Otho Nesbitt: Southern Unionist, but… wanted to free slaves? Eh, not so much…

Posted on May 21, 2011 by


While the house you see is, in this photo, adorned for Christmas, imagine if you will… an American flag… two yards long, draped from the middle garret window.

Can you envision it?

In fact, in April 1861, Otho Nesbitt had hired a seamstress to make that flag for him… a statement to all those around Clear Spring, Maryland, that he was firm in his stand on Union.

Now, consider this…

Nesbitt was also one of the most prominent slaveholders in Clear Spring.

It’s one of those things that challenge the standard story of the Civil War… and, therefore, all the more reason why I’m interested in Nesbitt.

Image of Otha Nesbitt from the collection of the Clear Spring District Historical Association

As I pointed out in my =>post about Plumb Grove (home of Otha Nesbitt’s brother, Jonathan Nesbitt, Jr.), the Nesbitt family had been in the area since 1763. I haven’t traced the story of the Nesbitt family slaves, but do know that Otho was given a family of slaves by his father.

Fortunately, Otho’s diary is preserved by the Clear Spring District Historical Association, and we can get a glimpse of his relationship with his slaves. Unfortunately, I have yet to secure a chance to see the diary in person. Nonetheless, in her book, Too Afraid to Cry: Maryland Civilians in the Antietam Campaign, Kathleen A. Ernst provides some key information about Nesbitt and his slaves.

Diarist Otho Nesbitt of Clear Spring , who was given a slave family by his father, wrote of bringing a doctor daily to his farm to attend a sick little boy, hiring a seamstress to measure the slaves for new clothes, and ordering a new bedstead and sofa from a local carpenter for slaves Eli and Morris. “Morris”, he noted, “had always wanted a sofa.” When the circus came to town, Nesbitt gave his slaves money so they could attend.

Still… they were slaves, and of value to the economic stability of Nesbitt’s farm. When Maryland emancipated her own slaves in 1864, Nesbitt noted, “The negroes all set free in Maryland without compensation to their owners… the work of Abolitionism.” In all, he valued his seven slaves at $2,000. On November 1, he presented the news, and the situation to the former slaves…

Told the negroes that I had nothing more to do with them. It was now near winter and they had no house, no home and probably could get no work this time of year and if they cared to work on as they had been doing till spring they might do so, that I couldn’t pay a whole family of negroes to cook a little victuals for me after all that I had lost to both Armies. They said it was so and they would work on until spring as they had been.

Ernst closed her remarks about Nesbitt, noting that he “had provided some schooling for his slaves, fed and housed the family until members began to leave in search of employment in 1865; they all stayed in touch, and sometimes worked for him, for years to come.”

So, yes, Nesbitt fits the mold of a Southern Unionist, but, as a slaveholder, he also had interests to sustain. Nesbitt embraced the Union, but he was opposed to emancipation.

Nesbitt died in 1893, and was buried in Rose Hill Cemetery, just east of Clear Spring. See Nesbitt’s Find-a-Grave page, here.