Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground

Barbara Jeanne Fields’ Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland During the Nineteenth Century is the starting point for anyone interested in understanding the experience of slavery and freedom in Maryland. Fields  analyzes and describes the ways in which Maryland’s status as a “border state” or “middle state” affected the practice of slavery. In particular, she argues that the presence of a large community of free blacks had a powerful impact on the experience of enslaved people in Maryland.

She begins by examining slavery and freedom in Maryland prior to the Civil War.  By 1810, Maryland had the largest free black population in the United States. By the beginning of the Civil War, the free black population in Maryland was almost equal to the slave population in the state. However, the ratio of free blacks to enslaved persons differed in different areas of the state. The greatest number of free blacks lived in northern Maryland, while the greatest number of enslaved persons lived in southern Maryland and on the Eastern Shore. This high number of free blacks caused great concern amongst the slaveholders in Maryland. They were worried that free men and women were helping slaves escape Maryland and migrate to the free states of Pennsylvania and Delaware or hiding them in free black communities in the northern counties, in particular Baltimore City.

The relationships that existed between free persons and enslaved persons is of particular interest, as there were many familial and social bonds between free and enslaved people in Maryland, which further encouraged enslaved persons to attempt escape. Slaveholders pushed for stricter state laws and regulations to halt the expansion of the free population by forcing newly manumitted persons out of Maryland. Fears about the impact of free people on the system of slavery also created regional tensions between the southern and Eastern Shore counties, on the one hand, where land owners relied on slave labor and the northern counties, on the other hand, where industry leaders increasingly preferred free labor. These tensions would continue through to the Civil War.

IAs a slave state with southern sympathies that surrounded Washington D.C., Maryland received a lot of attention from the Federal Government during the Civil War. Opinions on the war and its goals and causes varied within the state. Many slaveholding Marylanders were concerned that a Union victory would mean the end of slavery nationwide and actively opposed the state legislature’s decision not to secede. The presence of federal troops, especially those from states with abolitionist sympathies greatly affected the slave institution in Maryland. Many enslaved persons, upon learning the Union troops would be nearby, fled to army encampments where they were often given refuge. Despite orders from the upper levels of Army command, these troops protected the escapees from persecution by slave catchers or former owners. A military order to provide refuge to any enslaved person escaping from the Confederate States further helped Maryland slaves to escape, as they would claim to be escaping from Virginia and be given refuge by the Union Army. The abolition of slavery in Washington D.C. during the Civil War added yet another way for Maryland slaves to escape, and many free persons (with whom they shared social and familial bonds) joined them in relocating to the District of Columbia.

In terms of the semester project, I feel that this book has revealed new paths of escape for enslaved persons in Maryland that should be explored. The role of free black communities in close proximity to enslaved persons should be further explored. The many connections between the free black communities and enslaved persons in Maryland made for frequent assistance from these communities in escape from Maryland. In addition, I believe that the assistance provided to escaped slaves by the Union Army units stationed in Maryland could be an interesting “path to freedom” that could be further explored by our project. In particular Fields mentions the abolitionist sympathies of the Massachusetts regiments that were stationed in Maryland and the District of Columbia during the war, such as Colonel Henry S. Briggs’ regiment. Some primary sources that Fields uses throughout the book that could be investigated are the newspapers published during this time, in particular the Baltimore Sun, Baltimore American, and Cecil Whig. I would add to that list Harford County’s newspaper (which began publishing in 1856), The Aegis and its predecessor The Southern Aegis.

All in all, I feel that Fields book is an excellent analysis of the special circumstances surrounding Maryland and the institution of slavery within the state during the years leading up to, including, and following the Civil War.

Adapted from Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground by Jacob Bensen

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