Sewell Hepbron Story: Civil War Repercussions in Kent
By Kelly Biringer
Visitors to Kent County do
not come to see old Civil War battlefields. The
expansive open space in the county did not host any
skirmishes or play home to droves of battle- related
There was a passionate
conflict, however — philosophical and social battles
were fought during the war all over the area.
A division between Union
and Confederate sympathizers caused this clash, over the
issues of slavery and states’ rights. Evidence of the
split can be found through the experiences and
first-hand accounts of local residents.
Sewell Stavely Hepbron of
Still Pond is a perfect example.
genealogy traces hundreds of years back on the Eastern
Shore to Henry Stavely and the year 1594. The first
Hepbron in Maryland, however, was James Hepborn (the
Hepbron name has various spellings), transported to
Maryland in 1655, according to Frank Snowden Hopkins, a
Hepbron descendant, in his historic account of the
In this line of descendants
falls Sewell Stavely Hepbron, a prominent 19th century
Born Dec. 15, 1806,
Hepbron, son of John Hepbron and Mary Redgrave Stavely,
was someone who could have been described as a “good”
citizen, a solid member of the community, a pillar of
society. He was well read, religious, owned land, was
involved in the county’s agriculture, and took an
interest in politics.
Despite this, by the end of
the Civil War, Hepbron would be arrested twice.
“Roll call: the Civil War
in Kent County, Maryland” by Walter J. Kirby and Lanetta
W. Parks explains that both his arrests were for the
“general charge of ‘disloyalty.’”
A man who was unwavering in
his belief that he was within his rights to own slaves,
Hepbron faced trouble during the Civil War and
Maryland was a border state
that remained under Union control during the war but
where the ownership of slaves was permitted. Because the
state surrounded the national capital, its legislature
did not have the option to vote to secede, even though
many of its citizens felt the state should join the
Confederacy. During this time, martial law was declared
and the writ of habeas corpus (the right to a fair trial
to avoid illegal imprisonment) was suspended.
With agriculture dominating
its economy, and the farm industry bolstered by slave
labor, social turmoil in Kent County was inevitable.
“Maryland, a middle temperament, 1634-1980” by Robert J.
Brugger describes the problem well:
Maryland by the
mid-nineteenth century had become a sectional nether
land, a mix of free and slave economy, Northern and
Southern culture. The state partook of both Yankee
‘go-aheadism’ and Cavalier leisure gave itself
completely to neither. Cambridge, Easton, Chestertown,
Annapolis, and southern Maryland nestled themselves in
the ways of the past and on the surface might have been
tidewater towns or tobacco lands anywhere in the South;
Westminster, Frederick, Hagerstown, and Cumberland
continued to grow, prosper, and boast of their advancing
As Union troops moved in,
residents on the Eastern Shore were torn between the
support of the Union and the support or opposition to
Hepbron’s troubles during
the war were a result of this problem.
Eleanor Noble, a great-great-granddaughter of Sewell
Hepbron, had heard some things about his Civil War
“He was suggesting to young
people that they not sign up for the [Union] draft,”
She also suggested another
possible reason for his arrests: “I also heard that he
had unfriendly neighbors that told stories.”
Hepbron’s problem with the
government likely stemmed in part from the enlistment of
slaves – without their owners’ permission — by the Union
A number of recruiting
stations were set up around the area, “Chesapeake Bay in
the Civil War” by Eric Mills, noted: “… the Bureau of
Colored Troops established recruiting stations at
Baltimore, Annapolis, Leonardtown, Havre de Grace,
Chestertown, Queenstown, Oxford, Princess Anne, and
eleven other locations. Ultimately six regiments were
raised and more than 8,700 Maryland blacks served.”
Two of Hepbron’s own
slaves, Alexander Brim and Chas. Hopkins, both 31,
enlisted for service on Oct. 1, 1863.
