As March ended and April began in 1862, it was clear that emancipation would soon come to the District of Columbia. While the ability of Congress to end slavery legislatively throughout the rest of the United States was greatly doubted due to 1857’s Dred Scott decision in the U.S. Supreme Court, its authority, then as now, over Washington, D.C. was absolute. Virtually no one questioned Congress’ constitutional ability, if it so wished, to end slavery there by legislation. And as April 1862 dawned it was plain that Congress would soon do just that. A bill nearing passage in early April would immediately free slaves in the District of Columbia and compensate their owners if they were loyal.
Although there were less than 2,000 slaves in Washington, D.C., by early 1862, the intentions of Congress sent worried shivers through some District slaveholders. Like slaveholders elsewhere, they had long feared the consequences of emancipation, both for them personally and society generally. They also did not like that they only would receive $300 per slave as compensation from the federal government, which in most cases was a considerably smaller sum than the market value of their human property.
Not surprisingly, some slaveholders took an obvious step: they withdrew their slaves from Washington, D.C., to neighboring Maryland, where slavery was still legal and seemingly well-entrenched. The National Republican, organ of the Republican Party in the federal capital reported in its March 31, 1862 issue:
Slave owners, in anticipation of the emancipation act, are running off their slaves as fast as they can to the lower counties of Maryland. A number have also been sent to Baltimore, where they are confined to the “negro pens” until they can be sold or removed further South.
A case of this kind occurred the other day, which exhibits this villainous traffic in all its horror and deformities. On the 19th instant [i.e., March 19, 1862], a negro girl aged about 13 years, (an invalid) belonging to a Mrs. Matthews, on 13th street, was placed in jail by order of her mistress. A few days after, the mother of the girl learning that her daughter was confined in that filthy hole, procured a pass from Marshal Lamon [Ward Lamon, Abraham Lincoln’s close associate and sometimes bodyguard] to enter the jail and see her child. Upon arriving at the jail, the mother was informed that she had been taken away about a half an hour previous, but where to the guards could not inform her. The next day the mother herself was arrested and carried off. She had an infant child with her, leaving two other children, one of them three and the other two years of age, behind in the custody of her mistress. The whereabouts of the mother and her two children was not discovered until Saturday, when one of her friends (who claims she is a free woman), accompanied by our reporter, went on to Baltimore, and after considerable difficulty found her in the B. M & W. L. Campbell’s “negro pen,” No. 282 West Pratt street. Her friends requested permission to see her but were denied admittance to the “pen” unless they first obtained the written consent of her mistress to see her. The keeper of the “hell” informed her the eldest child was very sick with an affection of the throat, and inquired what should be done for her and whether she was subject to attacks of sore throat, concluding with the heartless remark, “She isn’t worth much to anyone.”
Thus are families torn asunder by the ruthless hand of slavery, mothers parted from children of tender years, and conveyed to distant places, perhaps never to see them again. This is only one of numerous occurrences which are now occurring daily. Unless Congress makes haste, before passage of the emancipation bill takes place, there will be no slaves left in the District to emancipate.
In any case, it is apparent that Mrs. Matthews and some other District slaveholders were intent on thwarting the intent of the impending Washington, D.C. emancipation bill. Obviously, even the prospect of compensation could not induce some slave owners there to free their human property. In doing so, they carried out on a small scale a practice that was already and would continue to be practiced on a larger scale by slaveholders further south during the Civil War, who “refugeed” their slaves from locations threatened by Union forces to places further away from the war’s action (Texas was a common destination).
For the District slaveholders, however, Maryland would prove, at best, a temporary refuge. Although the state’s slaveholders had dismissed with ill-concealed contempt President Lincoln’s offer to assist them financially in a plan of gradual compensated emancipation, abolitionist sentiment, long latent in the state, was beginning to stir in 1862. Slavery in Maryland would be dealt another blow soon by the advent of black military service in the Union, helping to hasten the end of slavery in the state, which had long been in decline due to the collapse of tobacco prices after the American Revolution. A new state constitution passed on November 1, 1864, enacted by a legislature which had come under the control of those same long-latent abolitionists, would finally end slavery formally in Maryland. Slaveholders in the state would receive no compensation for their slaves, unlike their counterparts in the District of Columbia that went along with emancipation there. Hence, by pulling some of her slaves out of the District into Maryland in March 1862, Mrs. Matthews might have delayed their liberation, but in the end received no compensation when they finally did become free.