by Geoff Fox
James Breathed came to Hancock as a physician after serving as an artillerist in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. In 2003, a small park along Main Street was named after him.
Now, 18 years later, the Hancock Historical Society is looking to rename the park to encompass the entire Civil War era history of the town.
No Confederate history will be removed from the park, but more Union history discovered in the last 13 years, along with some Confederate history, will be added. Information regarding the Underground Railroad would also be added.
Former mayor Dan Murphy, who is president of the Hancock Historical Society, brought the request to rename the park to town officials for their consideration last week.
Town officials unanimously approved changing the name from Breathed Park to a name chosen by the Historical Society. That new name will be brought back to officials at the next town meeting.
Murphy said the use of Breathed’s name, as a soldier coming back from the war to become a physician in town, qualified the park to be part of the historic Maryland Civil War Trail.
Since 2003, Murphy said the Historical Society has learned “a whole lot more” about the history of the Civil War in Hancock.
Because of that, the Historical Society is looking to expand the scope of Breathed Park to include more about events and people in Hancock during the Civil War.
Murphy listed off some of the Civil War activity the Historical Society has documented since the park was established.
Among those were the shelling of Hancock in January 1862 by “Stonewall” Jackson and the Battle of Hancock, an 1864 raid of Hancock by John McCausland, and Union soldier William Henry Perkins who came to Hancock after the war to practice medicine.
“We would like to incorporate uniqueness of the fact that Maryland was a border state and Hancock was a border town in a border state,” Murphy said.
Murphy noted there were citizens in Hancock who fought for both the Union and Confederacy during the Civil War. Two of those men came back to town to start over as doctors.
Another piece of Civil War history the Historical Society is striving to uncover in the town’s history might have be connected to the Underground Railroad.
Murphy said the Historical Society received a “hot tip” about the possibility Hancock could have been a stop on the route fleeing slaves took from Virginia (now West Virginia) on their way to Pennsylvania.
There is documentation of in a book noting Hancock was a site on the Underground Railroad, but no documentation yet of the exact crossing of the Potomac River.
The Fulton County Historical Society created a map of sites and sites are known, however Historical Society members cannot find the map they have.
“We would love to share that story,” he said.
Those pieces of history, he said, are important to know in possibly expanding the documented history of the town.
Changing the name of the park that talks about one individual to the likes of “Hancock Civil War Heritage Park” could tell the story of the entire history of the conflict in Hancock.
“Who knows, we may learn more before we finish the park,” Murphy said.
There are grants available for the Civil War Trails, and the Historical Society will be involved in finding funding for upgrades to the park.
Murphy said the group didn’t want to put too many historical markers or military markers within the small park and its greenery.
It isn’t a high dollar project, just updates to existing signs and adding new informational signs, Murphy said.
The town already has Civil War Trail signs at the intersection of Canal Street and Church Street documenting the use and damage of St. Thomas Episcopal Church during Jackson’s shelling of Hancock.
Mayor Tim Smith said he thinks it’s a good idea to update the name of the park and feels, with the documentations of the Civil War history, it’s more than just Breathed Park.
Councilwoman Misty Cubbage said the town is rich in Civil War history and the renaming of the park is a wonderful idea.
“We fought both sides,” she said. “We should tell the story.”
Councilman David Kerns said since the Historical Society was doing the legwork with the Civil War history, they should talk about a possible new name and bring it to the next town meeting.
Murphy said the name would also be run through the Park Board as well.
Reaction to renaming
After last week’s town meeting, the move to rename the park got some backlash on social media.
One person said it was pitiful the Historical Society would suggest changing the name of the park, calling for the organization to be disbanded and the name changed to “society of political correctness.”
Another suggested the name was being changed to not offend anyone.
After the meeting, Murphy addressed those people who would feel this way regarding the name change.
Over the last number of years, there has been a push to remove statues of Confederate soldiers and renaming of buildings, schools, parks, and roads carrying the name of a Confederate soldier.
Murphy said new historical information is a “legitimate reason to change the name” of the park, because the history of the town is expanding.
“When we founded that park 18 years ago, we had one name to work with and that’s kinda what we went with,” he said.
He admitted the Historical Society and town knew about the shelling, but they chose to use Breathed’s name.
Regarding Breathed’s contributions to the town, Murphy said, “We can tell that story but not elevate the Confederate and make a hero out of someone who fought against the United States,” he said.
Murphy, who considers himself a historian of the Civil War and someone who is very interested student in the war, feels comfortable moving forward with the name change.
The stories and history of the Confederate forces isn’t going away as the story of “Stonewall” Jackson shelling Hancock will still be told, Murphy said, but so will the story of Union General Landers defending Hancock at the same time. So will the story of McCausland’s raid and Union General Averell chasing him out of Hancock.
“We’ll try to cover the bases of what happened as the war effort, but the reality is the story of Breathed is not what he did in the Civil War,” Murphy said. Breathed was not a Hancock boy who went off to war, but a man who made Hancock his home after the war.
Murphy said he has never been comfortable elevating those who were in rebellion, even before it became trendy.
“I was always a Union man,” he said.