PG Tricentennial Prince George's County:
Over 300 years of History


The Civil War began in Maryland on April 19, 1861, one week after the firing on Fort Sumter, South Carolina. The Northern states responded enthusiastically to President Lincoln's call for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the Southern rebellion, and troops began pouring into Washington. Many of them passed through Baltimore. Pro-Southern Baltimoreans were outraged, and the outrage turned to violence. When soldiers of the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment tried to march from one Baltimore railroad station to the other (to complete their connection to Washington), rioting broke out, and soon there was fighting between the troops and the mob. Even when the regiment made its way out of the city, the lawlessness and rioting continued. The police could do nothing, and neither could the militia.

The violence subsided within several days, but worried federal officials in Washington watched Maryland with concern. If Maryland went out of the Union, the city of Washington -- the federal capital -- would be surrounded by Confederate states. Although there was strong Unionist sentiment in Maryland -- particularly among the farmers of Western Maryland and the business community in Baltimore -- the government in Washington decided it could take no chances. President Lincoln authorized the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler occupied Annapolis, seized the railroad between that city and Washington, and then on May 14, in a thunderstorm, occupied Baltimore. Maryland was saved for the Union, whether it liked it or not.

In Prince George's County, there was great sympathy for the South. It is not hard to understand why. Despite the sectional division within Maryland, Prince George's County in 1861 was part of the South. It had a plantation economy and a population that was more than half slave. There was virtually no abolitionist sentiment here -- in the presidential election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln received just one vote from all of Prince George's County! The leaders of our social and public life -- the old gentry -- were all slaveholders and very much Southern-oriented. When it became evident that Maryland would not secede from the Union, scores of young men went South to fight for the Confederacy.

This sympathy for the South did not necessarily mean that Prince Georgeans wanted Maryland to secede, however. Prince George's was a conservative place, and secession was a radical step. Furthermore, county citizens could be sure, located so close to Washington, that their county would be turned into a battleground if Maryland did try to secede. There were firebrands in the county who advocated secession, but three times they were defeated at the polls by more moderate forces. The sentiment of the voters seemed to be: let the South go in peace, but we will stay in the Union.

The first test of secessionist sentiment in the county took place in February 1861, before Fort Sumter. All across the South, state conventions were being held to decide the question of secession or union. Such a convention was to be held in Maryland, and Prince George's County was to elect four delegates. But instead of sending the delegates, Prince Georgeans voted-by a narrow margin-against holding the convention at all. The Planters' Advocate complained that "the least exertion on the part of the friends of the movement, could have elicited a vote that would have overwhelmed the opposition," but the complaint was too late. The state convention, when it met in March, did not decide for secession anyway.

The second electoral test came in June, in special congressional elections. There were two candidates seeking to represent this district in Congress: Charles Benedict Calvert of Riversdale and Benjamin Gwinn Harris of Saint Mary's County. Calvert, though a slaveholder, was a Unionist. Harris was the nominee of the Southern Rights Convention. Calvert carried the county as well as the entire district and went to Congress. His credo was brief: "If Maryland has grievances under the general government she should seek a remedy for them in and not out of the Union." ( National Intelligencer ). He denied that any state had the right to secede.

The third and final contest of 1861 was in the fall, with the general election for state and county offices. Two slates were presented to the voters of Prince George's County -- a Unionist slate and a Peace and States' Rights slate. The Unionist ticket was led by its state senate candidate, Dr. John H. Bayne, the respected physician from Oxon Hill, and a slaveholder. The Peace and States' Rights ticket was led by Oden Bowie, an equally respected planter from Collington. The Unionists were victorious at the polls. Again, The Planters' Advocate complained that "Numerous rumors of intended [military] interference, not only prevented a full turnout of the people, but, we have no doubt, affected the course of many who did vote." The total vote was off some from the previous general election, but not dramatically. Whether "rumors of interference" could make people change their votes is debatable.

More than 120 years after the war, it may be hard to understand why Prince Georgeans, on the one hand, sympathized with the South, but on the other hand, voted for the Union for themselves. The entire issue hinged on the question of the preservation of slavery as an institution. As long as slavery was not threatened, Prince George's County would not move to secede. In the first critical year of the war, it must be remembered, the government in Washington made it clear that Maryland and other border states could keep their slaves if they would remain in the Union. The war against the South, in 1861, was a war against rebellion, not slavery. Furthermore, Unionist candidates in this county were not Republicans (there were none here then), but slaveholders themselves, often from the county's oldest families. Finally, Prince Georgeans would not have to fight against the South if they did not want to. There was no draft in the first year of the war, and even after one was begun, substitutes could be found elsewhere in the state to go in the draftee's place. But above all, as long as there could be both Union and slavery, the collective preference of Prince Georgeans, as expressed at the polls, was to stay in the Union.

When the war began, Washington was an undefended city. Many of the troops called up in the first months of the war did not go off to fight, but rather stayed in and around Washington and Maryland to protect the capital. There were soldiers all up and down the Baltimore and Ohio rail line to Baltimore, the rail link to the North; at Fort Washington on the Potomac; in camps throughout the District of Columbia, as well as Bladensburg; and in a ring of forts hastily built surrounding the city. Most of these new forts, such as Fort Dupont, were within the District of Columbia, but one, Fort Lincoln, was partially in Prince George's County, and another, Fort Foote, was entirely in the county, high above the Potomac on Rozier's Bluff, opposite Alexandria.

