(Originally appeared in Bethesda Magazine)
In August 1861, with the first battle of the Civil War at Manassas, Virginia, resulting in Union forces fleeing in retreat, President Abraham Lincoln embarked from the White House on a carriage ride. With him was Secretary of State William Seward, his son, Frederick, assistant Secretary of State, and General George B. McClellan, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, in charge of defending Washington. There was no Secret Service – that protection would not be afforded presidents until 1865, after Lincoln’s assassination.
The carriage headed up Wisconsin Avenue from Georgetown. The press reported that Lincoln “had gone up to inspect the camps and fortifications now beginning to cover the hills.” Instead, Lincoln and his fellow travelers drove past the fortifications, up Wisconsin Avenue, then onto Rockville Pike to Rockville, where he had arranged a secret meeting with General National P. Banks, commander of the Union forces in the western district of Maryland.
It was not the first time Lincoln had come to Rockville. In 1848, Lincoln, then a Whig party U.S. congressman from Illinois, worked fervently on the presidential campaign of Zachary Taylor, hero of the Mexican War. On August 24, his campaigning brought him to Montgomery County, to the small village of Seneca, out River Road. About 600 people gathered at the estate of George Peter, a former representative of Montgomery County in Congress, to hear Lincoln’s stump speech for Taylor.
After a brief stay at Peter’s, Lincoln headed to Rockville, where, on August 26, he delivered his message to the Whig Convention of Montgomery County. That night, he spoke to the Rough and Ready Club – Taylor’s military feats gained him the nickname “Old Rough and Ready.” The rally was held at the courthouse; there, the group was regaled by what the National Intelligencer described as “a most interesting speech by the Hon. Mr. Lincoln of Illinois.”
At the clandestine meeting at Rockville in 1861 – the exact place is unknown – General McClellan explained that a secret, extra session of the Maryland legislature was about to be convened at Frederick on the 17th of September, to pass an ordinance of secession. “The Secessionists had by no means given up the hope of dragging Maryland into the Confederacy,” wrote Frederick Seward. Reportedly, the vote to separate Maryland from the Union was to be supported by an advance of the Southern army across the Potomac.
Lincoln knew it was impossible to permit the secession of Maryland, intervening as it did between Washington, DC, and the loyal states to the north, and commanding all lines of supply and reinforcement for Union troops. He instructed General Dix and General Banks to carefully watch the movements of member of the Maryland legislature – and take whatever measures necessary to stop the secessionists from meeting. The views of the disunion members were well known – and repeatedly proclaimed. There would be little difficulty, as Lincoln remarked, in “separating the sheep from the goats.”
Some doubted the reliability of the information that a secessionist meeting was to be held. Lincoln and his generals, however, would ensure it never happened. On September 17, General Banks reported “all members of the Maryland Legislature known or suspected to be disloyal in their relations to the Government have been arrested.” So was Rockville’s role in keeping Maryland in the Union.