An article from the Kent
News of Oct. 3, 1863 reported that
Officers from Baltimore,
with authority from Colonel [William] Birney, came to
our town on Friday evening of last week, and remained
until Wednesday morning last, during which time they
recruited and sent away about three hundred negroes,
nearly all of them slaves. These, added to the number
previously taken from the neighborhood of Eastern Neck,
make a total of about four hundred from our county
alone. No discrimination was made between loyal and
disloyal owners, but the slaves of both were taken
alike, certificates of enlistment being given in all
cases when demanded, though it was understood that only
those who could establish their loyalty would receive
compensation. But few slaveholders in this community
have escaped loss, while many farmers are left without a
single serviceable hand.
regulations and terms were set for “negro recruitment,”
including compensation for loyal slaveholders who
allowed their slaves to enlist and promised freedom to
slaves of rebels or disloyal masters, an editorial in
the Kent News from Oct. 10, 1863 said that compensation
was not given and that this enlistment greatly hurt the
It was known here a week
ago that the President had issued an order directing a
stop to be put, at least for the present, to the
abduction of slaves in Maryland. The large number of
negroes taken from our county has most seriously
obstructed agricultural operations, and a further
depletion of labor would be hurtful in the extreme. …
With reduced crops, and necessary economy on the part of
the farmers generally, all branches of trade, deriving
their support primarily from this source, must
consequently suffer to a corresponding extent…
No further evidence is
needed of the unfairness and injustice of the system of
negro ‘recruiting’ which has been practiced in this
State … But what has become of the two-thirds who were
found unfit for military duty? It is certain that they
have not been returned to their owners; … It is evident,
therefore, from the manner in which the whole affair was
conducted, that it was carried on without the least
regard to the laws regulating enlistment, or to the
rights of the persons whose property, to the extent of
at least two-thirds of all that was taken, has been so
Frank Snowden Hopkins, in
his family historical account, “Hepburn Family of Kent
County, Maryland,” a 60-page description of the family,
only briefly mentioned the arrests.
He said only that Hepbron
“was so emotionally identified with the cause of the
Confederacy and so outspoken in his views that he was
imprisoned for a time,” although his “family records do
not show” how long he was held. Only a sentence notes
Hepbron’s problem with the law.
There is no record of the
exact occasion that brought to him the label of
Hepbron was never
officially charged. But, he was arrested twice – at
least one such was well documented.
The Jan. 7, 1865 edition of
the Kent News said that he was “arrested by military
authority and taken to Baltimore a few weeks ago, was
released on Tuesday upon taking the oath of allegiance,
and giving $2,000 bond to report for trial when so
On file at the National
Archives, Washington, D.C., letters written by Hepbron
to the Provost Marshal of Baltimore during and after his
imprisonment, underscore his problems with federal
officials and shows the impact to his family and
On Jan. 8, 1865 he wrote:
“I have been from my house
and family five weeks much against my personal interest
having yet grain in the field which is damaging for want
of gathering in, and my farming opperations [sic]
generally will suffer much the coming year by my
prolonged absence have done. I now ask you most
respectfully to let me go home …”
Another letter written
April 17, 1865 from Still Pond, after being released on
“parole,” speaks of President Abraham Lincoln’s
assassination. He had heard of the news at the post
office and felt “consternation and alarm… the whole
crowd without respect to party.” Hepbron refers to it as
a “dreadful calamity”
Hepbron was forced, as part
of his “parole” to write these letters as compensation
for his wrongs, and as a means of keeping in touch with
Hepbron’s request to be
released from his “parole,” in the same letter, was
turned down the following week with a note that “this is
a bad time to release Mr. Hepburn [sic] from parole.”
The bad timing no doubt
referred to the presidential assassination.
However, a month later, on
May 25, Lt. Col. John Woolley, the provost marshal,
recommended that Hepbron “be released entirely from
parole and on taking oath of allegiance be removed from
the roll of prisoners.”
It was apparently approved.
Although Hopkins’ family
history does not speak at length about Hepbron’s
arrests, it goes at length to defend his character.
“Yet in his relations with
his slaves he seems to have tried to follow standards of
decency and kindness, and to consider their wishes and
welfare to the extent he thought feasible,” Hopkins
His war-time arrests were
not the last of his worries.
Hepbron filed a suit, in
1870, against Richard T. Turner, of Chestertown, who had
written a letter to Gov. Thomas Swann claiming that
Hepbron had kidnapped “a colored child from its parents
some time in 1866,” reported the Dec. 3, 1870 edition of
the Kent News.
The trial “created great
interest” and the “arguments of counsel were listened to
with deep attention,” the Kent News reported.
