Thomas Swann

Thomas Swann was born on February 3, 1809, in Alexandria, Virginia, to Thomas Swann, Sr., and Jane Byrd Page. His father was the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, and his mother was descended from one of the First Families of Virginia. Swann received his early education in Washington, D.C., before enrolling at the University of Virginia in 1826. He spent the next two years studying moral philosophy and ancient languages. He was an average student, and the faculty frequently admonished him for drinking, gambling, and attending “disorderly” parties.

Swann returned home to Alexandria in 1828 and studied law under his father. He moved to Baltimore, Maryland, in 1834, and on May 19, he married Elizabeth Gilmore Sherlock, the daughter of an “English gentleman.” They had at least 5 children together: Thomas III, born around 1835; Louisa Sherlock, born around 1838; Jane Byrd, born around 1840; Elizabeth Gilmore, born around 1843; and Mary Mercer, born around 1845. He spent the next two decades as a railroad executive, becoming president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in 1848. He joined the elite Baltimore Farmer’s Club and served as a delegate to the 1853 Southern Commercial Convention. In 1853, he came close to securing the Whig Party’s gubernatorial nomination but lost out to Congressman Richard Bowie.

When the Whig Party collapsed in the mid-1850s, Swann joined the nativist Know Nothing Party. He became mayor of Baltimore in 1856 in one of the city’s bloodiest and most corrupt elections. As mayor, Swann championed civic reform. He modernized the police and fire departments, installed street-car and water-works systems, and organized an expansive city park. Racism and nativism, however, often guided the logic of these reforms. He kept the city’s parks segregated and filled the police force with Know Nothings, who sometimes refused to protect the city’s immigrants.

In April 1860, Swann helped engineer a fusion between Baltimore’s Know Nothing Party and the Constitutional Union Party. He supported John Bell in the 1860 presidential election—drafting public letters, attending party rallies, and delivering “forcible addresses” for the Constitutional Union Party. He campaigned alongside Congressman Henry Winter Davis, another UVA Unionist, who also viewed the new party as the best way to defeat the Democrats and preserve the Union.

During the Civil War, Swann served as president of Maryland’s Union State Central Committee. As a proslavery Unionist, he hoped that President Abraham Lincoln would wage war “for the restoration of the Union, and not for the overthrow of slavery.” He considered slavery a fundamental “condition of our compact of Union,” insisting the southern states had only ratified the Constitution because they believed it would protect their “peculiar institution.” By March 1863, however, he recognized that emancipation was necessary to win the war and ensure the Union’s survival. In 1864, he helped spearhead the movement to amend Maryland’s constitution and abolish slavery. That same year, Maryland voters elected him governor on a platform of Unconditional Unionism, and he formally took office on January 11, 1865. Swann emerged from the war even wealthier than before. In 1860, he owned $200,000 in real estate and $300,000 in personal property. Ten years later, he reported $400,000 in real estate and $1,000,000 in personal property.

After the war, Swann hoped the Union Party would survive as a permanent conservative organization. He served as president of a “grand Union mass meeting” in Baltimore in 1866, and he championed President Andrew Johnson’s lenient plan for Reconstruction. Like Johnson, Swann advocated sectional reconciliation at the cost of racial justice. In his inaugural address, he urged Maryland voters to “lay aside animosities of the past” and “come together once more in a spirit of conciliation and harmony.” He later denounced Reconstruction as a “war of persecution,” and he argued that “negro equality will destroy the State of Maryland.” He partnered with Johnson to keep Radical Republicans from gaining power in Maryland, allowing some former Confederates to vote and imposing harsh restrictions on the state’s Black population. In 1869, when his term as governor expired, Baltimore voters elected him to Congress, where he spent the next decade railing against Reconstruction and civil rights.

Swann’s wife Elizabeth died in Baltimore on April 25, 1876, and he married Josephine A. Thompson in June 1878. According to one report, their “marriage relations did not continue long,” and they quickly separated. In the summer of 1883, while visiting his country estate in Leesburg, Virginia, Swann fell gravely ill. As one writer observed, the “uraemic poison has reached his heart and brain,” his “lower limbs are paralyzed, and there is a clot of blood on his brain.” He died in Leesburg on July 24, 1883, and was buried in Baltimore.

Image: Thomas Swann (courtesy Wikicommons)


Thomas Swann to Abraham Lincoln

Name:Swann, Thomas
Alternative names:
  • UVA (Union)
  • Civilian
Branch of service:
Residence at UVA:Washington, DC
UVA Begin Year:1826
UVA End Year:1828
Residence at enlistment:
Rank In:
Rank Out:
Highest rank achieved:
Birth date:1809-02-03
Birth date certainty:Certain
Birth place:Alexandria, VA
Death date:1883-07-24
Death place:Leesburg, VA
Causes of death:
Occupations:Attorney, Congressman
Person 1Relation TypePerson 2
Swann, Thomasparent ofSwann III, Thomas
Swann, Thomasparent ofSwann, Louisa Sherlock
Swann, Thomasparent ofSwann, Jane Byrd
Swann, Thomasparent ofSwann II, Elizabeth Gilmore
Swann, Thomasparent ofSwann, Mary Mercer
Swann, Elizabeth Gilmorewife ofSwann, Thomas
Swann, Josephine Antoinettewife ofSwann, Thomas

1830, 1840, 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880 United States Federal Censusus, available from; Minutes of the University of Virginia Faculty, Session 2, 1826, Jefferson's University: The Early LifeThe Baltimore Sun, 16 May 1853, 2 September 1853, 29 September 1864, 12 January 1865, and 22 June 1866; The Daily Exchange, 20 April 1860; The Cecil Whig, 29 September 1860, 20 October 1860, 14 March 1863, and 28 July 1883; The (Baltimore) Daily Exchange, 2 November 1860; Thomas Swann to Abraham Lincoln, 12 November 1864, Abraham Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress.