The beginning of the Civil War was a complicated period for Maryland: as a slave state, there were many Confederate sympathizers living within its boundaries. This was particularly true in St. Mary’s County, which continued to rely heavily on slaves both as a labor force and an indicator of social status. While there is no documentation of Dr. Brome’s allegiance, it is likely that he sympathized with the South’s cause: he did, after all, own almost 60 slaves as the war approached, and had invested considerable resources in building that slave force in the decades leading to the war.

Slavery in the Civil War

While the Civil War began as a war over States’ rights, it is clear the war was very much about slavery. Slaves throughout the South recognized that the Civil War provided a chance to end slavery. Slaves began using the instability caused by the Civil War to escape their bondage, arriving at Union forts and army camps. This forced the hand of the Union to either uphold the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and return the slaves to their owners or to set them free. At first, the decision was to keep them as contraband of war, but as the Civil War continued, the decision was to free all the slaves in the Southern states, announced in Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. By choosing to escape their bondage and appeal to the Union Army, enslaved African Americans in the South actively took part in achieving freedom. In Maryland, slavery lasted until 1864, when a new constitution was drafted and passed. However, it was greatly weakened through the war, as the Union Army acknowledged the need for soldiers. Recruiting black soldiers began partway through the war, and many enslaved African Americans enlisted. Eventually, this led to instability within the Maryland slave system, and the end of slavery was inevitable.

This water color, illustrated by John J. Omenhausser. One of the water colors had the caption: “Git away from dat fence…De bottom rails on top now”.

The War in St. Mary’s County

St. Mary’s County was relatively untouched by battle during the Civil War. However, because of the county’s strong Confederate sympathies, there was concern that plantation owners would act in opposition to the Union. Many white county residents, in fact, joined the Confederate forces, and the St. Mary’s Beacon newspaper published accounts of local support for the Southern cause. Leading up to the war, St. Mary’s County had practically thrown its support behind the Confederacy. Gradually, however, federal forces began to move into Southern Maryland and arrest Southern sympathizers, and many St. Mary’s County residents began moving South. Trade routes with Virginia were cut off and many wharves were destroyed, including Brome’s Wharf. As the war progressed, so did this pattern, highlighted by the arrest of the Beacon editor, J.S. Downs, and the temporary suspension of the paper in 1863.

One of the county’s most significant contributions to the Civil War was the construction of the Confederate Prison Camp at Point Lookout. Built in 1863, this prison held nearly 50,000 confederate soldiers. What made the prison particularly interesting was the use of African American soldiers as guards. A series of watercolors by a prisoner depict not only some of the conditions of the prison, but also the significant social changes that had taken place: in many cases, African American prison guards mention the changing roles of the black man, telling one confederate soldier, “De bottom rails on the top now.” Many of the political prisoners had been St. Mary’s County Southern sympathizers, meaning that they may have been guarded by their former slaves. There are also indications that hospital staff also assisted Maryland slaves in escaping their bondage.  

The War at St. Mary’s Manor

Dr. Brome’s involvement in the Civil War appears to be minimal. In his forties, it was unlikely that he would have been called into service. His son, Thomas, was only 13. However, the war did have financial impacts on the plantation. The Wharf, a primary component of St. Mary’s City and access point to larger economic and social markets for Brome, was destroyed at some point during the war in order to restrict trade with Virginia. Also, his cottage on Point Lookout was repurposed by the Union Army in building the Confederate Prison. Additionally, archaeological evidence indicates that there may have been Union occupation on the plantation itself: buttons, musket parts, and a tent peg have all pointed to periodic military presence at the site.

The most harmful result of the Civil War, however, was the emancipation of his work force. The damage is depicted through his submission of a list of all the slaves he lost during the war to the Maryland government, with the hope of receiving monetary compensation (he only received money for those slaves who enlisted in the federal army). The list includes the names, ages, and genders of each of his 59 slaves ca. 1864, when Maryland slaves were emancipated. Brome’s mother, Ann Ashcomb, also submitted a list of six additional laborers.

This list includes all of the slaves that Dr. Brome lost during his property, and provides their name, gender, age, and how they achieved their freedom.

The most striking part of this list is that it also includes a numeration of how these slaves were lost: while most were emancipated with the new Maryland constitution, two enlisted in the Union Army. Many others, however, ran away with the military, indicating that they did not enlist, but escaped to a federal military unit. This was common throughout the South. In total, 11 slaves left with the military, including William Washington Walton, who had attempted an escape in 1861: he finally achieved his freedom by taking advantage of the instability created by the Civil War. This indicates that St. Mary’s Manor was a point of tension during the War. Dr. Brome’s southern sympathies, the occasional presence of Union soldiers, and the periodic escape and enlistment by his black laborers indicates that the bonds of servitude that had once  been hard fast were quickly deteriorating.

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