Despite the interest level,
information on the libel case is even scarcer than
information about the arrests. But it is known that he
won the suit.
The Circuit Court of Kent
County removed the case to Dorchester County at Turner’s
request. The jury favored Hepbron, awarding him $1,000
There are no records at the
Kent County Courthouse, and neither Hopkins, nor local
relatives Noble and Francis Lamb, who is connected to
the Hepbrons’ through the Maslin line, ever heard of it.
As often was the case,
following the war and emancipation, families that owned
slaves downplayed their ownership.
After Hepbron’s death in
1879, his son Rev. Sewell Hepburn — who changed the
spelling of his family’s last name from “Hepbron” to
“Hepburn” — defended his father’s ownership of slaves:
Father was a slave owner.
This to my mind, was not to discredit however repulsive
this declaration may be to many of my readers, saturated
with the present day thought and teaching. Such books as
‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ written by fanatics, who at the time
of writing had never been south of the Mason and Dixon
Line and who being guided by their prejudice drew
largely upon their imagination, have painted a picture
of the time that is most misguiding. There were masters
and masters, some it is true, were hard and unmerciful.
They happily were most decidedly in the minority.
Hepburn said that their
slaves were happy, well fed and well clothed, and that
his mother Martha “was the slave in our family.”
In his accounts, he did not
mention his father’s arrests or the libel suit.
The 1864 “Commissioned
Slave Statistics, Kent County, Maryland” shows that
Hepbron owned 15 slaves ranging in ages 1 to 43 at that
time. Among them were Deanan Lyons, Alexander Brim,
Chas. Hopkins, Emma Hopkins, Alfred Lyons, Foston Lyons,
Emory Lyons, Hanable Lyons, Augusta, Hannah Snowden,
Anna Snowden, Maria Snowden, Bergin, Jeff, and Nathen.
The blacks closest to his
family, however, included a free African American named
Henry and his slave wife Hannah.
Henry and Hannah seem
almost part of the family in first-hand accounts.
Hepbron’s 1837-1853 letters, to his brothers Thomas and
James, document his decision to move his family west and
live in Missouri for a period.
Most letters start with an
update on everyone’s health, and Hepbron often mention
Henry and Hannah. In a June 18, 1837 letter to Kent
County relatives, his first after arriving in Missouri,
Hepbron describes their trip and talks about the death
of Hannah’s infant child and the burial.
A Dec. 25, 1840 letter also
describes the births of “negro children” and refers to
the mothers, one being Hannah, who had twins.
He often mentions his
slaves in health reports and local happenings to his
family back in Kent County.
The reality of the slave
trade stood out in harsh contrast to the domestic
familiarity. In an Aug. 7, 1843 letter, he mentions
buying a farm in Missouri: “After living in New London
for two years, carrying on my business I saw that the
best thing that I could do was to purchase a farm and
move on it. I gave $2,000 for the farm on which I now
live with crops, cattle sheep, hogs, etc. letting the
man have of which I purchased it a boy and girl, John
and Rachel, for $250 paid at this time …”
The family also took a long
route on their way to Missouri to be “careful to stay
always in slave territory in order not to run the risk
of being set upon by abolitionists,” Hopkins wrote.
Kent County’s social
division resonated in family life as well. In a Jan. 8,
1844 letter, Hepbron asks his brother to find out if his
wife Martha Maslin Hepbron had been made an heir by
Titus Maslin, a recently deceased uncle of Martha’s.
“Martha says she does not
expect anything as her Uncle Titus told her many years
ago that no slaveholder should ever have a cent of his,”
Titus Maslin’s will does
indeed completely ignore Martha.
Hepbron was a man whose
life is a string of contradictions as seen through the
looking-glass of the present. He was a slaveholder with
strong opinions on his right to own slaves as property.
First-hand writings, however, defend his character.
But during the Civil War he
was a prime example of just how deeply social schism
churned the emotions of people here. Families, farmers,
soldiers, slaves – all of them felt the shock of the
great debate about slavery, in an area that was not
quite southern and not quite northern.
great-grandfather of Academy Award winner Katharine
Hepburn, was just a farmer of modest means, one of many
in the small county of Kent on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.