Long-time Prince George's County residents take for granted what recent transplants soon learn: national news is our local news. The events of the Civil War may be dusty history for much of the nation but the family names still live here, in the descendants of the key players in the conflict and on landmarks reaching from Washington, D.C., past Joint Base Andrews through Confederate-sympathizing Southern Maryland to the rebellious South.
"As Americans we tend to think that to do tourist things and learn about history means we have to travel, but the Civil War is both national history and a local story," said Surratt House Museum Executive Director Susan Proctor.
Surratt House Museum explores the first stop on John Wilkes Booth's escape route after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. The museum occupies the home of Mary Surratt, the first woman to be executed by the federal government. Surratt was convicted of conspiracy to assassinate the president by the courts of her day. At Surratt House Museum, her guilt or innocence is a matter of debate for tour groups and school children who come to see things first hand and weigh the facts as they have come to light in the intervening 150 years.
"We never know what's going to happen. Each group hears the same presentation, and sometimes Mary Surratt is found guilty, and other times she is found innocent," said Proctor. "It all depends on what each group brings to the experience, where they're coming from."
What is beyond debate is that long before the assassination, John Surratt ran a tavern out of the family home which became a trusted way station and safe house for Confederate spies, sympathizers, couriers and others hoping to change history. Though Maryland was officially part of the Union, Prince George's County's voter rolls yielded only a single vote for Abraham Lincoln in the 1864 Presidential election. For Southern-leaning travelers, there was no better place to stop for rest, a drink, an evening of gambling or a night's stay than with the like-minded Surratt family and their guests.
Mary Surratt was widowed and running a boarding house in Washington, D.C. during the days leading up to the Lincoln assassination, but her Clinton-area home was still operating as a tavern, post office,, election polling place and gathering spot for Southern sympathizers. It was a natural place for Booth to stop on his way out of the area, whether or not Surratt knew the injured man would be there. The home also was used as a hiding place for a pair of weapons owned by members of the assassination conspiracy.
Surratt House Museum portrays life as it was for the Surratt family and their visitors, and gives a glimpse into slave life as well, in its presentation of information on Aunt Rachel, a slave who eventually spoke about her experience working for the Surratt family in interviews with the Washington Star newspaper. The museum is furnished with period pieces, including several items which were once owned by John and Mary Surratt when they lived there. Tours of the museum explore women's roles in society, the influence of faith on life--and of circumstances of the day on the operations of religious organizations, slavery and emancipation, states' rights and the fight for freedom, insurrection and daily life under what Proctor calls the "iron fist" Lincoln employed to keep the Union whole.
Open since 1976, Surratt House Museum was the first public house museum to open in Prince George's County. An annual budget of approximately $200,000 and other funding from the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission is supplemented by donations and volunteers from the Surratt Society, said Museum Director Laurie Verge.
The museum hosts a changing exhibit. This year's theme is "Maryland: A house divided." The museum will be closed for the month of January for repairs and replastering due to last year's earthquake, and will re-open with a new exhibit in Feb. 2013. Tours run approximately 45 minutes to one hour. The grounds also host a research facility and library open to the public for onsite research into the Civil War, the Lincoln assassination, local history, and the contributions of women and African-Americans by appointment Wednesdays through Fridays.
The museum will host The Legend of Civil War Santa noon - 4 p.m. Dec. 15. Tour the decorated house and hear tales from the ages told by Santa himself.
Admission to Surratt House Museum is $3, $2 for seniors ages 60 and older, $1 for students ages 5-18, and free for younger children. For information call 301-868-1121 or visit www.pgparks.com.