Maryland slaves make bold bid for freedom: July 7-8, 1845

2 Jul

Fighting the Mob in IndianaReportedly marching six abreast on open roads during daylight, dozens of enslaved African Americans made their way along Maryland roads toward freedom July 7-8, 1845.

The plot began in Charles County led by Mark Caesar and William Wheeler. The group of several dozen African Americans armed themselves with a pistol, scythe blades, bludgeons, swords and clubs and began their trek to Pennsylvania, about 110 miles away.

The Charles County band was joined by others seeking freedom from St. Mary’s County. While marching north en route through Prince George’s County, still others swelled their ranks to nearly 75.

The plan was to make their way “in great haste” before slave owners had a chance to gather men to pursue them, according to the Montgomery Journal.

Battle Near Rockville

The group made good progress and the Journal reported the group was seen “within two miles of Rockville” on the Frederick Road (today’s Route 355).

A group of white men on horseback called the Montgomery Volunteers caught up with those marching toward freedom and surrounded them somewhere between Rockville and Gaithersburg. Caesar and Wheeler reportedly ordered the group to fight back.

Fugitive Slaves Recaptured: 1850A brief skirmish erupted and 35 members of the group were captured by the white slave catchers and several African Americans were killed. Others, including Wheeler, initially escaped.

Some of the captured, upon defending themselves, had been shot and wounded.  One witness reported that the group was shot with powder and ball, and the survivors chained and driven off like beasts.

The Port Tobacco Times reported, “They had to be fired upon before they would surrender.”  All of those seized, including five who were badly injured, were taken to the jail at Rockville under the assumption that they had run away from their masters. Most of the recaptured were sold out of state to new slave masters.

A group of four who escaped the Montgomery Volunteers were captured in Westminster, about 20 miles from the Pennsylvania border. Wheeler was still at large on July 16 when the Maryland Journal asked readers to, “Keep a look out for him, as lots of money will be forked over to any one who may nab him.”

Wheeler captured, convicted & escapes

Wheeler was eventually captured and brought to Port Tobacco in Charles County for a trial that began September 1, 1845.

Bill Wheeler convicted in MD slave insurrection: 1845

Wheeler is convicted of insurrection.

The Times called Wheeler and Caesar the “prime movers and instigators in the late Negro insurrection.” The Times reported that the two, “If proved to be guilty, will, in accordance to the law in relation to this crime, suffer the penalty of death.”

Wheeler was found guilty by a jury of white men on September 2nd and sentenced to hang until dead. Fearing that Wheeler’s death sentence may be commuted, a law was passed by the Maryland General Assembly in March 1846 to insure he would remain in jail for the rest of his life:

An Act to authorize and require the Warden and Keepers of the Penitentiary of Maryland, to receive and keep negro William Wheeler, now under sentence of death into Penitentiary, in the event of the commutation of his sentence by the Governor.

However, Wheeler escaped the county jail after four months of incarceration in the facility. Despite a $100 reward offered for his apprehension, Wheeler was never re-captured.

Mark Caesar’s Trial

Mark Caesar sentenced for MD slave rebellion: 1845

Caesar is sentenced to 40 years.

Caesar was charged with insurrection and his trial began September 4, 1845, three days after Wheeler’s.

A jury split 8-4 in favor of conviction and the result was a hung jury. The prosecution decided to re-try Caesar, a 35-year old free black man who worked as a carpenter, on different charges. This time Caesar faced charges of “aiding and abetting slaves in making their escape from their masters,” according to the Port Tobacco Times.

Caesar was then found guilty and sentenced to 40 years in the penitentiary where he died of consumption (tuberculosis) in 1850.


News of the uprising terrified slave owners in Charles, St. Mary’s, and Prince George’s Counties, according to the Journal.

Prison record of revolt leader Mark Caesar: 1850

Mark Caesar’s prison record showing he was a 35 year old,  5’8″ carpenter who could read and write at the time he was sentenced.

“This is the most daring movement which has ever come under our observation.” Never before had an armed group of enslaved men taken a “public road in open day, within 2 miles of a County town, and in a thickly settled neighborhood,” the Journal noted.

As a result, Charles County sought “to confine the slaves within proper limits, and to keep them free from those influences which poison their minds and tend to render them dissatisfied with their condition,” the Journal wrote.

