Many Maryland slaves already had absconded. John Boston, a slave from Owensville, was among many in the vanguard of the exodus, joining up with a regiment from New York billeted in Virginia.
In January 1862, he wrote to his wife, whom he had left behind:
“My Dear Wife it is with grate joy I take this time to let you know Whare i am now in Safety in the 14th Regiment of Brooklyn . . . this Day i can Adress you thank god as a free man I had a little truble in giting away But as the lord led the Children of Isrel to the land of Canon So he led me to a land Whare fredom Will rain in spite Of earth and hell Dear you must make your Self content i am free from al the Slavers Lash . . . I am With a very nice man and have All that hart Can Wish But My Dear I Cant express my grate desire that i Have to See you i trust the time Will Come When We Shal meet again And if We dont met on earth We Will Meet in heven Whare Jesas ranes . . .”
But most of Maryland’s 87,000 slaves would wait. Once the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, they puzzled over their own status. In a letter to Lincoln 18 months after the Emancipation Proclamation, Annie Davis of Belair in Harford County asked in August 1864 if the slaves were free. Her owner had said she could not leave and visit her family.
In elegant script, Davis wrote:
“Dear Mr. President, It is my desire to be free to go see my people on the Eastern Shore. My mistress won’t let me. Will you please let me know if we are free. . .” At the time, the answer was still no.
But the next month, delegates to a Maryland constitutional convention approved a new constitution that abolished slavery, after arguing for days over whether the Bible endorsed or reviled slavery.
The Rev. Robert Todd, a Methodist minister from Caroline County, was among those pushing for abolition.
“Is it true that because a human being is born in Africa, and with a black skin, a man born in Europe or America, and with a fair skin, has the right to enslave him — to deprive him of his God-like and God-given liberty? . . . Sir, he that claims that slavery is not a violation of natural right, must answer these questions affirmatively,” Todd argued.