The US Civil war was a defining moment in our history costing 750,000 American lives, the destruction of 11 U.S cities and put a large portion of our Nation into economic depression for generations. It was a huge failure of democracy where a government for the people engaged in the slaughter of its people. It was a horrific, ugly event where neither side can claim any moral or ethical privilege, and which is also greatly misunderstood by many.
In controversial times it is appropriate to seek insights of great men who have gone before us. I think it appropriate to seek the wisdom of a particularity great American hero, a man who is a hero for all races and gender and admired throughout the world. During the Civil War he advised President Lincoln, was at the forefront of abolition and worked tirelessly to educate and inform the masses on the evils of racism and slavery. I speak of a son of Talbot county, a former slave who became a great orator, abolitionist and statesman – Mr. Frederick Douglass.
On April 14th 1876 Douglass gave a speech to commemorate the Freedmen’s Monument, the first monument to Abraham Lincoln in Washington D.C. Present among the masses was President Grant, his cabinet, the Supreme Court Justices and members of both houses of Congress. Douglass’s words were not just for those present but for us also, he spoke that they were for the “wise and thoughtful men who shall come after us and study the lesson of our history”. With this speech Douglass showed great moral courage and integrity for he wanted to preserve the truths of the events of that time – “Truth is proper and beautiful at all times and in all places”.
To the great astonishment of all, Douglass reminded everyone, that Lincoln did not initiate Federal military action against the Southern States to end slavery, that for the first several years of the conflict the abolition of slavery was not Lincoln’s objective. Douglass points out that Lincoln was solely focused on preserving the Union and that he would have gladly kept the colored race in perpetual bonds to do such – “He was ready to execute all the supposed constitutional guarantees of the United States Constitution in favor of the slave system anywhere inside the slave States.” Douglass States that only after Lincoln lost public support for the conflict on the grounds of “union” did he tap into the sentiment of abolition to give the carnage a moral purpose to maintain public support. Frederick Douglass dispels the misunderstanding held by many today, that Lincoln initiated military action against the Southern States to end slavery.
Another important event misunderstood by many is the Emancipation Proclamation by which many believe Lincoln freed the slaves. Unfortunately, this proclamation issued in the third year of the war, was only directed towards the States in secession and did nothing to free the slaves in bondage within the four slave States that remained within the Union. The Emancipation Proclamation however is where Lincoln pivots the purpose of his military action against the States from “Union” to the more morally acceptable cause of abolition.
Many sit here today and judge why a hundred and sixty years ago 84 men took up arms against the Union. Many of these judgements are formed from an over simplified understanding of the events during that time. Let’s take a look at Maryland history in the early 1860’s so that the reader can more fully understand the issues the men of Talbot County pondered in making their decisions.
After Lincoln’s election seven Southern States seceded from the Union – a right they thought they had based upon the Constitution’s silence about secession and the language of our Founding Fathers about the right to self-government. The decision to send Federal forces into those States caused four additional States to secede based upon their belief of State’s sovereignty and that Federal military force against the States was unconstitutional. The Maryland press was buzzing about the unconstitutionality of Lincoln’s actions. The Maryland General Assembly attempts to clarify the conflict by issuing a proclamation that the hostilities are only about reuniting the States. In Baltimore Federal forces fire into protestors killing many civilians. Soon after Lincoln has the members of Maryland’s General Assembly who had differing political views, arrested along with Baltimore’s mayor and its police commissioner – thus ensuring a government friendly to his administration. Lincoln orders Federal troops to occupy Maryland. Major General Tench Tilghman, a Talbot native and grandson of George Washington’s trusted Aid-de-Camp, calls up Talbot’s militia and makes plans to protect Maryland, not from rebel forces but from the Federal Government itself. The 2nd Amendment is suspended, and Federal forces begin seizing guns and munitions held by both the Maryland militias and civilians.
