This Day in History – October 23rd, 1861

On April 27, 1861, the writ of habeas corpus was unilaterally suspended by President Abraham Lincoln in Maryland during the American Civil War. Lincoln had received word that anti-war Maryland officials intended to destroy the railroad tracks between Annapolis and Philadelphia, which was a vital supply line for the army preparing to fight the south. (Indeed, soon after, the Maryland legislature would simultaneously vote to stay in the Union and to close these rail lines, in an apparent effort to prevent war between its northern and southern neighbors.

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Lincoln did not issue a sweeping order; it only applied to the Maryland route. Lincoln chose to suspend the writ over a proposal to bombard Baltimore, favored by his General-in-Chief Winfield Scott. Lincoln was also motivated by requests by generals to set up military courts to rein in his political opponents, “Copperheads,” or Peace Democrats, so named, because they did not want to resort to war to force the southern states back into the Union, as well as to intimidate those in the Union who supported the Confederate cause.

Congress was not yet in session to consider a suspension of the writs; however, when it came into session it failed to pass a bill favored by Lincoln to sanction his suspensions. During this period one sitting U.S. Congressman from the opposing party, as well the mayor, police chief, entire Board of Police, and the city council of Baltimore were arrested without charge and imprisoned indefinitely without trial.

Over the following six months as the American Civil War continued habeas corpus was also suspended in other states, and on this day in 1861 Lincoln even suspended it in Washington, D.C. for military related charges.

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