Tuesday, April 21, 2020

“Liberated by Military Authority”: Marylanders in the Army of the Potomac, Part 3.

In the last several posts, I’ve been telling tales of Marylanders who served in the Army of the Potomac. I would be remiss if I did not mention the important contribution of Maryland’s African American contingent. Three U.S.C.I. (United States Colored Infantry) regiments—the 19th, 30th, and 39th U.S.C.I.—came from Maryland and fought with the Army of the Potomac. (Keep in mind, these weren’t the only black regiments from Maryland. Two other regiments, the 4th and 7th U.S.C.I., fought with the Army of the James.)

This particular story is deeply Maryland. It involves the recruitment of enslaved Marylanders into the ranks of the 19th U.S.C.I. It reminds us that, for African Americans, entering into the service of the U.S. army was often the only way they could acquire freedom. As most novice Civil War buffs acknowledge, the Emancipation Proclamation did not free any of the 87,000 enslaved people in Maryland. When January 1, 1863, came and went, nothing had changed for them. However, Maryland was desperate for new recruits. When the federal government passed a conscription act in March, it became clear that thousands of white residents would be forced into military service unless they could allow black Marylanders to go in their place. 

In July, the War Department established a recruiting depot in Baltimore called Camp Belger, which allowed free black Marylanders a place to enlist. But soon, the War Department wanted to tap the enslaved population. On October 3, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton issued General Orders 329, an order that enabled federal officers in Maryland, Missouri, and occupied Tennessee (and later Delaware) to enlist slaves into the ranks of the U.S. Volunteers. This General Order established that slaves freely offered by their owners could be enlisted, with the owners receiving compensation not to exceed $300. Additionally, “slaves belonging to those who have been engaged in or given aid and comfort to the rebellion” could be enlisted into the Union army without compensation. Most importantly—for the slaves, at least—“All persons enlisted into the military service shall forever thereafter be FREE.”

General Orders 329’s allowance of the recruitment of the slaves of disloyal owners set the stage for a confrontation between the officers assigned to the U.S.C.I. and the citizens of Maryland, those who argued that the U.S. government had no right to liberate human property in a state that had never rebelled. As it turned out, the U.S. government didn’t care what slaveowners thought. In early March 1864, two U.S.C.I. officers forced the issue to the forefront when they recruited eight men kept inside a Maryland slave jail.

This is a story of black freedom, triumphant federalism, and compassion for human dignity. It’s also a tale that stands at the center of Maryland’s Civil War experience: Emancipation through military service. Let’s begin.

On March 6, 1864, Lt. Col. Joseph Griswold Perkins led a detachment of 107 soldiers from the 19th U.S.C.I.’s camp of instruction, called Camp Stanton. Along with two officers (a captain and a lieutenant), he marched his men thirty miles along the western shore of the Patuxent River, bound for Upper Marlboro, the seat of Prince Georges County. On the afternoon of March 8, the detachment reached the outskirts of town. There, Perkins split his command, sending Captain William H. Jordan into the countryside with half his force. Jordan had orders to go from farm to farm, looking for willing recruits. Perkins delivered the same instructions to the other officer, 2nd Lt. David B. Holmes, who had orders to march into the village. Turning to Holmes, Perkins said, “Take this road, stopping at all the plantations along it, and enlisting all able bodied men, who are willing to come, and if you arrive at Marlboro before I do, as the weather is bad, put your men in some public building.”

At 4 P.M., after reaching the village, Lt. Holmes entered the hotel (the Medley and Dyer Hotel), asking directions to the nearby court house, which could not be seen through the rain and fog. Apparently, the hotel-keeper, Medley, knew why the 19th U.S.C.I. had come. The regiment was in Upper Marlboro to recruit. Without prompting, the hotel-keeper asked Lt. Holmes if his detachment intended to open the town’s jail and recruit the slaves kept inside. Holmes said he had not come for that purpose, but he knew that many Maryland slaveowners hid their human property in local jails as they waited for the storm of the Civil War to pass. His curiosity piqued, Lt. Holmes asked, “How many slaves are confined there?”

The hotel-keeper replied, “About twenty, and all but one were put there by their masters for safe keeping.”

“Well,” replied Holmes, “I think it likely I should open the jail myself!”

Meanwhile, at 5 P.M., after completing his regimental business, Lt. Col. Perkins reached the Upper Marlboro Court House, where he found the soldiers of Holmes’s platoon. Perkins went to the hotel and there he found a message waiting for him, a letter signed by the Sheriff, Shelby Clark, advising the Union officers not to open the slave jail. Initially, Lt. Col. Perkins gave orders to his troops not to enter the jail, believing that they had no authority to release criminals into the countryside. But a few minutes later, Lt. Holmes arrived and stated his opinion. For the sake of human decency and for the sake of aiding the U.S. government, the slaves held in the jail ought to be freed and enlisted into the 19th U.S.C.I. As Holmes recalled, “I then conferred with Lt. Col. Perkins upon the propriety of enlisting all such slaves confined in the jail for safe keeping as would be willing to enter the U.S. service. He then assented to the proposition, and we then convened about the time and manner of doing it.”

