In the early 1850s, discussions amongst the Ridgely family, neighbors and guests in the mansion’s elegant drawing room probably revolved around subjects such as the Compromise of 1850, rights of Southern property owners, the role of abolitionists and free blacks, fears of slave revolts, and the growth of sectionalism.
One notable local fugitive case called the Christiana “Riot,” (now referred to as Resistance or Incident) which commanded national attention. In September of 1851, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, a Baltimore County farmer, accompanied by family, friends, and law officers, tried to apprehend his runaway enslaved laborers. A group of free blacks and abolitionists from Pennsylvania tried to prevent the capture and return of the enslaved people. The Baltimore farmer, Edward Gorsuch, was killed and his son seriously wounded in the encounter.
The incident made front page news in the Baltimore Sun and other newspapers for weeks. Huge rallies held in Baltimore and Towson and the newspapers (including the Sun) with Southern sympathies fanned the flames of sectionalism. The Gorsuch Farm was on the York Road only a few miles north of Hampton. His death would have been quite disturbing to neighboring slave owners and would have unquestionably been a topic of discussion even at social events. Concerns and tensions mounted after this incident, culminating in the news of the Dred Scott decision (1857) and John Brown’s raid (1859). James McHenry Howard recalled in his memoirs that John and Eliza Ridgely “passed their lives quietly until 1860 when it became apparent that a civil war was about to vary that peaceful monotony of American home life, and after that time more or less anxiety disturbed the tranquility of their days and nights.”
On the eve of the Civil War, Hampton plantation covered over 4,000 acres and included over 60 enslaved persons and a few free Black laborers. “I have many memories of the Civil War,” John and Eliza Ridgely’s grandson Henry White recalled, “the greater part of them not very pleasant to one, who, even as a child, greatly disliked heated discussions between members of the family and friends.” During the course of the war, family members reported that they were torn between sympathy for the South, hinging on issues of states’ rights and their continued embrace of slavery, and the fact that, in the words of White, the family maintained a “material interest dependent of Northern victory.” “Hardly a day passed,” he bitterly remembered, “that I did not hear one or more such discussions, during which the parties thereto frequently lost their tempers and ended…by not speaking to each other.” The Ridgelys feared that “Maryland would be a buffer state between the contending sections,” to say nothing of “the dread of confiscation and possible slave insurrection and rapine and murder.”
John and Eliza’s son Charles Ridgely (1830-1872) was elected captain of the Baltimore County Horse Guard (a local defense militia) at the outbreak of the Civil War. Following the Pratt Street Riots (1861) the Horse Guard began a series actions disrupting bridges and rail lines in an attempt to negatively impact the American military’s efforts of mobilization for the war. Charles was threatened with arrest by the commander of United States forces then stationed at Fort McHenry for actions against the Army. He escaped incarceration through his father’s intervention, the guard was disbanded, and Charles remained inactive during the war despite his Southern sympathies.
Although the Hampton plantation saw no conflict, the sounds of war reached their ears; White recalled, during the “Battle of Antietam, of which I well remember hearing the guns in the far distance one fine afternoon, on the terrace at Hampton.” So close was the war to Hampton that White felt that “it was very fortunate for all of us that Maryland happened to be on the road from the North to Washington, and consequently to be taken under the control of the Union army. Otherwise, it would doubtless have been reduced to the condition in which, after the war, the other Southern states found themselves.”
The Civil War proved to be a defining moment in Hampton’s history. Although the three major military campaigns that came through the state of Maryland never reached Hampton, the battle fought on the plantation was one of culture. On multiple occasions large groups of enslaved people left the Hampton estate during the war, and some of those who escaped went on to serve in the United States military helping ensure not only their own freedom, but also fighting for the freedom of others. In contrast, Charles Ridgely felt restrictions of freedoms with the suspension of Habeas Corpus in the state, being forced to be on house arrest, or face time in prison for his support of the South. In November of 1864 (just about five months before the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox) Maryland issued its emancipation of all enslaved people in the state. For Hampton their labor force was freed and those that wished to remain could do so as free paid laborers. This major change in the operations of Hampton began the road to the eventual economic decline of the estate.