In consequence of being asked to speak on this subject for a political event (actually in a rental of the Mumma Barn on the Antietam Battlefield), I have put together this summary of the complex political situation in Maryland leading up to the Civil War, and continuing also into the early months of the conflict. Having served in partisan political activism in Maryland, I am acutely aware of the bitter debates and heated conflicts that permeate state politics. However, the situation in 1861 would certainly dissuade current state senators and delegates from ever desiring a return to “the good old days!” At least none of them are being arrested these days for their viewpoints, though likely some of them should be for the goofy positions they take (and that’s the end of my political posturing – let’s go back to history, which is more fun!).
The state of Maryland in 1860-61 faced the ultimate caught-in-the-middle diagnosis of political and cultural multiple personality disorder. Bordered by Pennsylvania and Virginia, the state shared an agrarianism and slave culture with the South, yet a mercantile environment with the North. With proximity to the capital of Washington, and possessing key harbor and railroad connections, Maryland found itself too much at the focal point of a conflict it did not desire yet could not escape.
As a state that was very diverse in its ethnic and religious composition from the very beginning (exemplified by the Maryland Toleration Act of 1649 – a sort of precursor to the First Amendment), the viewpoints of the citizenry toward the pending conflict ran passionately across the entire spectrum. The areas immediately around the capital and the agrarian, tobacco-growing, slave-empowered Eastern Shore were more decidedly Southern in sympathy, while the central and western regions leaned much more heavily toward the Northern perspective. Baltimore had a total mix of everything, but especially some very angry, vocal, and active Southern adherents. It was a city familiar with violence.
The significant percentage of Marylanders who embraced Southern sympathies did not however possess a necessarily immediate passion and appetite for secession, such as was sweeping through Southern States. Yet again, the abolitionist perspectives of the Republican Party and leanings of their candidate Abraham Lincoln were not popular in the state as well. In fact, Lincoln gained but 2.5% of the total 1860 presidential election votes, and he did not gain even a single vote in seven counties! That is an amazing statistic (though four years later he would tally 55% of the vote).
As Lincoln travelled to Washington in late February to assume the office of the Presidency, a credible plot to kill him in Baltimore was uncovered. It was decided to sneak him through the city surreptitiously on a common passenger train in advance of the publicly-known schedule. In charge of this was the detective Allan Pinkerton, who had the President in a sleeping booth as an allegedly ill traveler when his ticket was handed to the conductor. Lincoln was ultimately much embarrassed by this affair, though yielded to it on the pervasive advice and counsel of all those close to him.
The reality of the threat was clearly evident in the journey of Vice President elect Hannibal Hamlin through Baltimore. A rowdy mob surrounded his train where he could hear comments such as “No damned Abolitionist like Lincoln or Hamlin should enter the White House.” Boarding the train, the rowdies looking for Lincoln simply did not recognize Hamlin when face to face with him.
The truly violent nature of such crowds in Baltimore became quite manifest just two months later on April 19th. Merely a week after the attack upon Fort Sumter in the Charleston, SC harbor, the 6th Massachusetts was passing through Baltimore on the way to Washington. It was necessary for them to march a number of blocks from one train station to another. A mob of secessionists and Southern sympathizers attempted to block the route, throwing cobblestones and bricks at the troops, and hurling insults. In consequence, the firing of a shot set off a full-scale riot and chaos, out of which four soldiers and a dozen citizens were killed.
The incident inspired the writing of a poem by James Ryder Randall which became the song “Maryland, My Maryland” – which yet remains as the official state song. It was played and sung by Confederate troops as they crossed into Maryland in the Antietam Campaign of 1862. The words are rather shocking, quite frankly … speaking of the need to “spurn the Northern scum” and “burst the tyrant’s chain.”
Baltimore continued in a state of unrest for many weeks. A delegation of the leading city citizens went to Lincoln to complain about troops crossing Maryland. To them, Lincoln said, “We must have troops, and as they can neither crawl under Maryland nor fly over it, they must come across it.” He further vented some frustrations with them by saying, “You, gentlemen, come here to me and ask for peace on any terms, and yet have no word of condemnation for those who are making war on us. You express great horror of bloodshed, and yet would not lay a straw in the way of those who are organizing in Virginia and elsewhere to capture this city. The rebels attack Fort Sumter, and your citizens attack troops sent to the defense of the Government, and the lives and property in Washington, and yet you would have me break my oath and surrender the Government without a blow.”
Accommodations were made to funnel troops rather by way of Annapolis. Lincoln also helped to defuse the situation by promising Governor Hicks and Baltimore’s Mayor Brown that troops were for the defense of Washington, not for an attack upon the South.
