Slavery and the Civil War
U.S. Senator George W. Vickers: An opponent of secession during the Civil War on the local state and national level, George W. Vickers was appointed Major General of the State Militia. "Camp Vickers," where local troops were trained, was named in his honor. Vickers had four sons, two of whom fought in the War: one for the North and the other for the South. His son, Benjamin, joined the 2nd Tennessee Regiment, and was mortally wounded at the Battle of Shiloh. On his deathbed he married his sweetheart, Sallie Houston, the niece of Sam Houston. His father eventually managed to have his body exhumed, and returned to Kent County for burial.
In 1868, Vickers was elected to the U.S. Senate just as the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson was getting underway. Men crossed the Bay in an iceboat to wake him in the middle of the night to inform him of his election. Vickers then rushed to Washington, and was sworn in just in time to cast the deciding vote against impeachment. Vickers election was unsuccessfully challenged by Charles Sumner of Massachusetts.
Later, Vickers would once again oppose Sumner over the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed voting rights to all men regardless of race, and which Vickers voted against [correct?]. After the amendment passed, James Jones and Isaac Anderson, African American businessmen in Chestertown, sold square foot lots in Chestertown to black men, so they could meet the property ownership requirements and vote. Later, Kent County’s black Civil War veterans named their GAR Hall in Chestertown after the Massachusetts senator who defended their rights: the Charles Sumner Post on South Queen Street is the only remaining original African American Grand Army of the Republic Post in the United States.
Slavery and Escape: By 1860, almost half the population was black, and half of those were slaves. Even so, the number of slaves in the county had decreased by more than 50% since 1790, for economic reasons as well as moral ones. Wheat was less labor intensive than tobacco. It is estimated that on the eve of the Civil War, 2500 of the county’s residents were enslaved.
Not all Kent County residents were opposed to the abolition of slavery, but a number of leaders, including George Burgin Westcott, James Alfred Pearce and Ezekiel Chambers, did. Residents such as John Leeds Barroll were so outraged by the threat of Northern “aggression” that they were arrested and forcibly sent South through the Confederate lines for the duration of the war.
In a region in which family history is so important, it is ironic that the family life of the enslaved residents was so tenuous. Love of family was often what bound slaves to their “master’s” homes, but the ever present danger of being sold and separated was often what made them flee to the Underground Railroad in the hope that abolitionists, black and white, would help them to safety. While many runaways were caught and either punished, or “sold south,” many others found freedom.
Perhaps the most dramatic escape was that of Harriet Shepherd who, desperate to rescue her children from the life that she had endured, boldly stole horses and two carriages from her master and simply drove out of Chestertown with her five young children and five other slaves. They escaped to Wilmington in November, 1855, and eventually reached Philadelphia with the assistance of Underground Railroad conductor Thomas Garrett of Delaware.
Among the best known of runaway slaves from Kent County was the author of Life of Isaac Mason as a Slave. Isaac Mason’s mother was a house slave of Hannah Woodland, and his father a freeman and one of Woodland's overseers. After Woodland died, Mason’s father was able to purchase the freedom of Isaac’s mother and sisters, but Isaac was sold. His new master was a brutal man and when Isaac resisted his beatings and abuse, he threatened to sell him to the New Orleans slave trade. Mason escaped and fled North, where he married. Although now technically free, he was still in danger because of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, which not only offered incentives for the seizure of anyone suspected of being a runaway slave, but also made it impossible for them to have a jury trial, or to testify on their own behalf.
Conductors on the Underground Railroad: All those who worked in the Underground Railroad south of the Mason Dixon Line took great risks. In June 1858, the Kent News exposed James L. Bowers, a white Quaker farmer of Stillpond, and Harriet Tillison, a free black laundress, for assisting runaways. After the article was published, Bowers was lured from his house by a mob that stripped, tarred and feathered him in front of his pregnant wife. Immediately afterward, Harriet Tillison was tarred and feathered by the same mob and the free black man who was hiding her severely flogged.
Bowers identified eight men as being part of the Underground Railroad, all of them “respectable citizens,” but they were never tried. Instead, after another meeting in Chambers’ office on the day the case was to go to court, an even larger mob of leading citizens, this time armed, apprehended Bowers and forced him to leave Kent County, two days after the birth of his child. James Bower and his wife Rebecca returned to Kent County after the war, and are buried in Cecil Friends’ Cemetery near Lynch.
Although some residents took measures outside the law, Judge Ezekiel Foreman Chambers, U.S. Senator James Pearce, Congressman James B. Ricaud and other Kent County leaders held a meeting in Chambers’ office to “promote the better security of their slave property.” At the meeting it was resolved that: “there can be no neutrality; he that is not for us must be regarded as against us.” As a result, they pledged not to do business with any man who would “tamper with our slaves.”
Follow the path to freedom in Kent County. The Underground Railroad and the Quest for Freedom Map
Slaves Join the Union Army: Hundreds of black men from Kent County escaped slavery by enlisting in the Union Army. Steamboats from Baltimore would arrive along the shore to recruit both slaves and free blacks. Learning in advance of the ship’s arrival, so many African Americans flocked to the shore that some were inevitably left behind. Women also tried to join, without success, but boys younger than fifteen were often taken.
This recruitment of slaves infuriated those slave owners who had been loyal to the Union. As citizens of a border state, their slaves had not been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862. George B. Westcott and George Vickers were among those who complained that this “…unlooked for act of military power…casts a gloom and despondency over every loyal heart…” and that “partial starvation must be the inevitable result of the loss of slave labor.”
The Declaration of Rights, voted upon at the Maryland Constitutional Convention on June 24, 1864, freed the enslaved people of Maryland, despite a plea by Kent County delegate Ezekiel Chambers, that Emancipation “is ruinous to the masters; and nobody can doubt that we are in the condition, some of us, of having a large amount of money invested in this species of property.”
The Liberia Movement: The Liberia colonization movement was seen as one possible solution to the injustices that slaves and free blacks encountered. Its supporters essentially believed that whites and blacks could not live together peacefully. In 1831, the Maryland Colonization Society was formed by Dr. Peregrine Wroth, who was a frequent business partner of fellow Chestertown resident Thomas Cuff, an African American. The goal of the organization was “to establish a colony of free people of color,” and by doing so, “blot the crying sin of the land, and to remove the curse which, unhappily we inherit from our fathers.” James A. Jones and William Perkins, black entrepreneurs from Chestertown, were among its supporters. At the first African-American convention, held in Baltimore in 1852, Jones stated that; “the colored man could never rise to eminence except in Africa—the land of his forefathers.” In the end the movement was not a success; only 12,000 blacks in the entire country decided to emigrate, but that number included 1,000 from Maryland.
Henry Highland Garnet, who had escaped from slavery in Kent County with his family as a child, was a supporter of the Liberia movement. He first became an abolitionist while still a high school student in New York City, where he formed the Garrison Literary and Benevolent Association. After graduating from the Oneida Theological Institute, he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister and was the first black minister to preach to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Garnet rose to become a prominent abolitionist, known internationally for his eloquent, forceful, and often fiery rhetoric. He urged slaves to stand up to their white masters, even if it should lead to their death, and made references to slave rebellion in his speeches, thereby distancing himself from Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. When the Civil War erupted, he turned his attention to the founding of black army units and the recruitment of troops. His last wish was to die in Liberia; he was sent there in 1881 by President James Garfield to serve as the U.S. Ambassador. He died the following year and was buried in the country’s capital, Monrovia. Frederick Douglass, in spite of their disagreements, mourned his death.