A night in a cell at Fort McHenry

Gwinn Owens

February 08, 1993|By Gwinn Owens

DURING the Civil War, President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus, and thousands of Americans merely suspected of disloyalty were thrown into prison, many of them into lock-ups at Fort McHenry. One such victim was a youth whose history is of profound interest to me.

I was reminded of his plight on reading Jacques Kelly's articlrecently on the "Occupied Baltimore" exhibit at the Maryland Historical Society. The display recalls the Civil War period when Maryland's Confederate sympathies were kept in check by the force of Union Army occupation.

When I was a small boy, my father showed me the room where the prisoner in question was said to have been incarcerated, a holding area and cells for newly arrived suspects. It must have been terrifying for this lad -- only 15 years old -- to have been thrown into military custody.

Perhaps he deserved it. His Baltimore parents were devout supporters of the Southern cause. On this day, at the peak of the war's bitterness in 1862, he was on a boat that sailed from near Washington to Baltimore (the customary mode of travel then). He had been visiting some relatives in Prince George's County.

The boat was carrying a contingent of Union soldiers. The youth, having lived in Baltimore under Lincoln's martial law, hated them. As the vessel neared the Patapsco River in its trip up the Chesapeake Bay, he began to sputter insults at them. Perhaps he thought his tender age protected him, but in this angry stage of the war between the states, he was wrong. When they warned him to keep quiet, he taunted them.

Enough was enough. The lad was arrested. When the boat put into Fort McHenry to unload the soldiers, a startled teen-ager was in their custody. The fort authorities hustled him into the holding room and, so the story goes, into one of the cells.

It happened that when he was collared on the ship, another passenger, who knew the youth by name, was aware that he had an uncle by marriage, named George Colton, who was a very important man in Baltimore and Annapolis. Colton was editor of the Annapolis Capital and owner of the Maryland Inn on Church Circle. In Baltimore he was involved in local politics.

RB On arrival in Baltimore the concerned passenger quickly got in touch with Colton, advising him of his nephew's plight. One can only guess that Colton used his considerable influence so that a chastened youth was released from his overnight ordeal, frightened but unharmed.

This was not to be the only time that Colton came to the rescue of this young Baltimorean.

There are some gaps in the story as I learned it. Fort McHenry's able historian, Scott Sheads, is currently compiling a list of the fort's wartime prisoners, a massive task because there were tens of thousands cycled in and out between 1861 and 1865. Thus far, in generously helping me out, he has found no record of this 15-year-old's one-night incarceration.

There is ample evidence, however, of Colton's later involvement in this youth's destiny. A few years after the war, the lad enrolled at the Maryland Institute in hopes of becoming an artist. Despite his training and, apparently, some talent, his art education did not lead to success. He struggled through a variety of menial jobs. Ironically, he married the daughter of a colonel in the Union Army. This probably neutralized his Southern zealotry.

In 1886, 39 years old, he was struggling to support his growing family through whatever work he could find. By this time Colton was president of the Board of Police Commissioners in Baltimore. In desperation, the failed artist appealed to his uncle to help him find a job.

The police board president obliged, providing his nephew with a sinecure that he held for his 25 remaining years. The evidence of Colton's help is verified by a document that now -- 107 years later -- hangs on my wall. It says, in part:

"Board of Police Commissioners for the City of Baltimore:

"Be it known that the Board has appointed Gwinn Owens a Clerk of the Permanent Police Force for the City of Baltimore on the 9th day of April, 1886.

"George Colton, President."

The Fort McHenry experience was probably the most glamorous event in the life of a man who left no mark in history, not even, it seems, in the fort's records. He died long before I was born but he was, as some might have guessed, my grandfather.

Gwinn Owens is the retired editor of this page. "Occupied Baltimore" continues at the Maryland Historical Society through March.

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