The not-quite-Free State: Maryland dragged its feet on emancipation during Civil War

Maryland calls itself the Free State, but it was in no hurry to give up slavery during the Civil War.

Elsewhere in the country, antislavery measures progressed rapidly. Congress freed the slaves in the District in 1862, compensating their owners. The Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves in the states that had seceded, went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863. But Maryland didn’t act until 1864, when it held a referendum — and even then, the outcome wasn’t at all certain.

The vote tipped in favor of abolition only after the absentee ballots of soldiers fighting for the North were counted. The final tally was 30,174 in favor of freeing the slaves to 29,799 against.

On Nov. 1, 1864, Maryland’s slaves were declared free, only a few months before Congress would approve the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. Many blacks in Maryland had taken matters into their own hands by that time, either escaping to the District or enlisting in the Union army, where they served as free men.

Well known in the modern era for being a politically progressive state, especially on matters of civil and individual rights, Maryland came to that tradition slowly and with substantial reluctance. Indeed, as the Civil War loomed, much of Maryland remained firmly pro-slavery. Even such a Maryland luminary as Montgomery Blair, President Abraham Lincoln’s postmaster general, was more concerned about punishing secessionists and preserving the Union than advancing freedom for African Americans.

Twenty-eight Fugitives Escaping from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. (Library of Congress/Library of Congress)

“We are menaced by the ambition of the ultra-Abolitionists, which is equally despotic in its tendencies and which, if successful could not fail to be alike fatal to Republican institutions,” Blair told a gathering of the Unionist movement in Rockville on Oct. 3, 1863, even as antislavery forces appeared to be gaining support in the state and the nation.

Blair, a confidant of Lincoln but a scion of a slaveholding family and a bitter foe of staunch abolitionists, was in many ways emblematic of Maryland’s landed aristocracy.

“Much of the South’s wealth and economic powers stemmed from the institution of slavery, and that included border states such as Maryland,” said Christopher E. Haley, research director for the history of slavery in Maryland in the Maryland State Archives.

Even the governor, Thomas H. Hicks of the Know Nothing Party, was a slaveholder. But like many in the border state, he also personified the conflict that stretched across Maryland, where some would fight for the North and others for the South. Hicks was a staunch supporter of the Union and would press hard for Maryland to remain part of that fragile coalition.

An illustration of a farmer being caught in the act of trying to return freed slaves to the South, with caption ‘The maddest man in all Maryland’, during the US civil war, circa 1865. (Kean Collection/Getty Images)

To keep the Union intact, Lincoln would step gingerly when it came to Maryland and its slaveholders. Political expediency in pursuit of the high moral ground would be his method, allowing a slow march towards abolition. If Hicks and then his more liberal successor, Augustus Bradford, would ensure that Maryland stayed in the Union, Lincoln, temporarily at least, would look the other way on the question of slavery.

“It was very much a divided state,” said University of Maryland historian Ira Berlin, a well-known scholar who specializes in the study of slavery. In some cases, families themselves were divided, with sons fighting on both sides.

There were many signs of the fragility of the state’s pro-Union position in the years leading up to the Civil War, especially evident in an urban-rural divide.

Baltimore was growing into a center of trade and industry. It was populated by a mostly free work force with one of the largest urban populations of free blacks in the United States, larger than in Philadelphia or New York, Berlin said. And it was the political epicenter of the Maryland abolition movement, with a leading newspaper, the Baltimore American, instrumental in the push to end slavery.

“With Free States on both sides of her, who would care to own negroes here? And what possible advantage would we have over those obnoxious to the terms of the President’s manifesto in other states? As the matter stands even at present, negro property here has become so uncertain in the tenure that in many portions of our commonwealth, they are as good as free already,” the paper editorialized on Sept. 24, 1862.

But outside the city, in the vast agricultural areas of Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore, slavery was a way of life, much as it was in the rest of the white South, where tobacco was giving way to labor-intensive crops such as cotton, rice and sugar.

“Southern Maryland was certainly a southern state; it is agriculture, plantations . . . in some ways it is not much different from Mississippi, both in size and in their lucrative nature,” Berlin said. Slaveholders’ determination to maintain their human property was a crucial element in the white southern culture, he said.

Other large swaths of Maryland, from Prince George’s to Montgomery County, north to Frederick and west, were also pro-slavery, although Frederick itself was a divided community.

Lincoln, aware of the divisions and the pressure on Maryland politicians from secessionists and slaveholders, knew that keeping Maryland and the other border states — Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri — in the Union meant he would need to essentially ignore their slave holdings.

When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, he limited it to states that had seceded.

“He freed the slaves over which he had no control at that point,” said Haley of the Maryland State Archives. “That is the reality of the Emancipation Proclamation.”

Meanwhile, an aggressive Col. William Birney, son of Kentucky antislavery politician James G. Birney, was busy recruiting slaves into service in the Union army, spiriting them away from their Maryland owners, liberating them from jails and from slave pens where they were being held before sales. One account said that black slaves in a Frederick jail threw a rock with a note to an imprisoned recruiter to let him know they wanted to join the Union forces. Birney’s zealous approach worried the Lincoln administration, which was getting complaints from slaveholders. Birney was unmoved, and his recruiters pressed on, usually neglecting to ask potential black recruits whether they were free. They simply signed them up.

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