Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

William "Bill" Wheeler
MSA SC 5496-15156
Accomplice to slave flight, Charles County, Maryland, 1845


Between July seventh and eight in 1845, Bill Wheeler, the Charles County slave of Benjamin Contee, led an estimated 75 men on a march to freedom in Pennsylvania.  Wheeler, Mark Caesar, and other slaves from Charles County were joined on the road by slaves from St. Mary's County and Prince George's County.  The Maryland Journal reported that they "were seen within two miles of the place on the Frederick road, making their way northward in great haste."1  The slaves were armed with weapons to protect themselves, among which reportedly included pistols, loaded bludgeons, scythe blades, swords, clubs, butcher knives etc.  In regards to Wheeler, the group was said to have been "Headed by a powerful Negro fellow, sword in hand."2

The "Montgomery Volunteers", a group organized to stop such rebellions, eventually surrounded and attacked these rebels.  While under attack, Wheeler demanded that the Blacks fight back.  The Volunteers and their supporters captured 31 of the slaves near Rockville, Montgomery County, but the others managed to escape.  Some of the slaves were shot and wounded while defending themselves.  One witness claimed that the slaves were maliciously shot with powder and ball. The Port Tobacco Times argued that, "They had to be fired upon before they would surrender."3  All of those seized, including five who were badly injured, were taken to the jail in Rockville under the assumption that they had run away from their Charles County masters.  Those who escaped were pursued to Westminster in Carroll County, Maryland.  All of the weapons found with the slaves were confiscated for inspection, and most of the recaptured slaves were sold out-of-state by their masters, as Maryland law required.  It was reported on July 16, 1845 that Bill Wheeler had not yet been arrested, and the newspaper urged readers to "Keep a look out for him, as lots of money will be forked over to any one who may nab him."4  Ultimately, Wheeler was apprehended and faced trial in Charles County Court on September 1, 1845.  The Hon. Judge Clement Dorsey and Alexander C. Magruder presided at the trial.  The jury delivered a guilty verdict on September 2, 1845.  The following day, Wheeler's counsel, Jno. M.S. Causin, Esq., motioned for a new trial as well as for arrest of judgement, but both of these were overruled by the court.  "The case was submitted to the jury upon the mere matters of fact elicited during the trial from the witnesses, together with the law bearing upon the case."5  On November 1st, 1845, Bill Wheeler was sentenced to death by hanging.  A law, entitled "An Act to authorise 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,"6 passed on March 10, 1846  This law assured that Wheeler would be imprisoned in the Penitentiary for life if he did not receive the death penalty.

Wheeler's lone assumed accomplice, Mark Caesar, who was 35 years old, was detained and faced trial on Thursday, September 4, 1845, three days after Wheeler.  Caesar, who could read and write, had a scar on the back of his neck from a pistol ball.It is unknown whether or not this scar came from the insurrection.  The grand jury filed separate indictments against Caesar and Wheeler.  The Port Tobacco 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."8   Geo. Brent, Esq. was the prosecuting attorney for the state in both Caesar and Wheeler's cases. Caesar's trial lasted two days, and the jury remained out for twenty-four hours without coming to an agreement.  Of the jury of twelve, eight people were for convicting him and four against convicting him.  The court discharged the jury, and another jury was empannelled a week later on September 11, 1845 to hear the case.  The Port Tobacco Times reported, "There were some three or four cases of minor importance disposed of by the court during the time occupied in procuring a jury to try Mark Caesar, who was acquitted during the last session of the court of the charge of insurrection.  He was tried this time as a free negro aiding and abetting slaves in making their escape from their masters."9 Although the grand jury found 36 indictments against him, he was only tried for ten of them.  Convicted on each of the ten indictments, Caesar was sentenced on November 1, 1845 to forty years in the Penitentiary, four years per indictment.  Caesar died of consumption in jail on November 11, 1850.

Word of the uprising sent fear throughout Charles, St. Mary's and Prince George's Counties.  The Maryland Journal wrote, "This is the most daring movement which has ever come under our observation.  We have heard of gangs of negroes travelling through parts of the country sparsely inhabited, but never before have we heard of their taking to the public road in open day, within 2 miles of a County town, and in a thickly settled neighborhood."10  In response to the rebellion, on the 12th of July in St. Mary's County and on the 15th of July in Charles County, a public meeting of citizens took place "to deliberate on matters vitally affecting their interests."11  Efforts 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"12 were discussed in Charles County.   Citizens wrote to their local newspapers about defending against such uprisings.  Some desired a special militia created for this purpose and urged the people to lobby their delegates to help secure this militia.  This militia would also be responsible for catching all runaway slaves and would be rewarded for doing so.  In St. Mary's County, a "Committee of Vigilance" was formed, with ten people in each election district to watch over the movements of county blacks.  The "Montgomery Volunteers" were praised for their role in the events, attracting many new people to their organization.


1 "Yesterday Morning Early...", Maryland Journal, 9 July 1845
2 Aptheker, Herbert, American Negro Slave Revolts, New York: International Publishers, 1974
3 "Great panic of the Planters of Charles County", Port Tobacco Times, 31 July 1845
4 "Bill Wheeler...", Maryland Journal, 16 July 1845
5 "Charles County Court", Port Tobacco Times, 4 September 1845
6 GENERAL ASSEMBLY (Laws, Original) MSA S966, Chapter 368, "An Act to authorise 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", Dates: 1845, MSA S 966-307, MdHR 6-306, Location: 2/16/3/21
7 MARYLAND PENITENTIARY (Prisoners Record) MSA S275, Mark Caesar, #3921
8 "Charles County Court", Port Tobacco Times, 4 September 1845
9 "Charles County Court", Port Tobacco Times, 6 November 1845
10 "Yesterday Morning Early...", Maryland Journal, 9 July 1845
11 Letter to the Editors, Port Tobacco Times, 7 August 1845
12 Ibid.

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