Chief Justice fought Lincoln in state

March 08, 1994|By Robert A. Erlandson

The document showing President Abraham Lincoln's personal intervention in a Baltimore treason case during the Civil War was not the only nugget archivist Kellee Green Blake mined from 10 boxes crammed with Baltimore federal court records of the period.

Ms. Blake found a record of Maryland's most famous case of the time, the treason indictment of John Merryman of Hayfields, whose arrest in May 1861 provoked a constitutional struggle between Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney and President Lincoln over the suspension of the right of habeas corpus.

Merryman, a prominent Baltimore County farmer and legislator, was arrested by Union soldiers after the Pratt Street riots of April 19, 1861, and was held without charges at Fort McHenry.

Chief Justice Taney issued a writ of habeas corpus for Merryman's release but Gen. George Cadwallader, the Union commander, refused to free the prisoner, saying the president had suspended habeas corpus.

Traveling to Baltimore, the Chief Justice issued his opinion, ex parte Merryman, a legal lecture to Lincoln saying the president had usurped a Congressional constitutional prerogative and that the military had no right to arrest anyone not subject to military orders, except under judicial authority.

Lincoln, determined to prevent Maryland from seceding, ignored the chief justice. Arrests continued; hundreds of Marylanders, including top government and legal officials, were charged with treason and acts of disloyalty.

Merryman finally was charged with burning bridges and cutting telegraph wires to prevent Union troops from reaching Washington after the riots but finally was released without trial.

Opponents accused Lincoln of imposing tyranny by force of arms and an outraged James Ryder Randall wrote the poem "Maryland, My Maryland," which recalls those events and which was adopted in 1939 as the state anthem.

Ms. Blake lamented that historians have not taken more interest in the Civil War treason and disloyalty cases. "Except for one or two well-known cases, no one had ever looked at them before, and every federal court had some," she said. "There has been no comprehensive assessment of them."

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