Maryland Slaves in the Civil War: How it Happened in St. Mary’s County

Posted by on Nov 12, 2012 in Archaeology, History | No Comments
Maryland Slaves in the Civil War: How it Happened in St. Mary’s County

The enlistment card of Aelxander Gough (courtesy of ancestry.com)

On October 19th, 1863, Lieutenant Eben White of the Union Army headed to St. Mary’s County to recruit African American slaves to the Union cause. The US Government had recently allowed the Union forces to begin recruiting African Americans who had been enslaved in Union border states, including Maryland. While free blacks had been recruited since 1862 in Southern Maryland, it was only until after the Emancipation Proclamation that the Union Army began recruiting slaves. Up until this point, however, there had been a large fear that these states would succeed with the South if their rights to slavery were taken away. In Southern Maryland, Confederate sympathies ran deep. Lt. White would soon discover just how deep these sympathies lay.

When White arrived at “The Plains”, he was met by the owner of the plantation, Colonel John Henry Sothoron. It is unclear what occurred, but what was evident was that White was killed, and Sothoron and his son fled South. The plantation was taken under the control of the Federal Government, and Mrs. Sothoron and her children were placed under house arrest. While the story of The Plains Plantation is unique, it provides a glimpse into the value that Southern Maryland planters placed on their enslaved property, and their unwillingness to aid the Union cause.

Read more about the Civil War in St. Mary’s County and St. Mary’s City.

Evidence suggests that the Union Army had a presence at St. Mary’s Manor. Brome’s Wharf was destroyed, along with many other landing spots along the Potomac River, to cut back on illicit trading with Virginia, located across the river. Additionally, archaeological evidence, such as a tent peg, buttons, and musket parts, suggest that Brome’s land may have been occupied at some point by Union soldiers.

What is most evident, however, is the use of the Civil War by Dr. Brome’s slaves to gain their freedom. Historical evidence indicates that many left the plantation with the Union Army as civilians, quite possibly heading towards Point Lookout for available work at the prison that had been established there. Two former slaves, however, enlisted in the service: Alexander Gough and William Gross both served in the 38th US Colored Infantry.

See the Transcription of the 1867 Document listing all the Slaves that Gained Their Freedom During the Civil War

Archaeological evidence indicates that other veterans may have lived on the plantation after the war. Two Civil War era Union Army buttons, one for the US artillery, were excavated at the site of the slave quarters. While these do not provide concrete evidence, it certainly suggests that these occupants may have seen action during the war. A cursory comparison of names from the 1870 census with the National Park Services Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database suggests that one laborer, Washington Holmes, may have served in either the 6th or 84th Regiment of the United States Coloured Heavy Artillery, although a number of “Washington Holmes” exist in the database.

These buttons were found at the site of the duplex and single quarter. The left button is an Artillery button, indicated by the “A” in the shield; on the right, a federal Dragoon button, indicated by the “D”.

The Civil War had a wide reaching effect on the entire country, and African Americans played a pivotal role in the military conflict. The lives of Gough, Gross, and Holmes show that the lives lost had not occurred in vain. In the case of Alexander Gough, he was able to escape his bondage, move to Baltimore, marry, and live until 1908, when he died a free man. Using historical and archaeological evidence, we are able to honor their service at St. Mary’s Manor, while also learning about how the Civil War provided freedom for enslaved blacks both as a result of the conflict, but also through its process.

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