Maryland Remains in the Union

April 29, 1861 – Maryland legislators voted against secession after President Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus in the area surrounding the state.

Maryland State Flag | Image Credit:
Maryland State Flag | Image Credit:

Two days after the Baltimore riot, a delegation of influential Baltimoreans including Mayor George Brown met with President Lincoln, his cabinet, and General-in-Chief Winfield Scott. The delegation protested the killing of civilians, calling it “a pollution” of Maryland soil. They declared that order could be restored in Baltimore only if Federal troops stayed away.

Lincoln responded that he must have troops to defend the capital, and the shortest route from the northern states was through Baltimore. Mayor Brown shared the meeting’s results with city residents:

“The protection of Washington, he (Lincoln) asseverated with great earnestness, was the sole object of concentrating troops there, and he protested that none of the troops brought through Maryland were intended for any purposes hostile to the state, or aggressive as against the southern states…The interview terminated with the distinct assurance, on the part of the President, that no more troops would be sent through Baltimore, unless obstructed in their transit in other directions, and with the understanding that the city authorities should do their best to restrain their own people.” 

Meanwhile, unrest continued in Baltimore, as secessionists destroyed railroad lines, cut telegraph wires, and burned bridges. This, combined with Confederate control of Harpers Ferry, cut the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad connection between Washington and the northern states.

Lincoln next met with members of the Baltimore YMCA on the 22nd. The members asked Lincoln to promote peace in their city by keeping Federal troops out. Continuing to play to fears that secessionists planned on attacking Washington, Lincoln told the visitors, “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 the city.”

Lincoln then met with another group of Baltimoreans that once again included the mayor, along with Police Marshal George P. Kane. The members urged Lincoln to negotiate a peaceful settlement with the Confederacy that was tantamount to recognizing Confederate independence.

The president responded: “You would have me break my oath and surrender the Government without a blow. There is no Washington in that–no Jackson in that–no manhood nor honor in that.” Saying, “I must have troops for the defense of the capital,” Lincoln explained:

“Our men are not moles, and can’t dig under the earth; they are not birds, and can’t fly through the air. There is no way but to march across, and that they must do. Go home and tell your people that if they will not attack us, we will not attack them; but if they do attack us, we will return it, and that severely.”

Lincoln concluded, “Keep your rowdies in Baltimore and there will be no bloodshed.” Meanwhile, Secretary of State William H. Seward rejected a proposal from Maryland Governor Thomas H. Hicks in which the administration would withdraw Federals from the state and Lord Lyons, British minister to the U.S., would negotiate a settlement between Maryland and the Federal government. Thus, the administration gave up Baltimore to secessionists in a larger effort to keep Federal forces coming into Washington via Annapolis and to keep Maryland in the Union.

On the 26th, Hicks called the state legislature into special session at Frederick, a largely pro-Union town 50 miles west of Baltimore and 18 miles northeast of Harpers Ferry on the vital Baltimore & Ohio Railroad line. Although he had no constitutional authority to interfere with a state government, Lincoln pondered whether to deploy forces to prevent the legislators from meeting out of fear that they might approve secession.

As General-in-Chief Scott stood poised to arrest any lawmaker who expressed secessionist sympathies, Lincoln ordered forces to observe the legislators and, if needed, initiate “the bombardment of their cities–and of course the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus.” The arrest of citizens without due process and the bombardment of U.S. cities came without the consent of Congress, which was not due to assemble until July 4.

The next day, Lincoln issued an order authorizing Scott to “suspend the writ of Habeas Corpus for the public safety” between Philadelphia and Washington. This was a response to the Baltimore unrest, attempts by secessionists to destroy railroad tracks along the new route for Federal troops via Annapolis, and secessionist leanings by the Maryland legislators. This also addressed the many civil and military officials in the Washington area either joining the Confederacy or expressing Confederate sympathies.

Scott was empowered to “arrest, and detain, without resort to the ordinary processes and forms of law, such individuals as he might deem dangerous to the public safety.” The suspension enabled Federal forces to search private homes; seize mail, telegraphic messages, and other correspondence; and indefinitely imprison suspected Confederate sympathizers or war protestors without charges or trial.

U.S. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney argued that the suspension defied the Constitution, and “he could not find a shred of legality for the act.” This order ultimately resulted in the seizure of Baltimore Mayor Brown and Police Marshal Kane, 31 Maryland legislators, and the grandson of Francis Scott Key. Those arrested were ironically detained at Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, where Key had written “The Star Spangled Banner” when under British attack during the War of 1812. Over the next two years, this and other similar orders resulted in the imprisonment of some 13,000 people without their constitutional right to habeas corpus.

The suspension may have swayed the Maryland legislators. On the 29th they approved resolutions protesting the state’s Federal military occupation and expressing sympathy for the Confederacy. However they also passed a measure declaring that “under existing circumstances, it is inexpedient to call a sovereign Convention of the State at this time, or take any measures for the immediate organization or arming of the militia.” The House of Delegates rejected secession by a vote of 53 to 13. Consequently, thousands of pro-Confederate Marylanders began leaving for Virginia.



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