Jack Bowen, who grew up in Laurel on 7th St. during the 1940s and 50s, recalled playing in the rubble of the old Laurel cotton mill. He played on the undefeated 1955 Laurel High football team and graduated in 1956. After graduating from Western Maryland College, he became a research chemist.
He was a member of the Laurel Volunteer Rescue Squad from 1955 until he left Laurel for good. That was in 1965, when he was sent to Hawaii for a work project and ended up staying. He got the collecting bug around 1980. In 1995, he became one of the first collectors on eBay. Over the years he has built up a network of sources for referrals to items.
He travels to Laurel at least once a year and makes time to attend auctions and estate sales. He said his collection grew so fast and so large that his home in Hawaii looked like “Fred Sanford’s house. One thing led to another without thinking about it.”
His collection includes so many Civil War artifacts that he loaned the Laurel Historical Society almost all of the items on display for their 2013 exhibit, “Stationed in Laurel—Our Civil War Story.” Although the Civil War dominates his collection, he is interested in any Laurel artifact before 1965, the year he relocated to Hawaii. “The older the stuff, the better.” His collection includes a U.S. flag that flew over the Laurel cotton mill during the Civil War, and the 1883 iron skeleton keys to the mill.
Bowen says there’s no end in sight for his collecting: “It’s a labor of love.”
Letters from a Civil War Soldier Stationed at Laurel Factory
The following four (4) letters were each written to family members at home by Pvt. William De Bell, 109th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, while he was stationed at Laurel Factory, Maryland. (As noted above, the town was also variously called Laurel Station, Camp Laurel, and simply Laurel during the Civil War years.) The entire letters are shown here and significant passages are excerpted below each letter. I have corrected the spelling in several instances to make the passage easier to read.
Camp Laurel, Md., January 19, 1863.
“Dear Sister …” The rebel inhabitants around here are getting pretty bold. Every time that they catch one of our soldiers in their village drunk they pile on them and give them a devil of a pounding. Our drum major has come out on duty today for the first time since New Years. This is on account of a pounding he received on that night from a set of Sesesh rowdies. It is getting so that it is unsafe for a soldier to walk the streets alone at night. There is a splendid covered bridge across the Patuxent River about sixty rods (approx.. 1000 feet) from our camp and there is a toll house and gate at the end of it. Well, night before last a crowd went there, smashed up the things in the house, threw the stove outdoors, smashed that to pieces, and then set the bridge on fire and decamped. By the exertions of the toll taker, the fire was extinguished and the bridge saved. There is a crowd going up to town some night so as to coax the Rebs out and then pitch in and if there is not more than one funeral the next day, I’ll wonder. No one is allowed to go outside of the camp on account of the Small Pox which is spreading in the village. One man died with it the other day.
Laurel, Md., February 18, 1863.
“Dearest Sister, Mother and Friends” … The day you left it commenced snowing and snowed all night and day and the snow is about 10 inches deep and today about noon it commenced raining and it is raining yet. It is very nasty out tonight and I pity the poor fellows on guard and feel very thankful I am not on. I am afraid this storm will be the death of many a poor fellow. That poor fellow of Capt Garman’s company died yesterday about 11 o’clock.
Laurel Station, February 19, 1863.
“Dear Sister ” … (Pvt De Bell has been hospitalized at Laurel Factory and is now recovering from his illness.) I am getting along very well. I think I shall go to camp about Monday if not before. I have been outdoors on the stoop and go downstairs to my meals. The wind is blowing very hard and it is awful muddy, I don’t think I ever saw it any muddier in my life than it is here now. The snow is all gone and the sun is shining very beautiful. To look out of the window, it looks like a splendid Spring morning but the howling winds whistle around this old shacky hospital until it fairly cracks and I don’t know but it will go down.
(The hospital De Bell writes about was located on the northeast corner of today’s Main and C Streets.)
Laurel, Md., April 18, 1863.
“Dearest and Ever Dear Ma …” We have had general muster today for the purpose of finding out how many able-bodied men we have that are fit for duty and all of those that are not fit, they are going to discharge and fill their places with drafted men. Oh! I am so glad I enlisted for I know that some of those cowards that stayed at home will get drafted and I hope that they will for according to what I hear the most of them that have stayed home have turn copperheads—that Is Sesesh. This war might have been all closed and we all been in our home sweet homes long ago if it had not been for so many traitors and speculators. If they would only put the Privates in place of the officers, I think it would soon end but there is too much money to be made yet as if they would reduce their pay down to that of a Private it would be a great deal better. Don’t you think so?
Laurel’s Role in the Civil War
Laurel, Maryland, is not a location that appears often in Civil War historical accounts. No battles were fought here, no events of national historical importance occurred in Laurel between 1861 and 1865. Yet, the presence of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad line from the north to Washington, D.C., the only such connection with the nation’s capital. Geography catapulted Laurel – known as Laurel Factory and Laurel Station at that time – into the pivotal role as protector of this critical line against rebel attack and damage.
This critical rail line ran from Baltimore, through Relay, to Annapolis Junction, just 3.5 miles from Laurel. The line branched there with one branch going to Annapolis and the other Laurel Factory to Washington. A base camp known as Camp Kelsey was quickly established at Annapolis Junction and the Union troops stationed there were tasked with protecting the railroad from Relay to Washington. The first unit so assigned was the 10th Maine Infantry Regiment, followed by the 109th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment from October, 1861, until May, 1864. The 109th NY Infantry was commanded by Colonel Benjamin Franklin Tracy and later by Colonel Isaac Catlin. It consisted of ten companies, designated A through K; there was no J Company. The company headquarters was located near today’s Little Montgomery Street and US 1 South. After General Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia in April, 1865, members of the Potomac Home Brigade remained at Laurel Factory until September, 1866, to facilitate the transition back to civilian life.
Private William H. De Bell enlisted in the Union Army at Danby, New York, on Augst 1, 1862. The 18-year-old Private was mustered into Company A of the 109th New York Volunteer Infantry on August 12, 1862. He was killed in action at Weldon Railroad near Petersburg, Virginia, on August 19, 1864.
Letters from Pvt William De Bell to his mother and sister while he was stationed in Laurel Factory. Note that he refers to the area as ‘Laurel Station’ in each letter.