Why did emancipation in Maryland, 150 years ago today, hardly matter?

Posted November 1st, 2014 by
Category: History Tags: , , ,
Letter from Annie Davis to President Lincoln, 1864

Letter from Annie Davis to President Lincoln, 1864

Today is the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Maryland.

This occasion mattered greatly, of course, to the 87,000 residents of Maryland who were still enslaved on November 1, 1864. This anniversary date also matters because the narrow passage of emancipation in Maryland furthered the gradual spread of emancipation elsewhere in the United States, including in the South, where the issue of emancipation had not yet been decided by Congress.

Nevertheless, in important ways, the reluctant abolition of slavery in Maryland scarcely mattered.

Pro-slavery attitudes and laws in Maryland

In 1864, when Maryland finally abolished slavery, the state had been on the Union side of the Civil War for three long years. Nevertheless, Maryland was a border state: slavery was common in the state, and the culture of slave-owning was widespread. Among the white population, therefore, loyalties had been deeply divided over the slavery question and secession all along.

In the presidential election of 1860, slave-owning was so entrenched in Maryland that only 2% of Baltimore’s voters cast their ballots for Abraham Lincoln. As the president-elect traveling to Washington for his inauguration, death threats in Baltimore, then the nation’s fourth-largest city, forced Lincoln’s security to spirit him in disguise through the city under cover of darkness, while the future president listened to spontaneous, drunken renditions of “Dixie.”

Two months later, as the first northern states were responding to the president’s urgent telegrams for troops to defend the nation’s capital, the 6th Massachusetts regiment passed through Baltimore by train. While changing trains, the regiment was attacked by a mob of Baltimore residents in favor of the Confederacy; four Massachusetts soldiers were killed, along with a dozen of the rioters.

It was the first blood shed in the Civil War.

By 1864, however, Maryland had been caught up in the war, on the Union side, for three long years. Young white males had been fighting, suffering, and even dying for the Union cause against a slave power, while the rest of the state’s white population had been sacrificing and seeing their young men suffer through the war. It had been two years since the wartime commander-in-chief had issued his first Emancipation Proclamation, announcing his view that the war should result in freedom for the Confederacy’s enslaved population.

Yet even at this late date, the white citizens of Maryland remained bitterly divided over the slavery issue, and had taken no action to emancipate their own enslaved population.

Maryland finally emancipates its slaves … in 1864

At the state’s 1864 constitutional convention, therefore, the slavery question was fiercely debated. In the end, the delegates agreed to a proposed Article 24 of the state constitution:

Hereafter, in this State, there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude … and all persons held to service or labor as slaves, are hereby declared free.

The amended constitution was then put to the voters of Maryland to accept or reject by referendum.

In the initial count of the votes, the pro-slavery side actually came out ahead. It was only after the votes of absent Union soldiers were counted, that the abolitionist side pulled into the lead, by the narrow margin of 30,174 in favor to 29,799 against, or 50.3% to 49.7%.

Why didn’t emancipation in Maryland matter more?

By November 1, 1864, the Civil War was entering its final stages. The outcome of the conflict was essentially a foregone conclusion, and while Congress had yet to determine that slavery would end after the war, the gradual process of emancipation, largely driven by the efforts of individual free and enslaved blacks, had already progressed quite far.

In Maryland, by the time emancipation became law, many of the state’s enslaved black residents had already emancipated themselves. Many had taken advantage of wartime conditions, and inspired by tales of emancipated slaves in occupied territory and elsewhere, and of free blacks fighting in the Union army, had managed to flee captivity, most often to Washington, D.C. Other enslaved residents of Maryland had self-emancipated by enlisting themselves as Union soldiers.

One of the earliest to free himself by joining the Union military effort was John Boston, who was enslaved in Owensville, Maryland, until he joined up with New York’s 14th Regiment. The regiment was from Brooklyn, and being composed largely of abolitionists, was, for a Union military unit, particularly welcoming to black volunteers. In January 1862, Boston wrote the following to his wife back home:

My Dear Wife it is with grate joy I take this time to let you know Whare i am now in Safety in the 14th Regiment of Brooklyn . . . this Day i can Adress you thank god as a free man I had a little truble in giting away But as the lord led the Children of Isrel to the land of Canon So he led me to a land Whare fredom Will rain in spite Of earth and hell Dear you must make your Self content i am free from al the Slavers Lash . . . I am With a very nice man and have All that hart Can Wish But My Dear I Cant express my grate desire that i Have to See you i trust the time Will Come When We Shal meet again And if We dont met on earth We Will Meet in heven Whare Jesas ranes.

Despite the self-emancipation efforts of many of Maryland’s enslaved residents, on November 1, 1864, there were still many who remained enslaved within the state. It was not always for a lack of trying, however. In many cases, the efforts of those who remained enslaved had simply not yet borne fruit. For instance, in August 1864, Annie Davis of Belair, Maryland, who wished to leave to be reunited with her own family, quarreled with her mistress over whether she ought, by law, to be considered free by this time. Receiving no satisfactory answer, Davis appealed directly to the president of the United States. In her letter to Abraham Lincoln, she wrote:

Mr President: It is my Desire to be free, to go to see my people on the eastern shore my mistress wont let me you will please let me know if we are free and what i can do. I write to you for advice.

As far as we know, Davis had received no reply by November 1, when she finally gained her freedom by law.

For the roughly 87,000 who were still enslaved in Maryland as of November 1, freedom often came in name only. The formal grant of freedom was not always communicated to those who labored for white masters, and many remained ignorant of emancipation, or were convinced that they had no viable options to working in bondage.

Indeed, for those who learned of emancipation and took advantage of their new-found freedom, options could be few and unpleasant. Their former masters might contrive to keep them working and refuse to pay wages, or evict them from their homes and render them instantly destitute. Others would be denied their children, or even be pursued by their former owners for supposed debts incurred during slavery.

Finally, freed slaves in Maryland were still denied even the most basic rights under the law. Voting, for example, was restricted to white men, and Maryland would go on to reject both the 14th Amendment, which granted black residents citizenship and due process, and the 15th Amendment, which granted the right to vote.

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