- The Enterprise
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The United States was in the heart of the Civil War 150 years ago this year.
While Maryland, a border state, was forced to remain in the Union, the dominant sentiment of Southern Maryland’s white power structure and its slave-holding economy went with the Confederacy.
By 1863, Union forces were frequent visitors in Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s counties. That year, the Union established a military hospital and then a prisoner-of-war camp at Point Lookout, at the southern tip of St. Mary’s County.
There were recruiting stations for black troops established after July 1863 at Forrest Wharf and Leonardtown in St. Mary’s, at Benedict in Charles and at Lower Marlboro in Calvert. The U.S. War Department offered $300 for owners who turned over their slaves for recruitment.
Just as owners feared would happen with the election of Abraham Lincoln, slavery, which was established by Colonial Maryland law in 1664, was crashing down. The institution would formally end in Maryland with the third state constitution, which went into effect Nov. 1, 1864, according to the Maryland Manual, after the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in Confederate states.
Crystallizing the sentiments of the area in the presidential election of 1860, a total of eight men in Southern Maryland voted for Abraham Lincoln, one vote each in Calvert and St. Mary’s counties and six in Charles.
Slavery and forced labor had been part of daily life in the tobacco plantations of the region for almost 200 years in Maryland. Voters didn’t want to give up that system to a man they saw as a Northern abolitionist.
“This was the Old South, the lifestyle, the life, the plantations, the agrarian economy,” said Brad Gottfried, president of the College of Southern Maryland, who has written eight books on the Civil War. He moved to Southern Maryland in 2006 from New Jersey.
“This was the South. There were plantations. You didn’t have many residents going north,” he said. “And there was a lot of communication between Virginia and Southern Maryland, a natural affinity.”
By 1860, there were approximately 46,000 slaves in the Southern Maryland counties and Prince George’s, Anne Arundel and Montgomery, according to the Maryland State Archives.
Cultivating tobacco doesn’t take a lot of land, but it does require a lot of labor. In the 1860 U.S. Census, there were 3,997 whites counted, 4,609 slaves and 1,841 free African-Americans in Calvert County. In Charles County, the number of whites was 5,796 to 9,653 slaves and 1,068 free African-Americans. In St. Mary’s, there were slightly more whites than slaves, 6,798 to 6,519, and 1,866 free African-Americans.
By 1860, slavery as a national issue could no longer be ignored. The United States continued to grow, and Northern and Southern lawmakers fought to keep some kind of political balance as residents of new territories could vote to perpetuate slavery in new states.
The Supreme Court, in the Dred Scott decision of 1857, ruled that slaves and all African-Americans were not U.S. citizens but were merely an “ordinary article of merchandise,” according to the opinion written by Roger B. Taney, chief justice of the court and a Calvert County native. A Democratic delegation later in 1860 in Leonardtown called for Taney to run for president, rather than the other Democrats on the national ticket.
Earlier that year in St. Mary’s County, editors John Franklin King and James S. Downs, also a Leonardtown attorney, wrote an editorial titled “Federal Law and Northern Opinion” on Jan. 12, 1860, in the St. Mary’s Beacon newspaper, a vocal supporter of Southern interests. They complained that the federal fugitive slave act was being ignored in the North.
They wrote, “There is a strong disunion sentiment at the South or that it is daily gaining strength and force … upon this point, public opinion at the South is nearly unanimous, that a permanent and a radical change in Northern sentiment upon the slavery question is necessary for the peace of the country, if not the perpetuity of the Union.”
In the last gasp of the slavery institution in Maryland, a law passed through the General Assembly in 1860 that would have brought unemployed free African-Americans without a certain amount of property into slavery in multiple counties. The number of free African-Americans in 1860 in Maryland was one of the highest in the nation, according to the Maryland Archives. The state’s entire population was 687,019, with 83,942 free African-Americans and 87,189 slaves, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The bill was originally introduced by Sen. Oscar Miles of St. Mary’s specifically for the county, according to the Port Tobacco Times. The code would be put to a statewide vote in the fall of 1860.
Abolitionists saw slavery for what it was, a dehumanizing evil. Slaveholders thought they were doing a paternal duty for blacks, supposing that they could not do for themselves on their own. “It was the mind-set of the times,” said Don Shomette, author of several books on the history of Southern Maryland.
Del. Curtis M. Jacobs of Worcester County served as the chairman of the Committee on Colored Population. In a speech on Feb. 17, 1860, to the Maryland House of Delegates, Jacobs said of the North, “their theory looks to the entire destruction of the Negro race in this country; for, to emancipate them is equivalent to their extermination.” He added, “The South can take care of the morals of their slaves; let the North control, if they can, the legion of ites and isms that infest society there and drag their people down to hell.”
