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Abraham Lincoln and Treason in the Civil War

The Trials of John Merryman

Jonathan W. White

Publication Year: 2011

In the spring of 1861, Union military authorities arrested Maryland farmer John Merryman on charges of treason against the United States for burning railroad bridges around Baltimore in an effort to prevent northern soldiers from reaching the capital. From his prison cell at Fort McHenry, Merryman petitioned Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Roger B. Taney for release through a writ of habeas corpus. Taney issued the writ, but President Abraham Lincoln ignored it. In mid-July Merryman was released, only to be indicted for treason in a Baltimore federal court. His case, however, never went to trial and federal prosecutors finally dismissed it in 1867. In Abraham Lincoln and Treason in the Civil War, Jonathan White reveals how the arrest and prosecution of this little-known Baltimore farmer had a lasting impact on the Lincoln administration and Congress as they struggled to develop policies to deal with both northern traitors and southern rebels. His work exposes several perennially controversial legal and constitutional issues in American history, including the nature and extent of presidential war powers, the development of national policies for dealing with disloyalty and treason, and the protection of civil liberties in wartime.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Series: Conflicting Worlds: New Dimensions of the American Civil War

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. iv-vi


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pp. ix-x


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pp. xi-xiv

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pp. 1-9

John Merryman, a Baltimore County farmer, was arrested by Union military authorities at 2:00 a.m. on May 25, 1861, on vague and imprecise charges of treason against the United States. Merryman was suspected of being a pro-secession militia officer who had burned railroad bridges...

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1 "BALTIMORE IS TO BE THE BATTLEFIELD OF THE SOUTHERN REVOLUTION": The Baltimore Riot and the Formation of Lincoln’s Habeas Corpus Policy

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pp. 10-24

When Abraham Lincoln received word on April 14, 1861, that Fort Sumter had fallen into Confederate hands, he set to work with his cabinet to formulate a policy that would sufficiently respond to the crisis. Seven Deep South states had already seceded from the Union. Now these so-called...

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2 “A COLLISION OF CIVIL AND MILITARY AUTHORITY": The Arrest and Incarceration of John Merryman

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pp. 25-43

The Merryman family had been present in Baltimore County since the middle of the seventeenth century. The Merryman clan grew and spread throughout the county during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, owning several significant estates such as “Merryman’s Lot,” “Merryman’s Beginning,” “Merryman’s Addition,” “Merryman’s Pasture,”...

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3 "PROSECUTE YOUR BEST CASES—NOT THE WEAK AND DOUBTFUL": The Difficulty of Punishing Disloyalty in the Loyal States

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pp. 44-63

John Merryman’s arrest was only one of many to come in Maryland during the Civil War. Union authorities quickly found that “arbitrary arrests” —which were in fact rarely arbitrary—were a useful tool for silencing dissent and stopping the spread of disloyalty in a region that often seemed to be...

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4 "NECESSITY IS THE TYRANT’S PLEA": The Habeas Corpus Act, Part I: Congressional Reaction to Military Arrests and Tribunals

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pp. 64-89

The habeas corpus issue plagued Congress for the duration of the war. While John Merryman still sat imprisoned at Fort McHenry, congressmen on both sides of the aisle debated the legitimacy of Lincoln’s suspensions of the writ. Democrats in both chambers berated Lincoln...

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5 "THE GOVERNMENT MUST IN SOME WAY SUSTAIN YOU IN YOUR OFFICIAL ACTS": The Habeas Corpus Act, Part II: The Failure of Congress to Protect Those Waging War

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pp. 90

The military arrest and trial of civilians was only one part of the habeas corpus problem that arose during the Civil War. Prior to the passage of the Habeas Corpus Act in March 1863, military officers and government officials who participated in the arrest of civilians were vulnerable...

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pp. 107-122

John Merryman’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus became a cause célèbre in both the northern states and the Confederacy. In Maryland, his case became a flashpoint of controversy and heated exchanges. Between April and August 1861, the Maryland legislature adopted resolutions...


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pp. 123-164


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pp. 165-184


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pp. 185-191

E-ISBN-13: 9780807142158
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807143469

Page Count: 216
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Conflicting Worlds: New Dimensions of the American Civil War