According to the Maryland Archives, some slave owners desired to have a special militia created for the purpose of suppressing any uprising and capturing runaways. They proposed anyone taking part be rewarded for their efforts.

In St. Mary’s County, it was decided that a “Committee of Vigilance” would be formed, with ten people in each election district to watch any travel of African Americans within the county.  The “Montgomery Volunteers” reportedly received many new enlistees.

Despite the efforts of slave catchers, it appears some of those who made their break for freedom with Caesar and Wheeler were never apprehended.

Editor’s notes:

Slavery hung on in Maryland until the Civil War. Union occupation of the state resulted in a new state Constitution adopted April 1, 1864 November 1, 1864 outlawing the practice. Voting rights were extended to non white males in the state in 1867.

Long live Mark Caesar and Bill Wheeler.

Sources include the The Maryland Archives, Resistance to Slavery in Maryland by Cheryl Janifer LaRoche, the Port Tobacco Times and the Maryland Reporter.

Post updated 7/5/15 to reflect the correct effective date of the Maryland Constitution outlawing slavery. Thanks to Ben Fischler



9 Responses to “Maryland slaves make bold bid for freedom: July 7-8, 1845”

  1. Ben Fischler July 4, 2015 at 5:00 pm #

    Interesting post. A correction is needed in the Editor’s note. According to the Maryland State Archives ( “Delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1864 were elected by the voters on April 6, 1864. The convention convened in Annapolis on April 27, 1864, and adjourned on September 6, 1864. A state-wide referendum was held October 12 and 13, 1864, with special provisions were made to allow soldiers in the field to vote, and Governor Bradford certified the election totals on October 29. The third state constitution, which abolished slavery in Maryland, went into effect November 1, 1864.”

    • Craig Simpson July 4, 2015 at 6:16 pm #

      If you go deeper I think you’ll discover the meaning of the editor’s note. Lincoln sent Gen. Benjamin Butler into Baltimore in 1861 where he seized control of the city and arrested a number of local officials without charges or trial–because of their perceived sympathies with secession. The federal troops later extended their control throughout the state and arrested 1/3 of the Maryland legislature without charges or trial. Even with this control the Constitution barely passed with residents voting against it. The overwhelming majority of soldiers stationed in the state voted for it, providing a slim margin of victory. Maryland had a very mixed role like most border states. It’s history after the Civil War also paralleled the South with its re-establishment of Jim Crow. The state song is a reflection of this–it glorifies an attack by pro-slavery forces on federal troops in Baltimore that predated Ft. Sumter and attacks Lincoln as a “despot.” Not to mention the “thin grey line” statue in downtown Rockville that glorifies those who fought to defend slavery–only a mile or two from where Wheeler and Caesar’s attempt at a mass escape from slavery was broken up.

      • Ben Fischler July 4, 2015 at 6:27 pm #

        All very important points, Craig. My point was rather minor in comparison: Maryland’s new state Constitution was not adopted April 1, 1864. The process stretched out from April to November.

  2. Craig Simpson July 5, 2015 at 9:43 am #

    Thanks for the explanation, I completely missed your point.

  3. Delores A Moses July 12, 2018 at 9:08 pm #

    A great article. It should be shared as a part of African American history class to our children. Published at the right time when we are celebrating the Independence Holiday. In order for our history to be told it must be done by us. In order for it to be published, we must interact with like-minded people to make it happen.

  4. Mikael Levin September 16, 2020 at 5:33 pm #

    anyone have further information on this rebellion? looking especially for more specifics about the route taken and the site of confrontation. Thanks!

    • Craig Simpson September 17, 2020 at 8:12 am #

      I always wanted to go to the Montgomery County Public Library in Rockville and the Rockville Historical Society to see what if any newspapers or documents they had related to this, but have never found the time. Perhaps you could schedule an appointment at the historical society and visit the library on the same day. Some information is available online. Search for Mark Caesar or Bill Wheeler.

      • mikaellevin September 17, 2020 at 8:51 am #

        Thank you, Craig. Looking forward to the day when I can travel to the area to research and photograph. (Not possible now with Covid). If ever you come across anything further, please let me know!

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