As the vote on the new slave code neared, the Beacon reported on Oct. 11, 1860, that the St. Mary’s County commissioners appointed patrols for each election district. “It is their duty to visit their respective districts at least once a week at night … and to ‘vigilantly watch all Negro meetings and disperse the same, and to arrest and bring to justice all abolitionists and other persons who may be found violating the laws of this state on the subject of slavery.’”
A letter in the Nov. 2, 1860, edition of The [Baltimore] Sun said the proposed slave code “is inhuman, because it provides for reducing into slavery human creatures who are now free.”
The measure was defeated in the statewide election. In that same election, Maryland supported John Breckinridge, a Southern Democrat, in a four-way race for U.S. president. Lincoln barely won the national election.
“The South knew if Lincoln was elected, he would abolish slavery despite of what he said,” Gottfried said.
In late December 1860, Southern secession began with South Carolina. That same month, a meeting was held in Middletown in northern Charles County to publicly censure the six men of that district who had voted for Lincoln, the Port Tobacco Times reported. The committee named Nathan Burnham as “a Black Republican emissary” and ordered him out of Charles County by Jan. 1, 1861. A member of that committee was Dr. Samuel Mudd, who would later set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth at his home after Booth assassinated Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., in April 1865.
On Dec. 20, 1860, E. Wells, editor of the Port Tobacco Times, wrote in an editorial, “‘In time of peace, prepare for war.’ Lay this to your hearts, Marylanders, and act upon it, not in excitement, but calmly, deliberately, yet determinately.”
Militias had already sprung up in Southern Maryland in 1860. While they also served as social clubs, Gottfried said, “These are paramilitary units set up to protect themselves from military incursion.” For example, a military meeting was called Jan. 22, 1861, in what is today’s Great Mills in St. Mary’s County, “for the protection of our rights, our lives and our firesides,” a post in the Beacon newspaper said.
The Mounted Volunteers of Charles County met in Port Tobacco, according to the Jan. 3, 1861, Port Tobacco Times, asking for subscriptions from the citizens for arms and ammunition because the state had not furnished them. The paper gave notice of several other militias meeting.
In April 1861 came the news that Fort Sumter in South Carolina had fallen, and the Civil War had begun. Those in Southern Maryland were delighted.
“The wildest enthusiasm broke forth among our people, and huzzahs and congratulations and rejoicings were the order of the hour,” reported the St. Mary’s Beacon on April 18, 1861. “We have never witnessed an excitement more general and intense than has prevailed in our midst since the news was received. It indicates in the most unmistakable manner that the sympathies of our people are exclusively with the South.”
“I think the same could be said for all three counties,” Gottfried said.
Indeed. “In 1861, the Confederate flag was flying above the courthouse in Prince Frederick,” Shomette said.
On April 23, 1861, the St. Mary’s County commissioners sought to raise $10,000 from property taxes “for the purpose of purchasing arms and ammunition for our people, in order that they may be enabled to defend their rights.”
The meeting of the Southern Rights Party for Charles County was reported in May 1861.
Union troops soon made expeditions into Southern Maryland, for different reasons. Ten thousand federal troops would be stationed along the western shores of Charles County over the winter of 1861 to 1862 to defend against any Confederate invasion to take Washington, Gottfried said.
In St. Mary’s, Union troops looked for smugglers, and residents “were viewed as the enemy,” he said. “And it didn’t help matters when they started rounding up citizens” in Southern Maryland, sending them to the Old Capitol Prison in the District.
The Port Tobacco Times reported on June 20, 1861, that about 100 federal troops landed at Chapel Point. They went to the home of Samuel Cox, where “they demanded immediate delivery of all State arms in possession,” though none were found. “We expected a visit from them at Port Tobacco but were disappointed so far,” the editor wrote.
“Everybody’s running guns” and other supplies from Southern Maryland to Virginia, Shomette said. In Calvert, supplies were transported across the Patuxent River, over land and then across the Potomac River. Newspapers like the Washington Star would call out the smuggling from Southern Maryland, while local newspaper editors would deny any contraband being found upon federal raids. “They were very clever,” Shomette said. “These guys are not stupid — they have a spy system” to alert them when the Union was coming for a visit.
In late December 1861, a group of 400 Union soldiers and a government detective returned from Southern Maryland with 150 tons of material from a rebel schooner at the mouth of the Patuxent River, four political prisoners and a brass cannon taken near Leonardtown that originated from Baltimore. “The lower Potomac is now guarded from Leonardtown to Point Lookout. The government is determined to break up the contraband trade so long carried on there,” The Sun reported Jan. 2, 1862.