Praising the Past
The Way We Were: The Emancipation Proclamation in the DMV
By C.R. Gibbs
Unlike much of the northern urban press, major local newspapers, closer to slavery's heartbeat, were less than enthusiastic about President’s Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
• The Washington Daily National Intelligencer editorialized "...we expect no good. We shall be only too happy to find that no harm has been done by the present declaration of the Executive."
• The Washington Star huffed that the proclamation was "void of practical effect."
• Around the same time, The Talbot County Gazette, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, bemoaned the fact that the state seemed caught between "abolition and secession" and the disturbing tendency "of negroes in various parts of the state...to leave their masters and take refuge within Army lines."
• Predictably, the Richmond Whig opined splenetically that Lincoln sought "with a dash of his pen to destroy four thousand millions of our property" and "for the slaves to rise in insurrection." History tells us that the effect of the document was vastly different in each part of what is today known as the District, Maryland and Virginia (DMV).
History tells us that the effect of the document was vastly different in each part of what is today known as the District, Maryland and Virginia (DMV).
As of April 16, 1862, the only instance of compensated emancipation in American history had freed the city's 3,000 enslaved persons. As the "first freed" in the region, the city became a magnet for thousands of freedom-seekers from neighboring states. Most arrived destitute and unlettered. They were shoved into contraband camps or pooled under the ramparts of the city's forts and batteries.
More arrived in the same condition after the Emancipation Proclamation. Their want and suffering were great. Helping hands were few. The Black community ministered to them as best as their meager resources would allow but, death and disease took horrendous tolls. Many Black churches, some still existing today, such as Shiloh and Gabraith AMEZ, were founded or expanded in 1863. The District's swelling African American population provided a much-needed workforce for the growing Union military presence. Also, hundreds of "men of African descent"--aided by the provisions of the Emancipation Proclamation--joined the first Black Union Army regiment in this area: the First Regiment, United States Colored Troops. Recruitment was such a success in the District that it led to the enlistment of Black troops in Maryland.
The proclamation did not touch slavery in the so-called "Free State," President Lincoln's proclamation only touched those in the states in rebellion. Maryland remained in the Union although there was secessionist sentiment except in the northern and western parts of the state. Blacks escaped the Eastern Shore and southern Maryland, slavery's strongholds, by going into Pennsylvania, New York and points north. Others streamed across the Navy Yard Bridge into the District, often dodging patrols and bounty hunters. Many African Americans were re-enslaved while others were killed resisting capture. Lafayette Baker, Lincoln's anti-guerilla chief, reported in September, 1863, that "...not less than forty slaves have been killed in these lawless encounters...and no less than three dead bodies...are now lying almost within sight of your own home." Conditions only began to improve with the increased recruitment of Black soldiers--often despite the complaints of wealthy slaveowners such as the Bowies and the Clagetts--and the passage of a new state constitution that ended slavery effective November 1, 1864.
The Bowies and Clagetts Today: The city of Bowie was once the tiny railroad stop town of Huntington. It was re-named in honor of the Bowie family because of their wealth and influence. When the former Maryland State Teachers College moved from Baltimore to the Bowie area, the college took the town's name in the early 1900s. Oden Bowie, one of several male children to have that name and former secretary of the Maryland State Senate, died last October at Fairview, the main family plantation near the Pennsylvania border. He was the sixth generation to reside there.
The Clagetts were one of Maryland's oldest and wealthiest families. Their descendants continue to be important in real estate and government circles.
The Old Dominion remained unyielding to the end, ignoring Lincoln's edict and the efforts of many of the state's 490,000 enslaved to be free. The United States Colored Troops, recruited under the proclamation, provided the margin of victory, capturing Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, and helping to end the war and save the Union.