Keep Your Rowdies in Baltimore

Following the Baltimore riot, Mayor George W. Brown had asked President Abraham Lincoln not to send Federal troops through his city on their way to Washington. Lincoln responded by asking both Brown and Maryland Governor Thomas H. Hicks to come to the capital and discuss how best to keep the peace. Due to secessionists cutting various telegraph lines, only Brown got the invitation. He and a delegation of influential Baltimoreans went to Washington on the 21st and met with Lincoln, his cabinet, and Lieutenant General Winfield Scott.

The delegation called the firing on civilians by the 6th Massachusetts “a pollution” of Maryland soil. They said 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 even though the shortest route from the northern states was through Baltimore, he would avoid that city to keep peace. Mayor Brown imparted what Lincoln had told him when he returned to Baltimore:

“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.”

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.

Meanwhile, unrest continued in Baltimore as secessionists formed a makeshift militia force and went about destroying railroad lines, cutting telegraph wires, and burning bridges. When they received word that a Federal regiment was just north of the city waiting for reinforcements before passing through, they threatened to give battle until Lincoln directed the Federals to pull back into Pennsylvania. They would have to go down Chesapeake Bay to Annapolis, and then go to Washington from there. To the west, Confederates at Harpers Ferry had 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. Assuming 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 Mayor Brown, 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.”

“I must have troops for the defense of the capital,” Lincoln said. He went on: “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, Governor Hicks had sent a proposal to Secretary of State William H. Seward in which the administration would withdraw Federal forces from the state and Lord Lyons, British minister to the U.S., would negotiate a settlement between Maryland and the Federal government: “I have felt it to be my duty to advise the President of the United States to order elsewhere the troops now off Annapolis and also that no more may be sent through Maryland. I have also suggested that Lord Lyons be requested to act as mediator between the contending parties of our country to prevent the effusion of blood.” Seward rejected this proposal.

Maryland secessionists remained defiant. James Randall, a teacher reading about the Baltimore riot from New Orleans, composed the poem “My Maryland.” This poem denouncing the Federal invasion of Maryland circulated quickly; its popularity increased when Baltimore socialite sisters Jennie and Hettie Cary began singing it to audiences to the tune of the Yale song “Lauriger Horatius.” A publisher changed the song accompaniment to “O Tannenbaum,” a 1799 German song also known as “Oh Christmas Tree.”

On the 26th, Hicks called the state legislature into special session at Frederick, a largely Unionist town 50 miles west of Baltimore and 18 miles northeast of Harpers Ferry on the vital Baltimore & Ohio line. Hicks told the legislators that “the only safety of Maryland lies in preserving a neutral position between our brethren of the North and of the South.” Many of the lawmakers were inclined to agree.

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. Lincoln wrote to General Scott that using the military to disperse the legislature “would not be justifiable, nor efficient for the desired object.” He then explained: “First, they have a clearly legal right to assemble; and we cannot know in advance that their action will not be lawful and peaceful. And if we wait until they shall have acted, their arrest or dispersion will not lessen the effect of their action. Secondly, we can not permanently prevent their action.”

The president directed Scott to observe the legislators, and if they decided “to arm their people against the United States, he is to adopt the most prompt, and efficient means to counteract, even, if necessary, to the bombardment of their cities–and in the extremest necessity, 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 received word that secessionists were threatening the railroad lines connecting Washington to Philadelphia via Annapolis. He therefore issued an order to General Scott: “You are engaged in repressing an insurrection against the laws of the United States. If at any point on or in the vicinity of the military line which is now used… you find resistance which renders it necessary to suspend the writ of habeas corpus for the public safety, you personally or through the officer in command at the point where resistance occurs are authorized to suspend that writ.”

This was a response to the Baltimore unrest, attempts by secessionists to disrupt 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 anti-war protestors without charges or trial.

According to the U.S. Constitution, the writ of habeas corpus could only be suspended “in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion,” but it did not specify who could suspend it. Lincoln, after consulting with Seward, argued that as “Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States,” he had the right to suspend the writ in order to put down the “Rebellion” of Marylanders destroying bridges and railroad lines to isolate the national capital.

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 arrests of Baltimore Mayor Brown and Police Marshal George P. Kane, 31 Maryland legislators, and the grandson of Francis Scott Key. Those arrested were ironically detained at Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, where Key’s grandfather had written “The Star-Spangled Banner” when under British attack during the War of 1812. Over the next two years, this and 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. The Senate passed a resolution declaring that the legislature had no right to decide whether the state should secede, but it could approve a motion to form a secession convention if the people so desired. This bill went to the House of Delegates, which surprisingly defeated it by a vote of 53 to 13. But the Marylanders kept up some of their defiance by also approving measures protesting the Federal military presence in the state and expressing sympathy for the Confederacy. Nevertheless, the decision to reject secession meant that Washington would not be surrounded by hostile states, and thousands of pro-Confederate Marylanders began leaving for Virginia.


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