The End of the War in Southern Maryland
The Treaty of Ghent, officially ending the War of 1812, was ratified by the United States Senate on February 16, 1815. By the end of February, 1815, the last of the British warships left the Chesapeake and Southern Maryland after a two-year presence in the area.
The peace agreement restored the “status quo antebellum”: to return life back to how it had been before the war. Though the region “lay in ashen ruins…” and “capital had flown and the infrastructure of social order was in shambles,” Southern Maryland was able to rebuild and its citizens were able to return to back to normalcy.
During the war, the British raided Southern Maryland’s towns, destroying homes, confiscating and burning crops, and carrying away livestock. After the war, the region’s wealthier citizens, like William Kilgour from St. Mary’s County, were usually able to absorb the costs of the damage caused by the British.
Many of these men, Kilgour included, were even able to grow their wealth in the aftermath of the war due to an economic boom in the price of tobacco, which rose from an all-time low of $2.10 per hundredweight during the war to $11.25 per hundredweight by 1816. The majority of these men, who could afford to rebuild after the war, were able to remain in Southern Maryland.
While wealthier citizens’ long-term lifestyles were not greatly affected by the war, smaller land owners and tenants, people who rented their land from wealthier citizens, were much less likely to recover from destruction caused during the war.
When the enemy confiscated or destroyed tenants’ crops, those tenants often couldn’t pay their rent and were forced to leave the region. Prominent land-owners, like John R. Plater from Sotterley Plantation in St. Mary’s County recorded the loss of many of his tenants following the war.
The British presence in Southern Maryland during the war interfered with another type of property: slaves. During the war, a greater number of slaves ran away due to British encouragement and the opportunity afforded by the confusions of war. However, post-war, the number of slaves manumitted, sold out of Southern Maryland, and brought into the region, did not differ greatly from overall trends of the nineteenth century in Southern Maryland.
While the number of slaves had been slowly declining in Southern Maryland since 1790, the total amount of slaves living in the counties remained more or less the same during the post-war years. Though more slaves ran away during the war, the majority of slaves who lived in Southern Maryland prior to the war remained enslaved after its end, allowing for the stable continuation of the same economic system which had existed prior to the British arrival in the Chesapeake.
Many historians have looked to the effects of the War of 1812 to explain waves of migration from the East Coast to America’s western territories. However, the population of Southern Maryland had been declining since the 1780s, with the sharpest decrease in population, around 19%, occurring between 1790 and 1800, well before the war.
In fact, while some historians see the destruction caused by the British in Southern Maryland as a cause for migration away from the area, the time period directly after the war saw a leveling off of population decline. Southern Maryland counties lost only about 2% of their population after the war, rather than seeing an increase in rates of out-migration.
Soon after the war started, Reverend Joseph Jackson, a Catholic priest in St. Mary’s County, wrote that “prudence might suggest to every man to move from the lower part of this county.”
Jackson wrote again in the spring of 1814 that “my parishioners are moving as fast as they can find situations.” While some Southern Marylanders moved to the West, to places like Kentucky and Indiana, a greater number simply relocated to other areas of the state or the east coast.
Sources of Relief
After the War, residents of Southern Maryland could turn to the State of Maryland and the Federal government to aid in the rebuilding of the region.
Individual Militia volunteers and their families were compensated by the government initially with bounty land, guaranteed grants of land in the West, which can account for some of the out-migration. Additionally, starting in 1871, Congress passed a number of laws which allowed War of 1812 veterans and their widows to apply for pensions, small fixed salaries paid by the government in return for military service.
Unfortunately, it was not uncommon for militiamen, like Elias Arvin from Charles County, to have their pension applications denied. The most common reason for a denial of pension benefits, as in Arvin’s case, was a failure to satisfy the 60-day minimum required amount of service. Many men were unable to satisfy this requirement due to the erratic nature of militia duty during the war.
Living in Indiana by 1872, Elias Arvin and his brother’s widow argued against the denial of their pension applications. They claimed that though the men had not served for a total of 60 days, they and other militiamen from Southern Maryland were constantly alert and ready to fight the enemy throughout the duration of the British presence in the Chesapeake. However, these arguments rarely persuaded pension officers.
Some Southern Maryland men took recourse by directly petitioning Congress. In 1852, Congress’ Committee of Claims listened to the reports of damages to the homes of John G. Mackall and Dr. William Somerville, wealthy residents of Calvert County whose houses were damaged by British and American forces during the war. The Committee recommended that the men’s relatives be compensated for those damages.
To summarize, the effects of the war in the area, while temporarily devastating, did not significantly alter the economic and social systems of Southern Maryland, allowing for a generally quick recovery.
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Cassell, Frank A. “Slaves of the Chesapeake Bay Area and the War of 1812.” The Journal of Negro History 57, no. 2 (1972): 144-155.
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Marks, Bayly Ellen. Economics and Society in a Staple Plantation System: St. Mary’s County, Maryland 1790-1840. PhD diss., University of Maryland, 1979.
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