Governor Hicks decided to call the Maryland legislature into session on April 26 – meeting in Frederick to avoid the more charged atmosphere of Annapolis with Union troops, etc. Among those attending were 10 recently elected delegates from Baltimore who were known as secessionist in ideology. The aggressive Union General Benjamin Butler was desirous of the President’s authority to “bag the whole nest of traitorous Maryland legislators,” But Lincoln was unwilling to go to this extreme, though plans were being made in Washington to very aggressively deal with the situation were the vote to favor secession and arms against the government. (Butler would in fact, without orders to do so, seize and occupy Baltimore a few weeks later.)
The Assembly voted on the 27th and 28th (unanimous in the Senate, and 53-13 in the House of Delegates to state that it did not have the constitutional authority for actions resulting in secession. A later statement on May 10th detailed greater specificity – protesting the war as unjust and unconstitutional, encouraging Marylanders to work for peace between the sections, soliciting the recognition of the Confederate States as an independent nation, and affirming that any state convention to vote upon secession would be imprudent.
At this same time as the legislature was meeting in Frederick, Lincoln rendered the opinion to General Scott that the time had come for a suspension of the writ of habeas corpus – the right to not be imprisoned without a trial. This was seen by the Lincoln Administration as a necessary war powers action of self-preservation, recognizing that there were many disloyal Maryland citizens transporting even supplies and munitions to the rebel cause. Chief Justice Taney ruled this as unconstitutional – an opinion totally ignored by the Lincoln Administration. It was a ruling no President ever would accept in such circumstances, and it was in fact terribly wrongly rendered.
The Maryland legislature was set to reconvene in mid-September in Frederick. Understand that since the former vote, there had been significant bloodshed, particularly with the First Battle of Bull Run. New concerns arose about Maryland secession. Secretary of War Simon Cameron wrote General Banks on September 11, “The passage of any act of secession by the legislature of Maryland must be prevented. If necessary, all or any part of the members must be arrested. Exercise your own judgment as to the time and manner, but do the work effectively.” On September 17, General Banks reported that “all members of the Maryland Legislature assembled at Frederick City on the 17th instant known or suspected to be disloyal in their relations to the Government have been arrested.”
A total of less than 20 were arrested on September 13th including Mayor Brown and the managers of a couple of secessionist-oriented newspapers. They were imprisoned in Fort McHenry. This rather definitively put a halt to any such ideas or actions. Governor Hicks was generally very cooperative with the Federal government, and by the time of Lincoln’s annual address to congress on December 3, 1861 he was able to say, “The insurgents confidently claimed a strong support from north of Mason and Dixon’s line; and the friends of the Union were not free from apprehension on the point. This, however, was soon settled definitely and on the right side, south of the line, noble little Delaware led off right from the first. Maryland was made to seem against the Union. Our soldiers were assaulted, bridges were burned, and railroads torn up, within her limits; and we were many days, at one time, without the ability to bring a single regiment over her soil to the capital. Now, her bridges and railroads are repaired and open to the government; she already gives seven regiments to the cause of the Union and none to the enemy; and her people, at a regular election, have sustained the Union, by a larger majority, and a larger aggregate vote than they ever before gave to any candidate, or any question.”
Though political wranglings of great difficulty in the state of Maryland were far from ever calmed during the period of the Civil War, by April of 1864, Lincoln was able to say in an address to a Maryland gathering of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, “Looking upon these many people, assembled here, to serve, as they best may, the soldiers of the Union, it occurs at once that three years ago, the same soldiers could not so much as pass through Baltimore. The change from then till now, is both great, and gratifying. Blessings on the brave men who have wrought the change, and the fair women who strive to reward them for it. …
… The change within Baltimore is part only of a far wider change. When the war began, three years ago, neither party, nor any man, expected it would last till now. Each looked for the end, in some way, long ere to-day. Neither did any anticipate that domestic slavery would be much affected by the war. But here we are; the war has not ended, and slavery has been much affected — how much needs not now to be recounted. So true is it that man proposes, and God disposes. …
… The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name– liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names– liberty and tyranny.
The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails today among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty. Hence we behold the processes by which thousands are daily passing from under the yoke of bondage, hailed by some as the advance of liberty, and bewailed by others as the destruction of all liberty. Recently, as it seems, the people of Maryland have been doing something to define liberty; and thanks to them that, in what they have done, the wolf’s dictionary, has been repudiated.
Surely, the greatness that IS Abraham Lincoln, is seen in this address.