The next morning, March 9, after the rain had passed, Lt. Holmes took one enlisted man with him and entered the jail. In a careful tone, he demanded access and the jailor did not resist. Holmes found the slaves imprisoned exactly as reported, separated into two small cells. The first room contained twelve women and children. The second room contained eight men, all chained to a single staple in the middle of the floor. Additionally, two white Marylanders were also so confined, both accused of helping slaves flee their masters. After interviewing some of the inmates, Holmes learned that some of them had been incarcerated two years. There was a small child, two-years-old, who had been born in confinement. One of the younger inmates, a boy, had been put in the jail by his master, John H. Sothoron. Lt. Holmes knew that name well. In October, Sothoron had murdered a comrade, Lt. Eben White of the 7th U.S.C.I., a recruiting officer who had visited Benedict, Maryland. Fearing that Lt. White was about to liberate his slaves, Sothoron murdered him and then fled to Virginia. In retaliation, the U.S. government confiscated his plantation, “The Plains,” and converted it into a training camp for the U.S.C.I. In fact, it was that same campCamp Stantonfrom which the 19th U.S.C.I. had originated.

Holmes remembered the disgusting condition of the dungeon-like jail, calling it, “horribly filthy.” He explained, “Tubs at the sides and corners of the room were used for the necessities of nature and other filth. They had the appearance of being emptied but seldom. The atmosphere of the room was exceedingly offensive, and so much of the jail as was seen by me was disgraceful to any country.”

Holmes asked the eight black men if they were willing to join the ranks of the 19th U.S.C.I. If so, he could release them from their confinement immediately. All eight declared their willingness to sign up. At this point, Lt. Col. Perkins arrived and surveyed the scene. Like Holmes, he was appalled by the horrid conditions. He wrote, “The filth and stench was so utterly inhuman, that I had but little time to discriminate, although I was informed; and since then in the communications referred to above; I have no reasons to think that any of them were confined for any offence than trying to escape or assisting others to do so.”

Lt. Col. Perkins repeated the same lines as Lt. Holmes. If the inmates were willing to enlist they could be “liberated by Military authority.” “Yes,” they replied, anything to be out of the unpleasant holding pen. Confident in the righteousness of his decision, Lt. Col. Perkins ordered Lt. Holmes to summon a blacksmith. He declared, “I will not have any man enlisted into the military service of the United States with irons on.”

In a few minutes, Holmes and the blacksmith returned and cut the fetters. Perkins placed guards at the door so the jailor could not interfere with the enlistment process, and thus, these eight men swore into the service of the 19th U.S.C.I. While the door remained open, the twelve women and children fled into the countryside. Apparently, this was Holmes’s doing. Somehow, he convinced (or threatened) the jailor to leave the main door ajar. “The jailer made no objection to their going,” Holmes later wrote. “He left the door open for a considerable length of time while they were getting ready to come out. There were no oaths, threats, or disorder. No one protested or said anything against our proceedings.”

Just as Perkins, Holmes, and the new recruits departed the prison, the county sheriff, Shelby Clark, approached them, complaining that the two Union officers had released criminals. He now demanded that the eight men be returned to their holding pens, and the soldiers ordered to seek out the women and children who had fled. Lt. Col. Perkins replied that he would do none of that. He pointed out that the War Department’s General Order 329 allowed him to recruit enslaved men of disloyal owners. Having learned that Sothoron owned at least one of the incarcerated men, it was within his power to enlist all of them. When Clark called him a thief, Perkins responded by saying that the War Department order protected him from arrest.

Perkins casually admitted that he had no authority to release the women and children, but explained, “If any others have got out, it has been through the neglect of the county officer here.” Sheriff Clark then asked if he would track down the escaped women and children, but Perkins replied that an act of Congress—the Second Confiscation Act of July 1862—prevented him from helping to recover any runaways. No U.S. soldier was allowed to re-enslave anyone. At this, Perkins and Clark parted ways, but Lt. Holmes—his ire raised by the deplorable conditions he had seen—shouted an imprecation at the Maryland sheriff, as he admitted, “expressive of my abhorrence of the administration of laws which would confine in such a manner human beings called slaves, for trying to run away from such a country.”

The incident did not end there. Sheriff Clark wrote a letter of complaint to the War Department and to the Governor of Maryland, Augustus Bradford, calling for an investigation into the “outrages” committed by Perkins and Holmes. Although the sheriff accused the U.S.C.I. officers of theft, the War Department stood on their side. Even though the Union officers had confiscated property inside a loyal slave state, Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana issued orders to remove Clark from his office, operating under the assumption that he sympathized with the Confederates. Colonel Samuel M. Bowman, the Union officer who had dispatched Perkins and Holmes, admitted that his two officers might have committed an illegal act by opening the slave prison’s doors, but he could not see anything morally wrong in it. Writing to the War Department, Bowman opined, “Lieut. Col. Perkins had no orders from me to open the jail. His vindication rests solely upon the truth of the facts alleged in his statement and in the statement of Lieut. Holmes. In enlisting the slaves confined for safe keeping he was clearly right. In releasing others chained with them, as stated, in a filthy prison, his conduct was at least humane. These officers say they do not wish to avoid investigation, provided it is done soon, while the witnesses are within reach.” 

