In the annals of slave rebellions, Nat Turner’s name looms large. The insurrection he led in Southampton County, Va., in 1831, involved the murders of 55 white men, women and children and sent shock waves throughout the slaveholding southern states.
Legislatures enacted more stringent codes restricting the rights of slaves and free blacks, and sectionalism replaced nationalism as the sharply divided country inched inexorably toward civil war.
Turner was hanged but outlived his villainous persona to inspire a 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by William Styron and more recently a 2016 film, “The Birth of a Nation.” Denmark Vesey, in Charleston, S.C., and a Richmond-area slave named Gabriel, are lesser known but still prominent figures in the history of slave rebellions.
Maryland seldom is mentioned in these discussions. Yet, on Easter in 1817, some 200 slaves revolted in St. Mary’s County. The outburst resulted in whites being injured by sticks, brickbats “and other missiles” and the sacking of two houses before peace was restored, according to the late historian Herbert Aptheker.
In July 1845, another uprising occurred in Maryland that is little remembered and rarely mentioned. Starting in Charles County, runaway slaves gained in strength as they passed through St. Mary’s and Prince George’s into Montgomery County, at one time numbering perhaps 75 men armed with pistols, scythe blades, bludgeons, swords, butcher knives and clubs. Their destination was the free state of Pennsylvania.
Their northward march to freedom is nowhere to be found in the written histories of the affected counties. “Maryland is not very good about discussing these things,” says Cheryl LaRoche, an archaeological historian at the University of Maryland who has extensively researched and written about slave escapes. “And part is to downplay these things we see and keep them local, as just some disgruntled folks making their way out of slavery rather than a larger narrative.”
This narrative begins on July 7 or 8, 1845. The “prime movers and instigators of the late Negro insurrection,” the Port Tobacco Times later reported, were Mark Caesar, identified as a free black man, and Bill Wheeler, the property of Benjamin Contee, a leading citizen of Port Tobacco in Charles County who owned as many as 48 slaves. As they moved through what are now suburban counties in the Washington metropolitan area, their ranks swelled with other fugitive slaves.
Marching six across along what is today Route 355, they were led, according to one account, by “a powerful negro fellow, sword in hand.” Five miles north of Rockville and two miles from Gaithersburg, their flight from bondage ended when they were confronted by the Montgomery Volunteers, a local militia, and a posse of citizens called into action by Sheriff Daniel Hayes Candler.
The sheriff, who served in the post from 1843 to 1846, lived in Rockville with his wife, children and five slaves. Candler, 33, had been born, according to census records, on March 15, 1812, in “Montgomery Village,” known today as a planned, suburban community first developed by the Kettler Brothers in the 1960s.
The insurrectionists did not quietly surrender but instead fought back. A detailed account on the encounter by the Rockville Register was reprinted in full on the front page of the Baltimore Sun on July 12. “GREAT EXCITEMENT. Runaway Slaves,” read the headline. The report said “these daring negroes” numbered 40, though there were rumors of nearly 200.
“The very boldness of the step led many citizens at first to believe that an extensive scheme of escape had been planned with the negroes along the route,” the paper said.
In the melee, 10 were severely wounded. A large number escaped and were never recaptured. The rest — 31, according to the newspaper — were led away in chains to the Rockville jail before being sold by their owners out of state. The newspaper account named five still at large and 10 wounded and their owners. Caesar and Wheeler were remanded to Port Tobacco, then the Charles County seat and now the smallest incorporated town in Maryland with an estimated population of 13 in 2016. There they were prosecuted by George Brent, who owned 15 slaves in 1840.
After a two-day trial, the jury deadlocked on Caesar, and a new jury was quickly impaneled and convicted him, this time “as a free negro aiding and abetting slaves in making their escape from their masters,” reported the Port Tobacco Times. He was sentenced to 40 years and died in jail of consumption on Nov. 11, 1850.
Wheeler remained a fugitive for several weeks but eventually was arrested, brought to trial in Port Tobacco, convicted and sentenced to death by hanging, but it was commuted to life in prison. Four months later, he escaped from jail and, despite a $100 reward offered for his capture, was never apprehended. The presiding judges, both slaveholders, were Clement Dorsey, later elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and Alexander Contee Magruder, who is buried in Congressional Cemetery on Capitol Hill. Opined the Marlboro Gazette upon his death in 1853: “As a lawyer, he had few superiors; as a Judge, he was able and upright; and as a man, he was beloved by all who knew him.”
Of the uprising, the Maryland Journal said, “This is the most daring movement which has ever come under our observation. We have heard of gangs of negroes travelling through parts of the country sparsely inhabited, but never before have we heard of their taking to the public road in open day, within 2 miles of a County town.”
This “daring movement” inspired alarmed white citizens to meet and propose measures to prevent a recurrence. In St. Mary’s County, 10 people in each election district would comprise a “Committee of Vigilance” to closely watch over movements of blacks. The Montgomery Volunteers won praise and more recruits for their efforts.
Eugene L. Meyer, a former Washington Post reporter and editor, is the author of “Five for Freedom: The African American Soldiers in John Brown’s Army.”