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African-American History

Curtis W. Jacobs’ Diary and Account Book, 1854–1866

Shortly past noon today, April 19, 2018, the niggling “we are forgetting something” hovering on the edges of our brains suddenly took shape. It is 157 years since Union troops on their way to Washington D.C. clashed with angry citizens on the streets of Baltimore, resulting in the Pratt Street riot, the first official bloodshed of the Civil War. Seven years ago this week the Maryland Historical Society commemorated this nation-changing event with a provocative exhibit, engaging programs, and landmark publications, among them a special issue of the Maryland Historical Magazine composed entirely of new work on how that seismic conflict impacted Maryland. Former Project Archivist Dustin Meeker submitted this brief yet powerful story of Curtis Jacobs, told primarily in the ledger of enslaved people he left behind.

Curtis Jacobs was a wealthy planter, state legislator, and ardent supporter of slavery. These excerpts from his journal offer his reflections on the Union Army's recruitment of slaves in Maryland, the 1864 state constitution and Emancipation Day, and the slaves he lost with compensation when slavery was abolished. Curtis Jacobs Journal, MS 3036, MdHS (reference photo)

Curtis Jacobs was a wealthy planter, state legislator, and ardent supporter of slavery. These excerpts from his journal offer his reflections on the Union Army’s recruitment of slaves in Maryland, the 1864 state constitution and Emancipation Day, and the slaves he lost with compensation when slavery was abolished.
Curtis Jacobs Journal, MS 3036, MdHS (reference photo)

The fight to end slavery began long before the first shots of the Civil War, as slaves defied their masters’ authority and sought personal autonomy through countless acts of everyday resistance.  Once the war began, however, resistance intensified greatly, as slaves capitalized on the social turmoil resulting from the conflict and fled to Union Army lines.   In the fall of 1863, the War Department issued General Order 329, permitting the enlistment of slaves in Border States to meet the army’s ever-increasing manpower need.  The recruitment of slaves in Maryland ultimately destroyed the institution of slavery as droves of slaves enlisted, to the consternation of the slave-owning elite, many of whom were Southern sympathizers.

The journal of Curtis Jacobs, a WorchesterCounty planter, state legislator, and ardent pro-slavery advocate, chronicles the demise of slavery in Maryland and offers his perspectives on the matter.  On October 26, three weeks after the War Department authorized the recruitment of slaves, two of Jacobs’ male slaves absconded, to be followed the next day by several others, leaving behind “only a few old men and the women and children.”  Fifteen of Jacobs’ slaves ultimately enlisted.

Curtis Jacobs Journal, MS 3036, MdHS (reference photo)

Curtis Jacobs Journal, MS 3036, MdHS (reference photo)

On January 4, 1864, Jacobs traveled to Berlin, Maryland, hoping to locate the fugitives. Upon arriving in the town, he witnessed several African American soldiers “parading the streets all day in uniform and musket in hand,” which for Jacobs was undoubtedly an abominable sight.  He approached a lieutenant and requested a receipt for his slaves that would have entitled him to compensation, but the officer rebuffed him on the grounds that he was declared a disloyal citizen and therefore ineligible for compensation.

Throughout the summer of 1864, the Maryland state legislature, dominated by Unionists, deliberated on the future of slavery at the state’s constitutional convention, eventually deciding to abolish the institution.  Slavery officially ended when the new constitution, passed by the slimmest of margins, took effect on November 1, 1864.  Jacobs lamented, “They passed the new Constitution freeing all the negroes. At the vote on the Constitution many were refused voting by the judges & the soldiers, myself among others.”

Jacobs’ journal is an invaluable source for examining the war’s impact on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, particularly concerning the recruitment of slaves and the dissolution of slavery.  Jacobs, Maryland’s most vocal supporter of slavery, fought relentlessly to expand and perpetuate the institution.  He also demonstrated significant historical consciousness throughout his narratives, apparently for posterity and not simply for himself. His journal entries do more than simply chronicle events and enumerate runaway slaves. They offer his perspective on the radical transformation of Maryland’s social and economic order. (Dustin Meeker)

Dustin Meeker is a former project archivist at the Maryland Historical Society.

Discussion

One Response to “Curtis W. Jacobs’ Diary and Account Book, 1854–1866”

  1. Great article about such an important historical person

    Posted by Bill Barry | 12. Sep, 2018, 9:15 pm

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