On July 8, 1845, Montgomery County residents living along the old Rockville Pike north of Bethesda were confronted by an alarming sight. Some 70 escaped slaves armed with pistols, swords, scythe blades and butcher knives brazenly marched six abreast along the pike in a bold attempt to reach Pennsylvania and freedom. They eschewed the hidden paths of the Underground Railroad that snaked northward past sympathetic farmhouses in the backwoods of Maryland. Instead, they walked in broad daylight through towns and villages, according to published reports.
The insurgent band was led by two men: Mark Caesar, a free black carpenter from Charles County, and William Wheeler, a slave on the Contee plantation near Maryland’s Port Tobacco. They began their journey with a handful of escaped compatriots from southern Maryland. The group was joined along the way by dozens of other slaves breaking their chains for the promise of freedom in the North.
The group made its way unopposed through Prince George’s County, moving quickly before slave owners could gather in pursuit. The slaves crossed into Montgomery County and eventually reached Rockville Pike. They marched openly through the county seat of Rockville, headed for Gaithersburg. “Great Excitement. Runaway Slaves” blared a headline in The Baltimore Sun. “The very boldness of the step led many citizens at first to believe that an extensive scheme of escape had been planned with the negroes along the route,” the paper reported.
The stunned Rockville community called out the local militia, the Montgomery Volunteers, which mounted horses and galloped to meet the armed insurrectionists. The militia caught up with the marchers and surrounded them on Frederick Road, today’s Route 355, somewhere between Rockville and Gaithersburg. Caesar and Wheeler exhorted the men to fight back. “They had to be fired upon before they would surrender,” the Port Tobacco Times said. News of the fight was confused and chaotic. According to rumors, the number of escaped slaves ranged between 40 and 200. Some people claimed that several slaves were killed.
According to the Sun, more than 30 members of the group were seized, including those who had been shot and wounded. The captives were chained and dragged to the jail at the Rockville courthouse. Most were eventually sold back into bondage, to out-of-state plantation owners.
Wheeler, Caesar and a handful of others escaped the fight and continued northward; four men were captured soon after in Westminster, just 20 miles from the Pennsylvania border. Caesar was captured days later, but one week after the battle in Montgomery County, Wheeler remained at large. “Keep a look out for him,” urged the Maryland Journal, “as lots of money will be forked over to anyone who may nab him.” Wheeler eventually was caught and remanded to Port Tobacco, where he was tried and found guilty of inciting the slave rebellion by a jury of white men and sentenced to death by hanging. Four months after his conviction, Wheeler broke out of jail and disappeared into the Maryland countryside. He was never heard from again.
As for the captured Caesar, as a free black man he faced trial for “aiding and abetting slaves in making their escape from their masters,” according to the Port Tobacco Times. Caesar was found guilty and sentenced to 40 years in the Baltimore penitentiary, where he died of consumption in 1850.
Some of the escaped slaves were never captured, leaving unanswered the question of whether they completed their harrowing journey to freedom.
Author and historian Mark Walston (email@example.com) was raised in Bethesda and lives in Olney.