pittsburgh papers.

The Eastern Shore looks to the South, while the central part of the state looks every which way on the compass, it seems.

And just because we find ourselves below the Mason-Dixon line doesn’t make us Southern. It was the 1861 arrival of Gen. Benjamin F. "Beast" Butler that "effectively squelched the strong popular movement designed to sweep Maryland into the Lost Cause of the Confederate States of America," wrote Gerald W. Johnson, the Baltimore historian, author and essayist, in a 1978 article in The Baltimore Sun.

And when the Civil War ended, its "immediate effect was to reduce Baltimore for 40 years to something closely resembling the Biblical Abomination of Desolation by the utter destruction of this city’s most profitable trading area, the Southeastern states from Virginia to Florida, and along the Gulf Coast to New Orleans," wrote Johnson.

The rise of the modern South in the 20th century with its industries, railroads, universities and burgeoning financial centers like Richmond, Va., Charlotte and Winston-Salem, N.C., and Atlanta helped reduce the South’s dependence on Yankee manufactured goods and capital.

The Old South was transformed from its old economic base and dependence on cotton and tobacco that was shipped to Northern factories to be turned into saleable goods.

I remember visiting Charleston. S.C., with an old newspaper colleague and friend about 10 years ago, and at dinner one night, I decided to order a Manhattan cocktail.

"You can’t do that in Charleston. Why that’s heresy," he said, sounding a little like Rhett Butler.

When the waitress came to our table to take our cocktail order, I told her I was about to commit a major sin, according to my friend, against the South and particularly Charleston, by ordering a Manhattan.

In an exquisite and lovely Low Country drawl, and without any apparent deliberation, she replied, "That’s all right, Mistuh, the Yankees own Chahhhhlstinn."

"Baltimore once was clearly a Southern city – with all of the pride of the South and all its prejudices," wrote Carl Schoettler, an Evening Sun reporter, in 1977.

"But sometime after World War II the Southern-ness of Baltimore began thinning out like the quality of rye whiskey. Baltimore was becoming more and more like any other city on the Eastern seaboard. North-eastern, at that," he wrote.

It was Schoettler’s conviction that the Old South lingered on in Baltimore in the "hallowed Virginia accents of the remotest upper classes, in the collard greens at Lexington Market and in the memories of the ladies of the United Daughters of the Confederacy."

In 2005, Frank R. Shivers Jr., a Bolton Hill author and historian, repeated for Style Magazine what John F. Kennedy said about Washington and implied the same could be said of Baltimore: "Washington is a town of Northern charm and Southern efficiency."

In 1956, a Tennessee woman wrote to the State Department of Information asking whether Maryland was a Northern or Southern state. The department told her to draw her own conclusion based on the following (which was reprinted in The Baltimore Sun at the time):

1. "Maryland lies south of the Mason and Dixon Line."

2. "Only eleven states in the country produce maple syrup; Maryland is the southernmost state that produces this product."

3. "Almost all Southern states have cypress swamps. Maryland has the northernmost cypress swamp."

4. "Many Northern and Southern states produce tobacco; so does Maryland."

5. "Virginia pines grow in most Southern states; hemlock trees grow in most Northern states; Maryland produces both."

6. "The mockingbird is considered a Southern bird; there are many in Maryland.’

7. "Fried chicken is considered a Southern delicacy; Maryland fried chicken is world famous."

8. "During the War Between the States, sometimes called the Civil War, Maryland had troops in both the Union and Confederate armies."

9. "Maryland’s 175th Infantry is authorized to carry the Confederate flag."

10. "Maryland belongs to the Southern Governor’s Conference."

11. "Maryland belongs to both the Northern and Southern Regional Park Conference."

12. "Maryland belongs to the Federal Government’s Eastern Coastal Migratory Bird Flyway."

13. "At Gettysburg, there are monuments to the Maryland Regiment, U.S.A, and the Maryland Regiment, C.S.A."

14. "At Antietam battlefield, sometimes called Sharpsburg, there is a monument to the memory of the men of Maryland ‘who died here for their convictions.’ "

The department added at the end: "Most Marylanders find it difficult to answer the question. Some consider themselves Southerners; others as Northerners. Perhaps the truth lives between the extremes."

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