September 12, 1861 – A Forgotten Date in Maryland History

Paul W. Callahan

The following article is extracted from When Democracy Fell – The Subjugation of Maryland During the U.S. Civil War, by Paul W. Callahan, which comprehensively explores the constitutional crisis experienced by Maryland during the Civil War.  

September 12, 1861, began with the entire front page of the New York Herald dominated by a map that meticulously detailed the advance positions of the Confederate army along the Potomac in preparation for an attack upon the Nation’s Capitol.  The headline read – Over Three Hundred Thousand Armed Men – Scene of the Coming Decisive Conflict.  The Nation’s North was not caught off guard by this development, as they had been reading about the rebel forces’ impending attacks for weeks.  A series of internationally published articles had detailed how the Maryland Legislature was cooperating with Confederate forces in that they would issue an ordinance of secession and simultaneously Confederate Generals Johnston and Beauregard would cross the Potomac to “liberate” Maryland and attack Washington from the flank.  

These articles detailed how a rebel army had been amassing in Accomac on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and was to be led up the Delmarva by General Tench Tilghman of Talbot County who had been deposed from his commission by Governor Hicks that May.   This force of rebels would be used to support both the Legislature’s secession and the attack upon Washington by acting as a blocking force to isolate Washington from reinforcements.  At the commencement of the operation, Baltimore Mayor George W. Brown was to conduct a demonstration in Baltimore City as a tactical diversion to draw Union troops away from Washington.  General Beauregard was assigned the attack upon Washington while General Johnston was to capture Rockville which was to be the rallying point for Maryland secessionists to join with Johnston’s forces.  The Maryland secessionists were to be armed with the guns of the Maryland militia that had been secretively hidden from the federal forces who had been searching for and confiscating the arms of Maryland all summer.  If Beauregard did not require reinforcement for his attack upon the Capitol, Johnston was to continue to Baltimore to liberate that city. 

            The rebel plans had been uncovered by the War Department weeks prior and preparations had been made to foil the secessionist’s plot.  The Lincoln administration established “secret police” mainly consisting of Pinkerton Detective Agency personnel. These agents had infiltrated Baltimore gathering intelligence and were ready to act.  On September 11, Secretary of War Simon Cameron issued the order and the “modus operandi” was coordinated between Union Generals McClellan and Banks.  Shortly after midnight of September 12, the arrests began which included eleven members of the Maryland Legislature who resided in Baltimore, Baltimore Mayor George Brown and United States Congressman Henry May.  Two editors of Baltimore’s “secessionist” papers, Thomas W. Hall, editor of The South and Frank Key Howard, editor of The Daily Exchange were also arrested.  

Frank Key Howard was the grandson of Francis Scott Key, the author of our national anthem and thought it an “odd and unpleasant coincidence” that he was imprisoned at Fort McHenry on the forty-seventh anniversary of when his grandfather wrote in praise about the “land of the free.”  The arrests continued and culminated on September 17, when the Third Wisconsin regiment arrested members of the Legislature as they returned to the city of Frederick to continue their legislative session.  Those who were not immediately captured went into hiding, leading to the Third Wisconsin surrounding the city and conducting house-to-house searches to capture the remaining secessionists.  In all, 33 members of the Legislature were arrested which included members of the House and Senate’s administrative staff.  Many of those arrested joined Baltimore’s Police Chief, George P. Kane and the Baltimore Police Commissioners who had been arrested in June and were imprisoned at Fort Lafayette in New York harbor.  

            The Northern Press immediately reported how these arrests “foiled” the Confederate attack plans against the Capitol in that they dared not cross the Potomac without the Maryland Legislature first issuing their secession ordinance.  The Northern Press reported the discovery of ordinances of secession amongst the traitorous Legislative members and that other evidence was found revealing that their complicity in their cooperation with the rebel army and their intent to take Maryland out of the Union was without question.  A statement by President Lincoln was published in the Baltimore American, where the President asserted that due to “public safety” the grounds of the arrests cannot be made public at this time, but he assured the people of Maryland that “…in all cases the Government is in possession of tangible and unmistakable evidence, which will, when made public, be satisfactory to every loyal citizen.”

It has now been 162 years and that evidence has never been provided.  There has been no ordinance of secession found, nor has it been shown that a rebel army had amassed in Accomac Virginia to be led by General Tilghman.  Research of military records reveals that the Confederate army did not have 200,000 men amassed along the Potomac and Union Generals had no concern that there was about to be an attack.  No evidence of any coordination between the Maryland Legislature and the Confederate army has been found nor has anything been uncovered that shows the Legislature was contemplating secession.  General Tilghman, Mayor Brown, Frank Key Howard, and numerous members of the Legislature all attested that there were no such secessionist activities and pointed to the Legislature’s Proclamation to the People of Maryland issued that April which proclaimed they had no “constitutional authority” to issue a secession ordinance.  All the aforementioned internationally disseminated reports, originating from Washington, are assessed as “fake news” designed to control national and world opinion. 

The U.S. Civil War was the first conflict where the confluence of two major technologies were used in the conduct of war.   By the start of the war, over fifty thousand miles of telegraph wire had been installed to instantly transmit information across the Nation.  With the advent of the steam-driven presses the costs to print newspapers greatly decreased.  These factors, combined with a literacy rate amongst voters that is close to our modern era, caused newspaper readership to expand exponentially.  