The Maryland press wrote unending articles about the illegality of Lincoln’s actions, the unconstitutionality of his administration, the tyranny and “despotism” of the President and that the end of our Constitutional liberties was at hand. In reply, Lincoln suspended the first amendment, censored the press and arrested any editor that disagreed with his administration. The occupying Federal troops began looking for anyone disloyal to the Federal administration – coming to their homes in the middle of the night to arrest and whisk away those with opposing political views. At one time Fort Mchenry held over 2,500 “political” prisoners. To accomplish the mass arrests Lincoln suspended Marylander’s Constitutional right to Habeas Corpus and ignored the Supreme Court Justice that ruled this action unconstitutional. Judge Carmichael, our Talbot county judge, was pistol whipped and dragged from his bench by Federal troops and imprisoned for attempting to enforce the constitutional protections of his citizens. Federal cannons were placed on Federal Hill in Baltimore and around Annapolis with Lincolns’ order to General Winfield Scott to bombard Maryland Cities if required – an act that would have killed countless innocent men, women and children of all races.
The Federal occupation was by no means a benevolent occupation. Federal forces, mostly from the North, brutalized many Marylanders, confiscating much private property without compensation and physically assaulting the population with numerous beatings, murders and rapes. Union military courts prosecuted over 450 cases of sexual crimes committed by Union soldiers against Maryland women, a number considered grossly under reported given the reluctance of victims to speak about rape. Federal commanders had the authority to execute any civilian suspected of being a spy and execute they did. What elections that did take place was done under the watchful eye of Union troops and only after the Marylander took an oath of allegiance to the current administration.
The occupying forces also showed great prejudice and brutality to people of color. In 1863 on Baltimore’s Pratt street a group of 200 Federal troops indiscriminately attacked a group of free colored people about to start their work day, beating them with brick batts and “pursuing every African American in sight, vandalizing and invading their homes.” Another report tells of a Union soldier bayoneting and elderly gentlemen of color for his act of scolding white children for throwing bricks in his yard. A young boy was shot by a soldier over a dispute on the price of lemonade he was selling – the list of abuses would fill volumes.
In the blink of an eye Marylander’s constitutional liberties created just 87 years prior and designed to protect the people from the abuses of government were eliminated and Marylanders found themselves under military occupation. Unlike you and I today who can look back and see how things turned out, these people did not know the future and believed their freedom and democracy had permanently ceased.
What would you do if something of this magnitude happened today? Substitute President “Lincoln” for President Trump / Biden (your choice) and imagine that they took such actions to “save the country” – suspending the constitution, censoring the press, arresting politicians of the opposite party, only allowing citizens loyal to him to vote? How would you “feel” if government forces kicked in your door in the middle of the night to take your guns, your spouse or your parents? This is what Talbot County citizens experienced in the early 1860’s.
It has become obvious that the rights of citizens of color have not been protected by our government to the standards that the government would like us to believe and which may have been pre-warned by Mr. Douglass over a century ago. That does not mean that a monument to our ancestral veterans, particularly in light of Maryland’s and Talbot County’s history during that conflict, should be removed due to the emotions of the day and without careful deliberation and discussion. To some it is a monument to those who fought to protect slavery. To others it is a tribute to our Talbot County ancestors who took action against the abuses of government. To many others it is a reminder that our Constitutional rights and liberties are not given to us by our government but are secured by the sacrifices of our citizens and ultimately it falls upon our citizens shoulders to protect those liberties.
It is becoming apparent that any decision on the fate of this monument may be too great for our council members to bare. Some are already being accused of prejudice based upon the color of their skin. Our council has come under great pressure from organizations and people outside Talbot County. I believe our council members should not have to endure such indignities or external influences. Ultimately it is up to the citizens of Talbot County to decide whether to keep, remove or modify this monument and they should be given the opportunity to do such in an environment free from accusations and external influences. This can only be accomplished in the private sanctity of the voting booth.