In sum­mer 1845, a lit­tle-known slave in­sur­rec­tion marched through Mary­land

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - EU­GENE L. MEYER

In the an­nals of slave re­bel­lions, Nat Turner’s name looms large. The in­sur­rec­tion he led in Southamp­ton County, Va., in 1831 in­volved the mur­ders of 55 white men, women and chil­dren and sent shock waves through­out the slave­hold­ing South­ern states.

Leg­is­la­tures en­acted more strin­gent codes re­strict­ing the rights of slaves and free blacks, and sec­tion­al­ism re­placed na­tion­al­ism as the sharply di­vided coun­try inched in­ex­orably to­ward civil war.

Turner was hanged but out­lived his vil­lain­ous per­sona to in­spire a 1967 Pulitzer Prizewin­ning novel by Wil­liam Sty­ron and more re­cently a 2016 film, “The Birth of a Na­tion.” Den­mark Ve­sey, in Charleston, S.C., and a Rich­mond-area slave named Gabriel are lesser-known but still prom­i­nent fig­ures in the history of slave re­bel­lions.

Mary­land sel­dom is men­tioned in these dis­cus­sions. Yet, on Easter in 1817, some 200 slaves re­volted in St. Mary’s County. The out­burst re­sulted in whites be­ing in­jured by sticks, brick­bats “and other mis­siles” and the sack­ing of two houses be­fore peace was re­stored, ac­cord­ing to the late his­to­rian Her­bert Aptheker.

In July 1845, an­other up­ris­ing oc­curred in Mary­land that is lit­tle re­mem­bered and rarely men­tioned. Start­ing in Charles County, run­away slaves gained in strength as they passed through St. Mary’s and Prince Ge­orge’s into Montgomery County, at one time num­ber­ing per­haps 75 men armed with pis­tols, scythe blades, blud­geons, swords, butcher knives and clubs. Their des­ti­na­tion was the free state of Penn­syl­va­nia.

Their north­ward march to free­dom is nowhere to be found in the writ­ten his­to­ries of the af­fected coun­ties. “Mary­land is not very good about dis­cussing these things,” says Ch­eryl LaRoche, an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal his­to­rian at the Univer­sity of Mary­land who has ex­ten­sively re­searched and writ­ten about slave es­capes. “And part is to down­play these things we see and keep them lo­cal, as just some dis­grun­tled folks mak­ing their way out of slav­ery rather than a larger nar­ra­tive.”

This nar­ra­tive be­gins on July 7 or 8, 1845. The “prime movers and in­sti­ga­tors of the late Ne­gro in­sur­rec­tion,” the Port Tobacco Times later re­ported, were Mark Cae­sar, iden­ti­fied as a free black man, and Bill Wheeler, the prop­erty of Ben­jamin Con­tee, a lead­ing cit­i­zen of Port Tobacco in Charles County who owned as many as 48 slaves. As they moved through what are now sub­ur­ban coun­ties in the Wash­ing­ton metropoli­tan area, their ranks swelled with other fugi­tive slaves.

March­ing six across along what is to­day Route 355, they were led, ac­cord­ing to one ac­count, by “a pow­er­ful ne­gro fel­low, sword in hand.” Five miles north of Rockville and two miles from Gaithers­burg, their flight from bondage ended when they were con­fronted by the Montgomery Vol­un­teers, a lo­cal mili­tia, and a posse of cit­i­zens called into ac­tion by Sher­iff Daniel Hayes Can­dler.

The sher­iff, who served in the post from 1843 to 1846, lived in Rockville with his wife, chil­dren and five slaves. Can­dler, 33, had been born, ac­cord­ing to cen­sus records, on March 15, 1812, in “Montgomery Vil­lage,” known to­day as a planned, sub­ur­ban com­mu­nity first de­vel­oped by Ket­tler Broth­ers in the 1960s.

The in­sur­rec­tion­ists did not qui­etly sur­ren­der but in­stead fought back. A de­tailed ac­count on the en­counter by the Rockville Reg­is­ter was reprinted in full on the front page of the Bal­ti­more Sun on July 12. “GREAT EX­CITE­MENT. Run­away Slaves,” read the head­line. The re­port said “these dar­ing ne­groes” num­bered 40, although there were ru­mors of nearly 200.

“The very bold­ness of the step led many cit­i­zens at first to be­lieve that an ex­ten­sive scheme of es­cape had been planned with the ne­groes along the route,” the pa­per said.

In the melee, 10 were se­verely wounded. A large num­ber es­caped and were never re­cap­tured.

The rest — 31, ac­cord­ing to the news­pa­per — were led away in chains to the Rockville jail be­fore be­ing sold by their own­ers out of state. The news­pa­per ac­count named five still at large and 10 wounded and their own­ers. Cae­sar and Wheeler were re­manded to Port Tobacco, then the Charles County seat and now the small­est in­cor­po­rated town in Mary­land, with an es­ti­mated pop­u­la­tion of 13 in 2016. There they were pros­e­cuted by Ge­orge Brent, who owned 15 slaves in 1840.

Af­ter a two-day trial, the jury dead­locked on Cae­sar, and a new jury was quickly im­pan­eled and con­victed him, this time “as a free ne­gro aid­ing and abet­ting slaves in mak­ing their es­cape from their mas­ters,” re­ported the Port Tobacco Times. He was sen­tenced to 40 years and died in jail of con­sump­tion on Nov. 11, 1850.

Wheeler re­mained a fugi­tive for sev­eral weeks but even­tu­ally was ar­rested, brought to trial in Port Tobacco, con­victed and sen­tenced to death by hang­ing, but it was com­muted to life in prison. Four months later, he es­caped from jail and, de­spite a $100 re­ward of­fered for his cap­ture, was never ap­pre­hended. The pre­sid­ing judges, both slave­hold­ers, were Cle­ment Dorsey, later elected to the U.S. House, and Alexan­der Con­tee Ma­gruder, who is buried in Con­gres­sional Ceme­tery on Capi­tol Hill. Opined the Marl­boro Gazette upon his death in 1853: “As a lawyer, he had few su­pe­ri­ors; as a Judge, he was able and up­right; and as a man, he was beloved by all who knew him.”

Of the up­ris­ing, the Mary­land Jour­nal said, “This is the most dar­ing move­ment which has ever come un­der our ob­ser­va­tion. We have heard of gangs of ne­groes trav­el­ing through parts of the coun­try sparsely in­hab­ited, but never be­fore have we heard of their tak­ing to the pub­lic road in open day, within 2 miles of a County town.”

This “dar­ing move­ment” in­spired alarmed whites to meet and pro­pose mea­sures to pre­vent a re­cur­rence. In St. Mary’s County, 10 peo­ple in each elec­tion dis­trict would form a “Com­mit­tee of Vig­i­lance” to closely watch over move­ments of black peo­ple. The Montgomery Vol­un­teers won praise and more re­cruits for their ef­forts. Eu­gene L. Meyer, a for­mer Wash­ing­ton Post re­porter and editor, is the au­thor of “Five for Free­dom: The African Amer­i­can Sol­diers in John Brown’s Army.”


A circa 1815 sketch of slaves in hand­cuffs and shack­les near the U.S. Capi­tol. In July 1845, a Mary­land slave re­bel­lion be­gan in Charles County. The men — armed with pis­tols, clubs and other weapons — un­suc­cess­fully marched to­ward the free state of Penn­syl­va­nia.

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