A Forgotten Injustice – A Victim of Lincoln’s Suspension of Constitutional Rights

george w brown

Baltimore Mayor George W. Brown Arrested in the Middle of the Night by Soldiers, Credit: Maryland Historical Society

The arrest and imprisonment of George W. Brown, mayor of Baltimore

When the people of Baltimore elected reform candidate George W. Brown mayor by a landslide in 1860, they had no idea he would serve most of his term confined as a federal prisoner.

Much has been written about the bloody clash on Apr. 19, 1861 between an angry Baltimore mob and the 6th Massachusetts Regiment marching down Pratt Street to Camden Station, when the first blood of the Civil War was spilled, but there are few detailed accounts about the subsequent arrest and imprisonment of Baltimore’s Mayor Brown five months later.

He was arrested in the middle of the night along with more than a dozen other prominent Marylanders, including legislators, a member of Congress and several newspaper editors.

Although Brown was meticulous in recording many details of his arrest, he made it clear in his memoir that he wanted to forget his prison experiences.

“It is not my purpose to enter into an account of the trials and hardships of prison life in the crowded forts in which we were successively confined under strict and sometimes very harsh military rule,” Brown explained, 26 years later in his book Baltimore and the 19th of April 1861 A Study of the War.[1]

However, lucky for us, Brown did share some of his experiences and inner thoughts while he was incarcerated in letters written to his sister-in-law Emily Brune, which she preserved.

In his letter of Sept. 20, 1861 from Fort Monroe[2], which was quickly reinforced soon after the fall of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, Brown expresses indignation and sadness regarding his jailing, without being charged or given a trial by a judge of a jury of his peers.

“It is a strange feeling to be debarred of liberty,” Brown wrote. “I have often wondered how prisoners felt as I have seen them peering from grated windows. At first, I could hardly at times contain my indignation, but I am now calmly resigned to whatever may be in store for me.”

It’s not surprising that Brown felt such indignation.

imperial lincoln_orig_pe

Imperial Lincoln Suspended Constitutional Rights

Brown elected to clean up gangs

After all, the 49-year-old educated, cultured lawyer, who had been elected mayor by running on a reform platform, must have found it a strange twist of fate that he was imprisoned while the members of the various violent, Know-Nothing affiliated city gangs such as the Plug Uglies and the Red Tubs were free to roam the streets again — by simply passing themselves off as staunch Union men.

“By this time the disorderly element, which infests all cities, had gone over to the stronger side, and was engaged in the pious work of persecuting rebels,” Brown wrote. [3]

These were the same gangs that terrorized the voting polls throughout the city when they were members of the Know Nothing Party, impeding voting rights of thousands of newly arrived German and Irish immigrants, who had become naturalized citizens.

During the 1859 municipal elections, members of such a lawless crew had confronted Brown at the 10th Ward polls, seized him by the throat, stomped his feet and stuck him with sharp instruments leaving 20 marks on his body. [4]

So it must have been a bitter pill for Brown, who had stood up for the Constitutional rights of others, to find his suddenly stripped away.

When soldiers arrested Brown and the other Maryland citizens on Sept. 12, 1861, it was an action sanctioned by President Abraham Lincoln’s unprecedented suspension of habeas corpus. There were no formal charges filed against those arrested; there was no evidence presented against them; and none of them ever received a trial.

To some, this action represents a dark time in U.S. history when the rule of law that is guaranteed under the Constitution was suspended, supposedly to preserve the Union. For others, it represents an illegal action that set a dangerous precedent, which is being followed today and abused whenever those in power perceive our national security is threatened by terrorism, or any other internal or external threat.

Then as now, many major media outlets towed the administration’s line.

An article published in the New York Times, Sept. 14, 1861 [5]simply stated that Brown had been arrested because of comments he had made in a letter to occupying Gen. John Dix in a dispute over paying city police officers that had been replaced by Dix.

Brown wanted to pay them, while Dix did not.

The article also stated that the legislators had been arrested because they were secessionists. But the article offered no proof, nor reason for the arrest of the newspaper editors. It only announced that the publication of their newspapers had been suspended.

The piece went on to subtly imply they were all traitors by saying those arrested had been delivered to a hospital for “Sick Patriotism” at Fort McHenry.

Ironically, there was no planned succession, and although Brown understood and may have sympathized with some of the South’s arguments, he did not believe Southern states had the right to secede.

