History of the Federal Judiciary

History of the Federal Judiciary

  Ex parte Merryman and Debates on Civil Liberties During the Civil War
Historical Documents

Petition for a writ of habeas corpus, John Merryman, May 25, 1861

Within hours of his arrest and transfer to Fort McHenry, John Merryman met with his brother-in-law and a lawyer, George H. Williams, who drafted a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. General Cadwalader denied Williams access to the written record of the arrest, so Williams relied on information from Merryman. The petition was addressed to Chief Justice Roger Taney, who also served as a judge of the U.S. circuit court in Baltimore. An associate of Taney later asserted that the Chief Justice personally crossed out the reference to “judge of the Circuit Court” to indicate that he was acting as Chief Justice in chambers. After Williams met with a commissioner of the circuit court and swore to the truth of the petition, Taney received the petition at his home in Washington and quickly traveled to Baltimore for a court session on May 26.

[Document Source: Original case files in possession of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland.]

To the Honorable Roger B. Taney Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
and judge of the Circuit Court of the United States in and for the District of Maryland

The petition of John Merryman of Baltimore county and State aforesaid respectfully shews that being at home in his own domicil he was about the hour of 2 o’clock AM of the 25th May A. D. 1861, aroused from his bed by an armed force pretending to act under military orders from some person to your petitioner unknown. That he was by said armed force deprived of his liberty by being taken into custody, and removed from his said home to Fort McHenry, near to the City of Baltimore and in the District aforesaid; and where your petitioner now is in close custody.

That he has been so imprisoned without any process or color of law whatsoever, and that none such is pretended by those who are thus detaining him, and that no warrant from any Court magistrate or other person having legal authority to issue the same exists to justify such arrest; but to the contrary the same, as above is stated, hath been done without color of law and in violation of the Constitution and laws of the United States
and the State of Maryland of which he is a citizen.

That since his arrest he has been informed that some order purporting to come from one General Keim of Pennsylvania, this petitioner unknown, directing the arrest of the captain of some Company in Baltimore County of which Company the petitioner never was and is not Captain was the pretended ground of his arrest and is the sole ground as he believes on which he is now detained.

That the person now so detaining him and holding him at said fort is Brigadier General George Cadwalader the military commander of said post professing to act in the premises under or by color of the authority of the United States.

Your petitioner therefore prays that the writ of Habeas Corpus may issue to be directed to the said George Cadwalader commanding him to produce your petitioner before you, judge as aforesaid with the cause, if any, for his arrest and detention, to the end that your petitioner be discharged and restored to liberty, and as in duty.

John Merryman
Fort McHenry 25th May 1861.


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