The Baltimore Literary Heritage Project

James Ryder Randall
James Ryder Randall pic
Maryland, His Maryland
The victims of a grand despair,
In long, long ranks of death await
The last loud trump, the judgment-sun,
Which come for all, and, soon or late,
Will come for those at Arlington.
–from "At Arlington"

Like fellow Marylander Francis Scott Key, James Ryder Randall was a 19th century poet and one-hit wonder. Remembered for "Maryland, My Maryland," the poem that in 1939 became Maryland's official state song, Randall was born January 1, 1839 into a wealthy Baltimore family. He shared a tutor with Edgar Allen Poe-although no evidence exists that the two ever met. He attended Georgetown University and won an award in English. During his schooling, he contracted pneumonia twice and remained in fragile health throughout his life.

After graduating and working at several jobs, he became an English and Classics professor at Poydras College in Louisiana. It was while living in Louisiana that he heard about the increasing tensions in his home state.

Home to both avid Unionists and strong-minded Confederate sympathizers, some of whom spent time in jail for their beliefs, the city of Baltimore, as well as many other parts of Maryland, teetered on the edge of the Union during the years leading up to the Civil War. On April 19, 1861, the first blood spilled in that war stained the cobblestones of Pratt Street near Baltimore's President Street [train] Station. Union Soldiers of the 6th Massachusetts Brigade encountered demonstrators on the walk from President Street Station to Camden Station. The demonstrators attacked the soldiers, and people on both sides died.

Federal troops soon occupied the city. Confederate sympathizer Randall, grieved and angered at the thought of the bloodshed in his hometown, wrote the poem "Maryland, My Maryland." Eventually someone set it to an old German folk tune that we know today as "O Christmas Tree." It became popular both in Maryland and throughout the South. (The same melody, by the way, serves as Iowa's state song, "The Song of Iowa;" Florida's former state song, "Florida, My Florida;" and Michigan's unofficial song, "Michigan, My Michigan." Go figure.)

Although he tried to enlist in the Confederate Army, tuberculosis kept him out. He did, though, eventually enter the Confederate Navy. After the war, he became a reporter in Georgia and a popular figure among fans of his song. He married and had several children, including a daughter named Maryland.

He wrote many other poems and did not consider the poem for which he is remembered one of his best. He preferred "At Arlington", which he wrote after a visit to that cemetery. He saw a group of Confederate women turned away at gunpoint by Federal soldiers as they attempted to put flowers on the graves there. Later that night, the story goes, wind blew flowers from the Union graves onto the graves of the Confederate dead.

In 1907, a few months after returning to Baltimore for a Maryland Day celebration at which he was the guest of honor, James Ryder Randall caught cold and died. The State of Maryland awarded Randal's family an annuity of $600 a year.

Legislators, have tried from time to time to change the "Maryland, My Maryland" lyrics. "Maryland has the only state song that calls for the overthrow of the federal government," said one critic, Howard A. Denis, a former state senator, in an interview with the Washington Post. Although one might like to see the words "Northern scum" changed to something friendlier, so far, all efforts to change it have failed.

Places of interest: