Twenty-eight Fugitives Escaping from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. (Library of Congress/Library of Congress)

Maryland calls itself the Free State, but it was in no hurry to give up slavery during the Civil War.

Elsewhere in the country, antislavery measures progressed rapidly. Congress freed the slaves in the District in 1862, compensating their owners. The Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves in the states that had seceded, went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863. But Maryland didn’t act until 1864, when it held a referendum — and even then, the outcome wasn’t at all certain.

The vote tipped in favor of abolition only after the absentee ballots of soldiers fighting for the North were counted. The final tally was 30,174 in favor of freeing the slaves to 29,799 against.

On Nov. 1, 1864, Maryland’s slaves were declared free, only a few months before Congress would approve the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. Many blacks in Maryland had taken matters into their own hands by that time, either escaping to the District or enlisting in the Union army, where they served as free men.

Well known in the modern era for being a politically progressive state, especially on matters of civil and individual rights, Maryland came to that tradition slowly and with substantial reluctance. Indeed, as the Civil War loomed, much of Maryland remained firmly pro-slavery. Even such a Maryland luminary as Montgomery Blair, President Abraham Lincoln’s postmaster general, was more concerned about punishing secessionists and preserving the Union than advancing freedom for African Americans.

An illustration of a farmer being caught in the act of trying to return freed slaves to the South, with caption 'The maddest man in all Maryland', during the US civil war, circa 1865. (Kean Collection/Getty Images)

“We are menaced by the ambition of the ultra-Abolitionists, which is equally despotic in its tendencies and which, if successful could not fail to be alike fatal to Republican institutions,” Blair told a gathering of the Unionist movement in Rockville on Oct. 3, 1863, even as antislavery forces appeared to be gaining support in the state and the nation.

Blair, a confidant of Lincoln but a scion of a slaveholding family and a bitter foe of staunch abolitionists, was in many ways emblematic of Maryland’s landed aristocracy.

“Much of the South’s wealth and economic powers stemmed from the institution of slavery, and that included border states such as Maryland,” said Christopher E. Haley, research director for the history of slavery in Maryland in the Maryland State Archives.

Even the governor, Thomas H. Hicks of the Know Nothing Party, was a slaveholder. But like many in the border state, he also personified the conflict that stretched across Maryland, where some would fight for the North and others for the South. Hicks was a staunch supporter of the Union and would press hard for Maryland to remain part of that fragile coalition.

To keep the Union intact, Lincoln would step gingerly when it came to Maryland and its slaveholders. Political expediency in pursuit of the high moral ground would be his method, allowing a slow march towards abolition. If Hicks and then his more liberal successor, Augustus Bradford, would ensure that Maryland stayed in the Union, Lincoln, temporarily at least, would look the other way on the question of slavery.

“It was very much a divided state,” said University of Maryland historian Ira Berlin, a well-known scholar who specializes in the study of slavery. In some cases, families themselves were divided, with sons fighting on both sides.

There were many signs of the fragility of the state’s pro-Union position in the years leading up to the Civil War, especially evident in an urban-rural divide.

The focus of the war moves west

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.

Blair, like many from slaveholding families in Maryland, would bow to the inevitability of emancipation. Writing on April 5, 1863, in the Washington Star, Blair said the issue of slavery could no longer be avoided. “The question is upon us, and all that we can do is to say on which side we shall range ourselves. To be debating whether it is better or worse for us to have it, is like debating whether the ruin that is falling is needed.

“I know indeed that too many of our friends are so afraid of the Slavery question, or rather are so terrified at the Secession howl of “Abolitionists,” that they persuade themselves that they can dodge the issue . . . but the war now drenching the land in blood, which is due to this timidity, should at least teach us that to cower before traitors and to adopt their slang, is alike inconsistent with patriotism and self-respect.”

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.

Isaac D. Jones of Somerset County, a bastion of slaveholders, said he recognized that the majority of the delegates would vote to abolish slavery. So he tried a different argument, urging his fellow delegates to move slowly to emancipate slaves for the good of the slaves themselves. “Winter will be approaching,” he said. “If those slaves now comfortably housed, clothed and fed themselves . . . I suggest to those who are unacquainted with the condition of this unfortunate class of people what will be approaching winter with the present high prices of food, the present high prices of clothing? Where will they find a home?”

The delegates eventually approved abolition and put the new constitution to a referendum by popular vote, where the pro-slavery forces were ahead — until the absentee ballots of Union soldiers were counted.

For Maryland, it was the culmination of a move toward greater liberties that Lincoln had been nudging along, mostly behind the scenes.

“Before the Emancipation Proclamation, he says to leaders of border states such as Maryland, ‘Look, guys, it is over. I will support compensated emancipation. You can get paid off,’ ” said Berlin.

“Of course, they ignore him, tell him ‘no deal, forget about it.’ They blow him off,” Berlin said.

But Lincoln, ever patient, stood firm.

“Eventually, he says, ‘This train is leaving the station whether you guys are on it or not.’ ”

Yet even after Maryland’s emancipation on Nov. 1, 1864, former slaves faced problems.

Owners evicted slaves from their modest homes, or refused to pay wages and apprenticed their children into long-term contracts. Some even tried to go after former slaves who, they said, owed them money. In an incident recounted in “Freedom,” a multi-volume series that Berlin co-wrote, a sheriff arrested a freed slave in Washington in March 1866 — almost two years after Maryland emancipated its slaves — and took him to Maryland. There he was accused of using his former master’s horse and cart while attempting to escape with his family in 1863.

For many Maryland slaves, freedom, while formally granted, remained elusive.

Berlin said the end of slavery in Maryland was clearly a big step in the continuing struggle of blacks to achieve a better life. But challenges remained.

From “Freedom:” “The day after emancipation thus found black men and women in the same ambiguous positions as on the day before: between slavery and freedom, struggling to define a new free status for themselves.”

That would take another century.