Marylanders seeking to secede from the Union had been subdued by Federal military occupation forces earlier in the summer, but the Confederate victory at Bull Run had revived the secession movement. Rumors swirled that the Maryland legislature, scheduled to meet in special session on September 17, would change its prior vote and approve joining the Confederacy. In Washington, it was feared that this would signal General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate forces in northern Virginia, to “at once move into Maryland & raise a general disturbance.”
Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, conferred on the subject with President Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of State William H. Seward, and Secretary of War Simon Cameron. According to McClellan, Johnston’s army greatly outnumbered his, and thus “the danger was great–in a military point of view we were not prepared to resist an invasion of Maryland.” Therefore, the decision was made to arrest any legislator who might vote in favor of secession.
Cameron issued orders to Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, commanding the Federal forces around Baltimore: “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 Banks’s direction, the Federal provost marshal made numerous arrests over the next five days for alleged disloyalty to the United States. Federal troops occupied Baltimore and surrounded Frederick, site of the upcoming legislative session. Allan Pinkerton, McClellan’s chief of military intelligence, supervised the arrests in Baltimore while Banks’s forces handled them in Frederick. Among those arrested:
- Eleven members of the 22-man Maryland Senate
- Forty members of the 73-man Maryland House of Representatives
- Baltimore Mayor George Brown
- S. Teacle Wallis (author of an essay defending the constitutional rights of Marylanders)
- Baltimore Exchange editor Francis Key Howard (grandson of Francis Scott Key)
- The South editor Thomas Hall
- Annapolis Republican editor Elihu Riley
- U.S. Congressman Henry May
Federal interference in the business of a state government was considered highly dubious, not only from a legal standpoint but from a political one as well, considering all those arrested were Democrats. But Lincoln defended the arrests by stating that there was “tangible and unmistakable evidence” of their “substantial and unmistakable complicity with those in armed rebellion.”
The Lincoln administration never produced any evidence that the legislature was planning to approve secession or that Johnston might have been planning to lead his army into Maryland. Nevertheless, the arrests served their purpose–they quieted talk of Maryland seceding and they left the legislature without a quorum. The remaining lawmakers were forced to adjourn without considering secession. Despite the lack of evidence, McClellan later asserted that the intelligence he had “seemed at the time to be thoroughly reliable,” and therefore he had “no apology to make.”
Those politicians and civilians arrested were shipped to a military prison established at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor. They were detained without trial for over two months (some as long as 14 months), long enough to allow for the election of a new Unionist state legislature in November. This ensured that Washington would not be surrounded by foreign states.
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. Kindle Edition 2008, 1889.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press (Kindle Edition), 1988.
- Sears, Stephen W., Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 2017.
- Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.