During my visit to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, I decided to visit another historic building that is located just south of Frederick, Md., in Urbana. It’s long been on my bucket list because it was visited by the legendary General J.E.B. Stuart during the Civil War. Needless to say, the setting it around it has changed quite a bit.
The above artwork by Dale Gallon depicts the site, which was the scene of the famous Saber and Roses Ball in 1862 during the Maryland Campaign.
Painting description: After saying goodbye to Anne Cockey at a ball in Urbana, MD, on Sept. 8, 1862, J.E.B. Stuart and his men attack and drive off nearby Yankee raiders.
The building in the background of this beautiful painting still stands, though it is now bordered by major highways and noisy commercial establishments. Known as the Landon House (and as the Stancioff House), the large three-story frame house has a notable two-story full length galleried porch that makes it easily recognizable in the surrounding urban sprawl.
The romantic story of the legendary Saber and Roses Ball involves dashing cavalry, local belles, and gallant combat between dances. I first heard about the event when reading the memoirs of Heros von Borcke, a Prussian officer who came to America to take part in the war. He served under General J.E.B. Stuart, and the two became good friends.
According to von Borcke, the ball came about quite by accident when Stuart and his men were encamped in Urbana, Md.
“Leaving to our fair friends the choice of their partners, we were guided by them to a large building, crowning the summit of a gentle hill on the edge of the village, from which a broad avenue of trees sloped downwards to the principal street. The building had been occupied before the breaking out of the war as an academy, but was now entirely deserted, and our footsteps echoed loudly as we walked through its wide, empty halls, once so noisy with human voices.
Each story of the house had its ample verandah running round it, and from the highest of these we had a magnificent view of the village and the surrounding country. The night was calm, the dark blue firmament was besprinkled with myriads of stars, and the moon poured over the landscape a misty bluish light that made it all look unreal. One might have thought it a magical scenic effect of the theatre… had not the camp-fires of our troops and the constant neighing of the horses reminded him of the realities by which he was surrounded.”
Von Borcke notes that, as they were walking through the empty building, General Stuart mentioned that it would be a wonderful place to give a ball in honor of the Confederates’ arrival in Maryland.
“It was at once agreed that the ball should be given. I undertook to make all necessary arrangements for the illumination and decoration of the hall, the issuing the cards of invitation, &c., leaving to Stuart the matter of the music, which he gladly consented to provide…
“A soldier’s life is so uncertain, and his time is so little at his own disposal, that in affairs of this sort delays are always to be avoided; and so we determined on our way home, to the great joy of our fair companions, that the ball should come off on the following evening.”
Von Borcke describes what happened next:
“Invitations to the ball were sent out to all the families in Urbana and its neighborhood, and to the officers of Hampton’s brigade. The large halls of the Academy were aired and swept and festooned with roses, and decorated with battle-flags borrowed from the different regiments.”
The Prussian officer then goes into some detail about the kick-off of the ball and discusses the difference between American and European societal customs before continuing with his tale.
“Louder and louder sounded the instruments, quicker and quicker moved the dancers, and the whole crowded room, with its many exceedingly pretty women and its martial figures of officers in their best uniforms, presented a most striking spectacle of gaiety and enjoyment.
Suddenly enters an orderly covered with dust, and reports in a loud voice to General Stuart that the enemy have surprised and driven in our pickets and are attacking our camp in force, while at the same moment the sound of shots in rapid succession is distinctly borne to us on the midnight air.
The excitement which followed this announcement I cannot undertake to describe. The officers rushed to their weapons and called for their horses, while the young ladies ran to and fro in most admired despair. General Stuart maintained his accustomed coolness and composure. Our horses were immediately saddled, and in less than five minutes we were in rapid gallop to the front.”
The Confederates soon found that things were by no means so desperate as they had been represented — so of course they returned to the scene of the ball!
“It was about one o’clock in the morning when we got back to the Academy, where we found a great many of our fair guests still assembled, awaiting with breathless anxiety the result of the conflict. As the musicians had never dispersed, General Stuart ordered them again to strike up…
“The dancing was resumed in less than half an hour, and kept up till the first glimmer of dawn. At this time the ambulances laden with the wounded of last night’s engagement were slowly approaching the Academy, as the only building at Urbana that was at all suited to the purposes of an hospital. Of course the music was immediately stopped and the dancing ceased, and our lovely partners in the quadrille at once became ‘ministering angels’ to the sufferers.”
I am very glad that this building still stands, though blacktop now surrounds this once-majestic home and the roar of nearby traffic detracts from its graceful bearing. The structure has gone through a number of owners in the last dozen years, and was last used as a wedding and large event venue.
It is marked as private property.