From the beginning of the Civil War, enslaved African Americans capitalized on wartime instability as a means of gaining their freedom. Throughout the South, enslaved blacks revolted, refused to work in the fields, or left the plantation. Many escapees headed for Union Army camps, pressuring the federal government to eventually declare them free from their bondage. At St. Mary’s Manor, the list compiled by Dr. Brome of the slaves he lost during the War indicated that the enslaved African Americans in Maryland also took advantage of this unstable time, specifically through the military.
The instability created by the war provided a number of opportunities for enslaved blacks to escape their bondage. The list compiled by Brome provides only three options for freedom: emancipation by the state through the 1864 constitution; enlisting with the military; or leaving with or being taken by the military. It does not provide an option for outright escape, although there is evidence to indicate that this was a regular occurrence throughout Maryland. Of the 65 slaves who were owned by Dr. Brome and his mother, Ann Ashcomb, during the war, 15 “left with or were taken by the Military.”
Throughout the South, escaping with the military was common practice. “Contraband Camps” were established near Union forts, comprised of escaped slaves from the South. In some cases, these escapees were given non-enlistment work in the military. The Point Lookout Prison in St. Mary’s County had an associated Contraband camp, where a number of African Americans worked. It is possible that the individuals from St. Mary’s Manor acquired similar jobs with the military. In fact, it is likely that some may have worked at Point Lookout, first in its military hospital in 1862, and later, the confederate prison: all of the slaves who left with the military did so after 1862. Accounts also indicate that workers at the hospital often helped Maryland slaves escape their bondage.
Enlisting African Americans had become a somewhat regular practice for the Union Army by 1863. Slave states that had not succeeded such as Maryland, however, continued to occupy a middle ground, and resisted the enlistment of their enslaved laborers: they recognized that, once their slaves were able to be in the military, any hope of maintaining slavery was lost.
The US War Department began recruiting blacks in Southern Maryland in October of 1862, though recruitment was limited to free blacks, those who belonged to disloyal owners, or those whose owners gave permission. In St. Mary’s County, resistance was fierce: one recruitment officer was killed by a slaveowner. In June 1864, full-scale recruitment of enslaved and free blacks began, effectively putting an end to slavery in Maryland. Many enslaved African Americans joined the military, seeing it as an opportunity to fight against slavery, as well as gaining their freedom. The number of black Union soldiers from St. Mary’s County far outnumbered white soldiers.
Alexander Gough and William Gross, both enslaved at St. Mary’s Manor, joined the 38th US Colored Infantry on April 1, 1863. A number of others also left with the military on the same day. Gough and Gross both would have seen significant military action. The 38th fought in Virginia and occupied Richmond in April 3, 1865. In total, 237 men died in the 38th, although Alexander Gough was not one of them: he died in 1908 in Baltimore, survived by his wife, Charlotte. For him, joining the military provided an opportunity to live a new life free from bondage.