This explanation satisfied Dana.

The War Department’s action is worthy of note. In overriding the county sheriff and making no effort to recover the escaped women and children, the Department demonstrated its commitment to furthering the reach of the Emancipation Proclamation. If Lincoln’s document had been carefully constructed to insulate loyal slave states from its revolutionary effects, then none that mattered in Maryland, where Union army recruiters had the power to liberate people and did so to fill their ranks.

It should be mentioned that human decency stood at the center of this story. A twenty-first-century reader might think it would be an obvious choice for U.S. army officers to free incarcerated slaves held in a fetid cell, but it’s important to remember that, in the nineteenth-century, people did not always act with compassion when human dignity was imperiled. In short, Lt. Col. Joseph G. Perkins and 2nd Lt. David B. Holmes were exceptional men, officers who acted out of compassion, justice, and civility. In so doing, they upheld the power of the government, they strengthened the manpower of their regiment, and they liberated twenty innocent prisoners.

Shockingly, it’s difficult to find any material on these two men, whose actions held such tremendous importance to Maryland’s Civil War history. Joseph Griswold Perkins was the easiest to track. He was born on April 20, 1838, the grandson of three Connecticut governors. As a child, he lived in New London, Connecticut. He attended Brown University for a year, but then dropped out to study law. Right before the Civil War, he was admitted to the Connecticut Bar, but then quit his practice to enlist. He was among the first four volunteers from Connecticut to enlist at the war’s commencement, joining Company A, 1st Connecticut Rifles. Later on, Perkins became Governor William Buckingham’s assistant adjutant general. In 1862, he was commissioned captain and commanded Company L, 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery. In 1863, he received a commission as lieutenant colonel and joined the staff of the 19th U.S.C.I. Cited for gallantry at the Battle of the Crater, Perkins ended the war as a brevet brigadier general. He served in the U.S.C.I. until 1867, guarding Brownsville, Texas. In 1869, Perkins married a woman named Louisa Griswold and raised three children with her. He served as a state senator, dying on January 27, 1913, at age 74.

I’ve found no biographical information about Lieutenant David Holmes.

What about the men they recruited? What happened to the eight slaves who were confined inside the jail? That question is also difficult to answer. When the U.S. mustering officer arrived at Camp Stanton on March 31, he ratified the Oath of Allegiance for nineteen new recruits. Most likely, all of these men had been recruited by Perkins’s detachment during its excursion to Upper Marlboro, but it’s impossible to tell which ones had been confined inside the jail. The best I can do is provide a list of all nineteen, knowing that among that number were the men liberated on March 9, 1864. They were:

·         Pvt. James W. Pinkney
·         Pvt. William H. Roberts
·         Pvt. Henry Briscoe
·         Pvt. John T. Douglas
·         Corp. Charles S. Steward
·         Sgt. William E. Wilkes
·         Pvt. John L. Derry
·         Pvt. Charles Robinson
·         Pvt. Samuel Fountain
·         Pvt. Robert L. Queen
·         1st Sgt. Thomas Spadley
·         Pvt. Hamilton Davis
·         Pvt. David Hazleton
·         Pvt. Lafayette Lewis
·         Pvt. Robert R. Clark
·         Pvt. John W. Diggs
·         Pvt. Charles O. Gallawson
·         Pvt. Robert W. Gibson
·         Pvt. John J. L. Maybury

Two of them, Derry and Gibson, were killed at the Battle of the Crater, July 30, 1864.

I've searched high and low, and so far, I've found only one image of Joseph G. Perkins--this one. Here, we see Perkins as captain, Company L, 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery. This image was taken in 1862 near "Cornwallis Cave," Yorktown, Virginia. When Perkins's company occupied this area, he found a white horse living inside the famous cave where Lord Cornwallis hid during the 1781 siege. Perkins took this horse as his own, naming him "Secesh." I prefer to believe that Perkins rode Secesh into Upper Marlboro on March 9, 1864, the day he liberated twenty slaves from the county jail.

This 1860 map shows the streets of Upper Marlboro, Maryland. The principal locations of the story--Medley's Hotel, the Court House, and the jail--are all clearly marked. 

Yes! You, too, can visit the site where Lt. Col. Perkins and Lt. Holmes liberated twenty enslaved Marylanders from a horrid slave jail. I've marked the location where that slave jail once stood. Presently, this is the driveway to the PG County Fire Department.

1 comment:

  1. USCTs are so cool and inspiring. Literally fighting for their freedom from enslavement in a way little can truly understand. Thanks for the blog post.