Political Prisoners

A sketch depicting American soldiers firing into a crowd that is throwing rocks during the Pratt Street Riots of 1861.
Artist's sketch of the Pratt Street Riots, April 19, 1861.

Library of Congress

The Secession Crisis

Following Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, Southern slave-owning states began to secede from the United States of America starting with South Carolina. In no place was there a greater rise in tensions than the state of Maryland. The northern most slave-owning state in the country, Maryland’s Mason-Dixon Line (it’s northern border with Pennsylvania) symbolized the division between slavery and freedom in the country. As the secession crisis grew, the question of whether Maryland would secede or remain loyal to the country grew more divisive.

In April of 1861 southern batteries opened fire on U.S. troops at Fort Sumter and in response President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to help put down the rebellion. In response to this declaration, four more states seceded including Virginia. With the southern border of the nation’s capital in rebellion, eyes were now focused on Maryland which if it were to secede, Washington D.C. would then be surrounded. The call for troops also incensed Maryland secessionists and tensions rose in Baltimore as the city became a powder keg ready to explode. The crisis came to ahead when on April 19, 1861 the 6th Massachusetts regiment marched through the city from the President Street rail station to the Camden Station to travel to Washington D.C. The sight of federal troops marching through the city angered secessionists who began attacking the troops starting a riot in which 4 soldiers and 12 civilians were killed, and 36 soldiers and hundreds of civilians were wounded.

A historic black and white photograph of Roger B. Taney.
Chief Justice Roger B. Taney.

Library of Congress

Fort McHenry and Drastic Measures

Some of the soldiers involved with the Pratt Street riots were on their way to Fort McHenry to help reinforce the garrison there. The fort’s commander, Capt. John C. Robinson, began preparations for a possible attack, building up the defenses and turning its large columbiad guns towards the city of Baltimore, threatening that if an attack were to come that he would fire upon Monument Square in the heart of the city. Although the Maryland Senate unanimously voted on April 26, 1861 that the state had no constitutional authority to consider secession and the House of Delegates concurred, fear of a secessionist uprising in Baltimore, and the state, did not go away.

Determined to maintain federal control over Maryland, Abraham Lincoln would suspend the writ of habeas corpus on May 17, 1861. Arrests could now be made through the power of the United States Army and anyone suspected of treasonous activities could be arrested and held in military instillations, such as Fort McHenry, without ever being charged with a crime. The practice resulted in the arrest of John Merryman who was held at Fort McHenry and ultimately led to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to issue the Ex parte Merryman brief.

A sketch depicting a man in a cell with a Civil War soldier outside of the cell.
Artist's rendition of a prisoner being held at Fort McHenry during the Civil War.

NPS/Harpers Ferry Center

The American Bastille

John Merryman was not the last person imprisoned under the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. Many political figures and private citizens would find themselves in the confines of Fort McHenry throughout the war. In September of 1861 another attempt to vote for secession was planned in the state of Maryland, in response Secretary of War Simon Cameron gave orders that the legislative body of Maryland must not be allowed to pass such an act. On the night of September 11, 1861, a “political massacre” occurred in which 31 members of the Maryland legislature were arrested. In addition, the mayor of Baltimore, George W. Brown, and other prominent citizens were arrested. Most of the people arrested in the political massacre found themselves being held in Fort McHenry.

Other private citizens found themselves arrested and held in the fort as well. Editors of pro-southern leaning newspapers were particularly targeted as the freedom of the press became more and more restricted under martial law. In an ironic twist of fate, newspaper editor Frank Key Howard, grandson of Francis Scott Key, would be arrested and brought to Fort McHenry on the night of September 13-14, 1861, the anniversary of the night his grandfather watched the bombardment of the fort and was inspired to write the Star Spangled Banner. Other notable political prisoners included the Baltimore Police Commissioner Geroge P. Kane, and private citizens such as Reverend Robert Douglas.

Last updated: July 30, 2020

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