As Maryland and the rest of the nation grapples with the outbreak of COVID-19, leaders in Annapolis have decided to adjourn the legislative session early – something only done once before at the height of the secession crisis.

maryland debates secession

159 years ago, on the eve of the American Civil War, Maryland’s legislators were plunged deep into a debate about the future of the state – and whether Maryland would remain within the Union or if it would secede to the fledgling confederacy of slave-holding states.

Maryland Governor Thomas Holliday Hicks

A seceded Maryland would have cut the nation’s capitol from the Union and northern states – a scenario federal authorities worked quickly to avoid. Federal efforts to secure Maryland were met with violence on the streets of Baltimore on April 19, 1861, when soldiers of the 6th Massachusetts Infantry were attacked by a pro-secession mob. The result of the so-called, “Pratt Street Riots” were four soldiers and twelve civilians slain.

The bloodshed on Pratt Street, along with public outcry, then resulted in Maryland Governor Thomas Holliday Hicks calling a special session of the General Assembly to address the looming question of secession. The legislature then met biennially and this special session was called in an “off” year as a result of the crisis.

Rather than meet in Annapolis, which was then occupied by federal troops, Governor Hicks called for the legislature to convene in Frederick on April 26, where he believed pro-Union sentiment was stronger. Despite this, pro-southern legislators pushed for secession and introduced a resolution to secede. The resolution was defeated and the legislature adjourned on August 7, planning to return to Frederick on September 17 to continue debate.

Instead, on September 17, 1861, federal troops and Baltimore police officers descended on Frederick and arrested the pro-southern members of the General Assembly, forcing an early end to the special session of 1861.

Today’s legislature will end its session early – not because of political strife or fears of dissolution of the union – but out of an abundance of caution and concern for the health of their constituents.

Learn more about Maryland’s Special Session

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