"The first day of Freedom in Maryland": Slavery in a Border State

Twenty-eight fugtives flee from the Eastern Shore
Engraving from William Still's The Underground Railroad, 1872. Rare Books Collection, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries.

President Lincoln delivered a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation after the Union victory at the battle of Antietam in September 1862 and later made the proclamation official on January 1, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation only applied to areas still in rebellion and did not affect slave states such as Maryland that had not withdrawn from the Union. In order to be legally free in Maryland, enslaved African Americans had to wait until Maryland's 1864 state constitution was ratified. The October 1864 ratification vote proved greatly controversial. The soldiers' vote, which included only those soldiers from Maryland serving in the Union Army, just tipped the scale so that this new state constitution could be ratified.

Since enslaved women and men were often illiterate, they did not often write letters or diaries. There are consequently a limited number of such first-hand manuscript sources documenting enslaved individuals' perspectives of and roles in the war and their feelings about emancipation. Oral histories with former slaves have been one way that historians have tried to understand slave perspectives, but the usefulness of these interviews is somewhat uncertain because they were usually recorded long after the fact.

Researchers frequently turn to other sources to try to gain insight into slavery and the lives of enslaved individuals. Published sources, such as William Still's The Underground Railroad (1872), provide second-hand accounts of Maryland slaves, including some very resourceful women, who escaped to freedom. Manuscript sources created by slave owners and witnesses to the "peculiar institution" of slavery can also assist in filling this gap in the historical record, but must be read with caution. Slave owners often kept careful track of their holdings, listing out the first name, age, and value of each slave. Enslaved women were normally considered less valuable than their male counterparts. White observers of slavery sometimes had mixed emotions about the treatment of slaves. Although the motivations of such witnesses must be carefully examined, such observations can be very helpful in learning about enslaved lives that may not be recorded anywhere else in history. Special Collections has numerous examples of original historical documents relating to the history of slavery in Maryland.

Tracing African American genealogical information in the mid-nineteenth century can be challenging, but not impossible. There are numerous resources available to genealogists and historians, including the 1860 U.S. Federal census and slave schedules. The census lists free black men and women by last name, while the slave schedules are organized by the last names of slave owners and then usually only the age and gender of enslaved individuals. In addition, local newspapers, court documents, manumission records, and other archival public documents can shed light on African American heritage. The Maryland State Archives website, "The Study of the Legacy of Slavery in Maryland", is an excellent resource for researching African American ancestors in Maryland. In addtion, the Freedman's Bureau records at the National Archives is an extremely important source for "investigating the African American experience in the post-Civil War and Reconstruction eras."

Calvert's account book
Slave Account Book, circa 1850s

Circa 1850s account book of Charles Benedict Calvert, the founder of the University of Maryland, College Park. Calvert kept careful lists of the names and values of slaves at his various land holdings, including the names of female slaves. Maryland Manuscripts Collection, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries.

Leonidas Dodson diary front cover and first page.
Diary Entry, June 23, 1854

Leonidas Dodson was a prominent citizen of Easton, Maryland, during the nineteenth century. His journals span almost half a century (1842-1889) and are a rich source of information about local and national events, including the topics of slavery and the Civil War. Leonidas Dodson wrote a diary entry on June 23, 1854, describing his grief over the death of a slave girl named Emily who had lived with his family. Leonidas Dodson Papers, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries. [The image at left links to Dodson's entire 1853-1854 diary. To view this particular entry scroll to pages 98-99 in the digital document viewer.]


Leonidas Dodson diary front cover and first page.
Diary Entry, November 1, 1864

In his November 1, 1864, diary entry, Leonidas Dodson writes of his thoughts about the new Maryland state constitution that abolished slavery and the "First day of Freedom in Maryland."Leonidas Dodson Papers, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries. [The image at left links to Dodson's entire 1863-1872 diary. To view this particular entry scroll to pages 33-34 in the digital document viewer.]


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