The Union soldiers who came to Washington often recorded their impressions of Prince George's County. Despite the votes for Unionism, the county had a pro-Southern reputation because of its slave system and lack of enthusiasm for the war. Warren Handel Cudworth, who wrote the History of the First Massachusetts Infantry (1866), recorded his thoughts on a march through the county early in the war: "The march [from Bladensburg] commenced ...and continued, without opposition, through a semi-hostile country until night, when the soldiers bivouacked in an oak-grove, not far from the quaint old town of Marlborough.... The people were moderately disunion or non-committal in their sentiments, but emphatically be left alone. No arms or uniforms were found among them, although several houses were searched from cellar to attic, and the regiment moved on." The people of Bladensburg had been more to his liking: "Most of its inhabitants were loyal to the Union, although not so outspoken, on account of threats and insults from secessionists, as they would have been in New England."

As the war dragged on and became bloodier and bloodier, though, the sentiment of the citizenry here swung away from Unionism toward fuller support of the South. By then, however, the question of Maryland's secession was no longer a live one. The fatal blow to the cause of Unionism in this county came when the Lincoln administration finally linked the winning of the war with the freeing of the slaves. The county Unionists protested that "as Union men, we are not only opposed to emancipation in this state, but even to all agitation of the question, [even though] our devotion to the Union increases with its perils." (Baltimore American, September 3, 1863). But their protests were to no avail. They were beaten handily in the local elections of 1863, and a government openly hostile to President Lincoln and the war effort was installed in Upper Marlboro.

What of the blacks in Prince George's County during the Civil War? When slavery was abolished in the District of Columbia in April 1862, a good many fled there to freedom. If the complaints of county officials are a good gauge, the slaveholders saw it as a major problem. Many slaves also escaped bondage by enlisting in the Union Army. Charles Branch Clark, in an article in the Maryland Historical Magazine in 1946, reported that Oden Bowie lost seventy slaves to enlistment in 1863. Ironically the Emancipation Proclamation did not free the rest of the slaves here, as it applied only to states in rebellion-and Maryland had not seceded. A new state constitution-passed narrowly by the Maryland voters (but rejected in Prince George's County) -- eventually freed the Maryland slaves on January 1, 1865. The old plantation system, already in disarray because of the war and so many runaway slaves, received its death blow.

There were no battles in Prince George's County during the Civil War, although the Union Army was always present, guarding the rail line, marching through the countryside, and watching from the forts around Washington. Once, however, a sizeable Confederate force entered Prince George's. It happened in July 1864, during Jubal Early's last Confederate invasion of Maryland. Early dispatched four hundred cavalrymen under the command of a Marylander, Gen. Bradley Tyler Johnson, to cut rail communications north of Baltimore and then between Baltimore and Washington. The Confederates did their work here on July 11 blowing up the rail line at Beltsville and cutting the telegraph wires. They then camped for the night at the Maryland Agricultural College (now the University of Maryland). The Rossborough Inn was turned over to General Johnson for use as a headquarters. A legend persists that a ball was held at the college that night, a ball attended by all the Confederate officers, the college faculty, and the pro-Southern gentry of Prince George's County. It may never be known whether there is any truth behind the legend of the "Old South Ball," but the story was repeated time and time again in the decades after the war. The next day Johnson and his men rejoined the main body of Early's forces for the unsuccessful attack on Fort Stevens. Georgia Avenue passes by the old fort now; the battle there was the only one to take place within the District of Columbia.

This history of the Civil War in Prince George's County will end with the story of the hero of the Southern cause here, Walter (Wat) Bowie. Wat Bowie was an officer in the Confederate Army, a captain in Mosby's Rangers. His father was W.W.W. Bowie, the agriculturalist; his mother was Adeline Snowden Bowie. During the war, Bowie returned to the county several times, both to gather information and to visit his family. Effie Gwynn Bowie writes in Across the Years in Prince George's County that the federal government put a price on his head. He was captured once and imprisoned, but escaped before he could be executed. Mrs. Bowie relates another story; that while visiting relatives once, he escaped capture by disguising himself as a slave woman and brazenly walking past Union soldiers searching the property. His luck ran out, however, in 1864. On a foray into Maryland, Bowie and his men raided a store in Sandy Spring, Montgomery County. They were pursued by the locals, who caught up with them near Rockville. Shots were fired, and Bowie fell, mortally wounded. His brother Brune stayed with him and was captured. Wat Bowie was buried at the family home Willow Grove, near Holy Trinity Church, Collington. He was twenty-seven. It is said that his mother never spoke after his death. She died a few months later.

The end of the war and the freeing of the slaves brought great changes to Prince George s County. The old way of life for the slaveholders came to an end; freedom at last came to the slaves. In two hundred years of settlement, Prince George's County had become the richest, most productive plantation county in Maryland. That was over. A new age would begin.

Return to the Index of "Prince George's County: a Pictorial History" or continue reading from here.

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These pages were created as a part of the 1996 PG County Tricentennial celebration. Additional history resources are listed on the bibliography page. These pages are not being updated. They are now located on the Prince George's County Historical Society's web site. Contact links: web site manager - Society information. You can search the entire site through this search form.:

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