Baltimore was growing into a center of trade and industry. It was populated by a mostly free work force with one of the largest urban populations of free blacks in the United States, larger than in Philadelphia or New York, Berlin said. And it was the political epicenter of the Maryland abolition movement, with a leading newspaper, the Baltimore American, instrumental in the push to end slavery.
“With Free States on both sides of her, who would care to own negroes here? And what possible advantage would we have over those obnoxious to the terms of the President’s manifesto in other states? As the matter stands even at present, negro property here has become so uncertain in the tenure that in many portions of our commonwealth, they are as good as free already,” the paper editorialized on Sept. 24, 1862.
But outside the city, in the vast agricultural areas of Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore, slavery was a way of life, much as it was in the rest of the white South, where tobacco was giving way to labor-intensive crops such as cotton, rice and sugar.
“Southern Maryland was certainly a southern state; it is agriculture, plantations . . . in some ways it is not much different from Mississippi, both in size and in their lucrative nature,” Berlin said. Slaveholders’ determination to maintain their human property was a crucial element in the white southern culture, he said.
Other large swaths of Maryland, from Prince George’s to Montgomery County, north to Frederick and west, were also pro-slavery, although Frederick itself was a divided community.
Lincoln, aware of the divisions and the pressure on Maryland politicians from secessionists and slaveholders, knew that keeping Maryland and the other border states — Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri — in the Union meant he would need to essentially ignore their slave holdings.
When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, he limited it to states that had seceded.
“He freed the slaves over which he had no control at that point,” said Haley of the Maryland State Archives. “That is the reality of the Emancipation Proclamation.”
Meanwhile, an aggressive Col. William Birney, son of Kentucky antislavery politician James G. Birney, was busy recruiting slaves into service in the Union army, spiriting them away from their Maryland owners, liberating them from jails and from slave pens where they were being held before sales. One account said that black slaves in a Frederick jail threw a rock with a note to an imprisoned recruiter to let him know they wanted to join the Union forces. Birney’s zealous approach worried the Lincoln administration, which was getting complaints from slaveholders. Birney was unmoved, and his recruiters pressed on, usually neglecting to ask potential black recruits whether they were free. They simply signed them up.