“I did not believe in secession as a constitutional right, and in Maryland there was no sufficient ground for revolution,” Brown wrote, in his memoir.” [6]

Brown, as many other Marylanders, did not believe making war on the South was the best way to approach a reunification of the states, but he still strongly believed in the Union.

Brown’s sole crime was that he insisted on giving city police officers the back pay that was due them after they were suddenly replaced under federal occupation.

Brown risked his life

If he was anything, the mayor of Baltimore was a courageous upholder of the rule of law.

It was Brown who placed himself in front of column of soldiers from the 6th Massachusetts Regiment on Apr. 19, 1861. He became a human buffer between the solders and a bloodthirsty, Baltimore mob.

Despite the 49-year-old Brown being slight of built and not very tall, he put his life on the line for the Union that day as he dodged rocks, bricks and pistol shots, according various newspaper accounts. [7]

Yet, federal soldiers had arrested him and imprisoned him without cause.

In his book, Brown recounted the shameful affair.

At midnight on Sept. 12, 1861, Union soldiers surrounded his country residence near the Relay House on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and then had city police officers pound “violently” on his door. When he stepped outside, soldiers arrested him in front of his wife and children.

At the time of his arrest, Brown asked the soldiers if they had a warrant – to which they replied no. The soldiers closely guarded him escorting him down the steep hill on which Brown’s house stood, to an awaiting carriage. At this point, city police officers took custody of the mayor of Baltimore and drove him seven miles to Fort McHenry, where he spent his first night in captivity.

“To my surprise, I found myself a fellow prisoner in a company of friends and well-known citizens,” Brown wrote[8].

The next day, Brown and his fellow Marylanders were shipped to Fort Monroe, Va. where they were confined for about two weeks, then on to Fort Lafayette, N.Y. for about six weeks and finally on to Fort Warren in Boston Harbor.

Brown’s time at Fort Monroe, which is located where the Chesapeake Bay meets the James River, was not pleasant, according to his letter.[9]

He and his fellow prisoners were kept inside most of the time and had to find their own way of dealing with the stale air and the unpleasant odors produced by having so many men held in such cramped and unsanitary quarters.

“Last evening, Howard and I crawled out of the porthole and sat over the edge with our feet over the moat, watching the beautiful sunset, the first I have seen since my incarceration,” Brown wrote.

Fresh air and paper were both in short supply at Fort Monroe. Brown was forced to squeeze a message to his sister-in-law in the narrow margins of his letter, which shed more light on the prison’s poor conditions.

“Your mosquito net has come safely,” Brown wrote. “But I hope it won’t be needed except for the flies, which are troublesome.”

Being imprisoned took its toll

When Brown wrote his sister-in-law again on Nov. 26, 1861, he and his fellow Marylanders had been transferred from Fort Monroe to Fort Lafayette in New York and on to Fort Warren in Boston Harbor.

Being jailed had a way of reducing a man’s life into a meaningless stream of monotony, Brown wrote.

“The record of one date very much resembles that of every other,” he explained. [10]

But on this day, Brown wrote there had been some break from the monotony because Boston newspapers had reported the government was about to release some of the prisoners being held at Fort Warren.

Brown and others refuse to compromise principles

However, his and their hopes were soon dashed.

“Soon afterwards prisoners were sent for,” Brown wrote. “But instead of an unconditional release, an oath of allegiance was presented.”

Brown then went on to explain that three of the prisoners immediately rejected the offer because they believed they had done nothing wrong, had not been charged with a crime, and in fact were being illegally detained.

Still, Brown wrote that while he and others who were physically well could afford to take this stance, some of those among them weren’t as fortunate.

“Quinlan (a state legislator) and Bouldin are in very bad health and their continuous confinement would endanger their lives,” Brown wrote. “Bouldin is a young man who is formally of the police. He has had two hemorrhages, and cannot I think last long.”

Brown then wrote that at the urging of their friends, these men had agreed to take the oath, in order to be released.

Just a little more than a month prior to the government’s offer of conditional release the New York Times Oct. 4, 1861 edition [11]reported that three of Baltimore’s most influential citizens had made a plea directly to Lincoln to release Brown from captivity.

“Stop sirs! How am I to know I am not being addressed by secessionists? Lincoln supposedly  asked them.