Modern historians such as Harold Holzer and Elizabeth Mitchel have uncovered President Lincoln’s compulsion in using the press to control public opinion and quoted Lincoln as stating “Public sentiment is everything, with it nothing can fail; against it nothing can succeed.  Holzer and Mitchel document how Lincoln secretly purchased a German newspaper to support his Presidential campaign and how he wrote “ghost articles” that either supported his candidacy or criticized his opponents. 

It is now discovered that the Third Wisconsin were specifically instructed to arrest only the members of the Maryland Legislature that had voted “yay” on what became known as the “Wallis Report,” and were ordered to find and destroy all copies.  The “Wallis Report” was named after Severn Teackle Wallis, the Chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Federal Relations.   The report and resolutions were passed by a vote of 54 – 13 and the names of each Legislative member were attached which recorded their vote.  The report was the Legislature’s protest against the constitutional violations committed by the Lincoln administration against the State of Maryland and her citizens and called for an immediate cessation of all hostilities between the beleaguered states. The intent was to take their protest and calls for peace directly to the American public, ordering 25,000 copies to be printed and distributed throughout the Nation.  

The majority of the Maryland Legislature desired peace and maintained a political view of “constitutional” Unionism where they did not want Maryland to leave the Union but held the U.S. Constitution superior to the policies enacted by the federal government that violated its articles.  This placed many Marylanders at odds with the administration’s policies and were thus considered “sympathetic” to the Southern cause and were included within the labels of “Southern sympathizers” and “secessionists.”  The majority of the Maryland Legislature, specific newspaper editors and many Marylanders inappropriately fell into this group of the “disloyal.”  

The Lincoln administration viewed the protests of Maryland’s Legislature as more powerful than all the men and arms Maryland could have mustered, even if Maryland had not been disarmed.  By September 1861, Maryland had been disarmed as federal forces, with the cooperation of Governor Hicks, had aggressively confiscated state arms and deposited the same at Fort McHenry.  The state was overwhelmingly occupied by federal troops and Baltimore was strongly intimidated by the guns of Fort McHenry and those on Federal Hill trained upon her inhabitants.  By written instructions to his General, President Lincoln had already directed his military that if Maryland took arms against the United States, they were to “bombard their cities.”

It was not just the suppression of dissent that was desired, the administration wanted Maryland to be controlled by “unconditional” unionists that would fully support the war effort. The imprisonment of the Legislature eliminated “disloyal” members from public office or from influencing public opinion in Maryland.  Their imprisonment created vacancies that needed to be filled and their imprisonment was a strong deterrent against anyone maintaining a dissenting political view from running for elected positions in Maryland.  

Historians never understood why the Baltimore Police Commissioners had been imprisoned on the personal orders of Secretary Simon Cameron.   The commissioners had protected the 6th Massachusetts during the Baltimore riots on April 19 and provided security to thousands of federal troops afterwards right until their removal from office.  It now becomes clear that their removal was due to an important function that had been assigned to them by the Maryland Legislature – to conduct the elections in Baltimore.  The federal provost marshal appointed to replace the commissioners was tasked to oversee not just Baltimore’s police, but the city’s elections as well.  With this appointment, the city’s police and 120 election judges quit in protest and were subsequently replaced by men of the provost marshal’s choosing.  

Baltimore accounted for one-third of the voting population of Maryland and the November election was for half of the state’s Senate, all of the House Delegates and the governorship of Maryland.  With the elections of Baltimore under federal control and with election judges appointed by the provost marshal, a policy was implemented to ensure the “disloyal” were discouraged from voting.  During the morning of the statewide election, a large number of arrests were made of the voters who attempted to vote a disloyal ticket or who showed any indication of disloyalty.   The police station’s jails were filled to capacity and word quickly spread throughout the city keeping all who desired to vote any ticket other than the “unconditional” union ticket away from the polls.  With the voter intimidation, almost all positions, including the governorship of Maryland, went to “unconditional” unionists. 

The manipulation of the Maryland elections would not have been possible with a legislative body and a free press willing to report and publicize these violations of democracy to the American public and the world.  The Maryland Legislature and the free press became victims to the “necessity” that only voices supporting the war effort would be heard and only “unconditional” unionists would dominate the Maryland government.  

The suspension of constitutional liberties quickly expanded north and ultimately over 14,000 civilians were imprisoned, three hundred newspapers suppressed, and all remaining newspapers were highly intimidated and censored.  Without a free press or the ability for Americans to voice dissent, the government became more brazen in manipulating elections of the border states.  During the Maryland elections of 1863, voters had to pass through an armed gauntlet of soldiers while holding color-coded tickets that revealed which party they were supporting.   Many were denied their right to vote, and some were beaten and physically removed from the polls.  Election judges who dared to protest the interference were arrested, and non-resident Union soldiers voted freely.  Even the “unconditional” Unionists who were now governing the state of Maryland were aghast and protested against the violations of Maryland’s democracy.   

“Fake news,” a divided Nation, election fraud, the overreach of presidential power, and the desire to imprison political opponents, is not new to our modern times.  Considering the challenges we see to our democracy today, we now more than ever, need to heed the lessons of Civil War Maryland – When Democracy Fell.

Paul Callahan is a native of Talbot County Maryland, a graduate of the Catholic University of American and a former Marine Corps officer.  When Democracy Fell is due for release on October 3, at all major retailers to include Amazon. Image of prisoners courtesy of “The Local History Channel.”


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