Friday, April 14, 2017

An Underground Railroad Shootout in Silver Spring, August 8, 1850

It is amazing what traces of history one can find with just a little looking around. While in Silver Spring, Maryland, for a few days this week I decided to see if I could find the site of an Underground Railroad incident that I had read about in several different books. It was not difficult to locate the site with a little bit of searching on the internet.

The incident that happened on the night of August 8, 1850, involved a number personalities who were of major political importance, not only at that time, but in the coming years as well.

William L. Chaplin, a native of Massachusetts, resident of New York state, and who served as a newspaper correspondent in Washington D.C. for the Albany Patriot had helped make arrangements to try to get over seventy slaves out of the nation's capital city on the schooner Pearl in 1848. While the ship's captain and crew members were arrested, charged, tried, and convicted, they did not implicate Chaplin and he remained free.

Two years later, Chaplin, apparently under District of Columbia police surveillance, was suspected of new emancipation plans. He was observed readying to leave town,which prompted several officers and two citizens to await Chaplin's arrival just outside the city limits along the Brookville Pike (present-day Georgia Avenue) near the residence of James Blair (known as Moorings and shown above). Blair, was the son of Francis Preston Blair, a former member of Andrew Jackson "Kitchen Cabinet." Also nearby were the homes of Blair's father, known as Silver Spring, and Blair's brother, Montgomery C. Blair (Lincoln's future postmaster general), known as Falklands.

Around 11:30 p.m. on August 8, Chaplin's hired coach approached the awaiting officers. One officer ran a fence rail through the carriage's spoke wheels to stop it while others of the arresting party grabbed the horses' bridles. Chaplain apparently quickly realized what was going on and fired a shot at one of his assailants, shooting a hole through the man's hat.

Inside the carriage were Chaplin's two runaway passengers. One, named Garland, was the property of Georgia congressman Robert Toombs (pictured below). Toombs at this point in his career was an avid Unionist, who worked tirelessly to reconcile sectional issues between the North and the South and supported such measures as the Compromise of 1850. Later, as the 1860-61 secession crisis approached, Toombs relocated to the disunionist camp. Toombs, the consummate politician, aspired to the highest office in the infant Confederacy, but when Jefferson Davis was selected, he was chosen as secretary of state. That role was short lived though as the Georgian resigned it and became a brigadier general in the Army of Northern Virginia, but Toombs resigned that position, too, in 1863.

The other fugitive slave was named Allen, and belonged to Toombs's good friend and fellow Georgian Alexander Stephens (pictured below). Stephens, also a member of the U.S. House of Representatives was in many ways similar in political thought to Toombs, but quite opposite in physical appearance and disposition. Toombs was big and loud, whereas as Stephens was slight and reserved.

As Chaplin was wrestled from the driver's seat and received a beating, the two runaways blazed away at their would-be abductors with revolvers. A news story in the August 10 edition of D.C.-based The Republic newspaper stated that the two runaways discharged "no less than eleven shots from revolvers of formidable caliber." Chaplin was finally pinned to the ground by some of the officers while others fired back at the two enslaved men.

One of the officers had his left eyebrow singed off from the closeness of a shot. Another received a flesh wound to one of his arms.One policeman shot back and one of his bullets hit Allen's watch. Another shot hit Allen in the back. Some of the officers tried to unhitch the horses, and while doing so Garland jumped on one of the officer's back and then ran off into the darkness, but not before being wounded by a shot. Garland made a temporary getaway, however, three days later he turned himself in. 

Chaplin was charged in both Washington D.C and Maryland but was afforded a bailout by Gerritt Smith and other wealthy abolitionist supporters. He jumped bail after being released from his Maryland charge and returned to New York, never standing trial. Chaplin's experience at Silver Spring seemed to dissuade him from further Underground Railroad operations. 

Garland eventually escaped for good from Robert Toombs and made his way to Canada before the Civil War. He returned to the United Stated and enlisted in the 28th USCT, serving as the unit's chaplain as Garland White. When White and his fellow black soldiers entered Richmond, Virginia, he was reunited with his long lost mother in what was a touching story.

This particular instance is just one of thousands of examples in which enslaved African Americans took great risks and went to extraordinary lengths to attempt to stake their claim to the ideals of freedom and equality that were the foundation of the United States.

Toombs image courtesy of the New Georgia Encyclopedia
Stephens image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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