The article then went on to say that the unnamed men of influence assured the President they were loyal citizens, to which Lincoln reportedly replied, “Then all I have to say is, that for loyal citizens you are engaged in a very bad cause.”

Meanwhile, the clock kept ticking for Brown and his fellow political prisoners, with no end in sight.

“My general opinions of public matters remain unchanged, “Brown continues in this letter of Nov. 26. “Prison life does not get more pleasant as the months move on. But I do not find my power of endurance at all diminishes.”

Brown adds that he endured by taking a broad vision of the events affecting the nation.

“I shall have no occasion for self reproach,” Brown wrote. “Whatever I may, or not do. I shall have blame enough, but that is inevitable. No man in such times can please both sides.”

Brown’s friends again petitioned Lincoln’s government

In December of 1861, friends of Brown once again petitioned the government to release him for 30 days on parole in order to take care of some urgent, private business in Boston.

This time, the government agreed, and offered to extend Brown’s parole another 30 days. But he immediately declined the offer, only taking the 30 days necessary to take care of this personal business.

On Jan. 11, 1862, Brown turned himself in to Fort Warren authorities. Three days later, the government made another offer to extend Brown’s parole, but this time to 90 days, providing Brown agreed not to travel south of the Hudson River.

Brown once again refused the government’s conditional offer.

Finally, two weeks after Brown’s term as Baltimore’s mayor expired, he and the other Maryland prisoners were released unconditionally on Nov. 27, 1862.

Although Brown had every reason to be bitter about his imprisonment, he never expressed such sentiments in his personal account of the affair.

However, the experience did change Brown’s conception of the United States.

“I feel that I am living in a different land from that in which I was born, and under a different Constitution, and that new perils have arisen sufficient to cause great anxiety,” he wrote.[12]

Brown continued to practice law, and in October 1872 voters elected him chief judge of the Supreme Bench of Baltimore City, running on the Democratic Conservative Party, where he served until 1889.

In 1885, Brown was once again ran for mayor as an Independent, but lost the race to James Hughes.

Brown died suddenly Sept. 6, 1890 while riding in a coach with his son and daughter-in-law at Mohonk Lake, N.Y.

According to the an obituary in the Baltimore Daily News on Sept. 8, 1890[13], “Judge Brown chatted as usual, and had just pointed out a bit of scenery which struck him as being particularly attractive. Hardly had the words died away from his lips when Mrs. Brown looked at him, saw the color leave his face, and his head fall ever towards the side of the carriage.”


[1] George W. Brown, Baltimore and the 19th of April, 1861: A Study of the War (Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, Md. 1887), 111.

[2] George W. Brown, Sept. 20, 1861 letter to Emily Brune from Emily Brune. (The Maryland Historical Society)

[3] George W. Brown, Baltimore and the 19th of April, 1861: A Study of the War (Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, Md. 1887) 101.

[4] Tracy Matthew Melton, Hanging Henry Gambrill: The Violent Career of Baltimore’s Plug Uglies, 1854 – 1860, (The Press at the Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore Md. 2005) 346.

[5] New York Times, Important From Baltimore: A Number of Important Arrests (New York Times, Sept. 14, 1861) 1.

[6] [6] George W. Brown, Baltimore and the 19th of April, 1861: A Study of the War (Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, Md. 1887) 115.

[7] Baltimore Daily News, Funeral of Judge Brown: Tribute to the Memory of an Honored Citizen (Baltimore Daily News, Sept. 8, 1890.) 1

[8] George W. Brown, Baltimore and the 19th of April, 1861: A Study of the War (Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, Md. 1887) 103.

[9] George W. Brown, Sept. 20, 1861 letter to Emily Brune from Emily Brune. (The Maryland Historical Society)

[10] George W. Brown, Nov. 26, 1861 letter to Emily Brune from Emily Brune. (The Maryland Historical Society)

[11] New York Times, Affairs In The Rebel Army (New York Times, Oct. 4, 1861)8

[12] [12] George W. Brown, Baltimore and the 19th of April, 1861: A Study of the War (Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, Md. 1887),116.

[13] Baltimore Daily News, Funeral of Judge Brown: Tribute to the Memory of an Honored Citizen (Baltimore Daily News, Sept. 8, 1890.),1.


© 2018 Chet Dembeck

Categories: Conspiracies, Opinion, Special Reports

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

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