The Time Abraham Lincoln Came to Rockville
The 16th president's visit to Rockville in 1861 helped keep Maryland in the Union
Photo illustration by Alice Kresse
In August 1861, soon after the first major land battle of the Civil War resulted in Union forces fleeing in retreat in Manassas, Virginia, President Abraham Lincoln left the White House on a carriage ride. With him was Secretary of State William Seward; Seward’s son, Frederick, the assistant secretary of state; and Gen. George McClellan, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, in charge of defending Washington, D.C. There was no Secret Service—that protection would not be afforded presidents until 1865.
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 Gen. Nathaniel Banks, commander of the Union forces in the western district of Maryland.
It was not the first time Lincoln had visited Rockville. In 1848, as a member of the Whig Party and a U.S. representative from Illinois, Lincoln worked fervently on the presidential campaign of Zachary Taylor, hero of the Mexican War. On Aug. 24, 1848, Lincoln’s 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 U.S. representative from Montgomery County, to hear Lincoln’s stump speech for Taylor.
After a brief stay with Peter, Lincoln headed to Rockville, where, on Aug. 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 had gained him the nickname “Old Rough and Ready.” The rally was held at the courthouse, where 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 1861 meeting in Rockville—the exact place is unknown—McClellan explained that a secret extra session of the Maryland Legislature was to be convened in Frederick on Sept. 17 to pass an ordinance of secession. “The secessionists had by no means given up the hope of dragging Maryland into the Confederacy,” Frederick Seward wrote. 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 imperative to prevent the secession of Maryland, intervening as it did between Washington, D.C., and the loyal states to the north, and commanding all lines of supply and reinforcement for Union troops. He instructed Banks and Gen. John Dix to carefully watch the movements of the members 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 that it never happened. On Sept. 17, Banks reported that “all members of the Maryland Legislature known or suspected to be disloyal in their relations to the government have been arrested.” And with that, Maryland stayed in the Union.
Author and historian Mark Walston was raised in Bethesda and lives in Olney.