A good deal of blood was spilled on both sides. … It was one battle from the President Street Depo —- to the Camden Street depot — I can say no more.
Baltimorean Catherine N. Smith, April 1861
One week after the bloodless bombardment and gentlemanly surrender of Fort Sumter, the butchery that would become the Civil War began in Baltimore.
On April 19, 1861, the first 16 of more than 620,000 Americans who would perish in that conflict fell along the city waterfront as a pro-Southern mob clashed with a regiment of Massachusetts volunteers answering Abraham Lincoln's call to defend the nation's capital.
The most violent events of that bloody day played out along a dusty street that is now lined with the crown jewels of the Inner Harbor — the National Aquarium, the World Trade Center, Harborplace, the Baltimore Convention Center. With a tragic symbolism that resonated with people of that era, the fight erupted 86 years to the day after "the shot heard round the world" triggered the American Revolution in Massachusetts.
The death toll that day in Baltimore — at least 11 civilians and five soldiers — would amount to no more than a minor skirmish by the standards of later Civil War battles such as Antietam and Gettysburg. But the effect on public opinion in both the North and South was electrifying. And while Baltimore would soon fade into the role of a rear echelon stronghold of the Union army, for that one day it held center stage in the unfolding national tragedy.
"It certainly was the epochal event in Baltimore Civil War history," said Jean Baker, a history professor and author at Goucher University.
The clash would become known as the "Pratt Street Riot," and it stood in stark contrast to the genteel, casualty-free affair in Charleston harbor, where the Sumter commander was permitted to fold the Stars and Stripes and take it north. In Baltimore, the dispute turned into a war of popular passions — with pro-South Marylanders resisting what they saw as an invasion and with descendants of minutemen rallying to the Stars and Stripes
"Both sides would regard this as an act of war," said Burt Kummerow, president of the Maryland Historical Society. "No longer was there room for compromise."
The word "riot" may understate the strategic stakes in the clash. At the time the 6th Massachusetts Regiment hurried southward, the Lincoln administration in Washington was an island of Unionism in a sea of secession. The mob in Baltimore may not have been organized along military lines, but it identified the South's crucial interest in stopping the passage of soldiers in blue through a Maryland that was wavering between the two sides.
What started with a crowd hurling epithets and stones just north of what we now call Harbor East turned into a gun battle by the time 220 Massachusetts men marched to the wooden bridge over the Jones Falls between today's Scarlett Place condominiums and the Columbus Center. It wouldn't end until the embattled troops pulled out of Camden Station on their way to Washington, leaving behind their dead and many of their wounded.
The twin "bookends" of the April 19 brawl, the President Street Station and the Camden Street Station, have been preserved. The street grid and the names that existed in 1861 are largely unchanged. But with the exception of the Shot Tower and St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church, which would have been visible to the Massachusetts men over the heads of the rioters along President Street, no signs of the cityscape that existed along that route in 1861 remain recognizable today. Much of it was lost in the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, and the rest to development over the decades. The Pratt Street of 1861, much narrower than today's, was lined with wharves on the south side and mostly businesses — including taverns and brothels — on the north.
The riot was made possible by a quirk of transportation infrastructure. Though Baltimore had been the birthplace of American railroading three decades before, as of 1861 no trains ran through the city between Philadelphia and Washington. "Steam engines were considered a big intrusion," Kummerow said.
Rather, train passengers from the north stopped at President Street Station, boarded trolley cars and were hauled for a mile and a half by horses along streetcar tracks to Camden Station. There, passengers could board a Baltimore & Ohio train to Washington.
The soldiers confronted the same problem Lincoln faced almost two months earlier when he was traveling from Philadelphia to Washington for his inauguration. Warned of a plot to assassinate him as he traveled through Baltimore, the president-elect arrived unannounced at President Street about 3 a.m. Feb. 23. At 4:15 a.m., before any crowds could gather, his train pulled out of Camden Station along the route followed by MARC commuters today.
But on April 19, there was no cover of darkness. The Massachusetts regiment arrived about 11 a.m. on a Friday, with trouble already brewing.
Col. Edward F. Jones warned his soldiers to expect a rough reception and told them they might have to march to Camden Station.
"You will undoubtedly be insulted, abused and perhaps assaulted, to which you must pay no attention whatever, but march with your faces square to the front, and pay no attention to the mob, even if they throw stones, bricks, or other missiles; but if you are fired upon, and any of you are hit, your officers will order you to fire. Do not fire into any promiscuous crowds, but select any man whom you may see aiming at you, and be sure you drop him."
According to historical accounts, the first nine trolley cars carrying seven companies made it to Camden Station through the stone-throwing crowd with no more damage than broken windows. But as the 10th car rounded the corner from President to Pratt, it was derailed by a load of sand and several anchors thrown across the tracks at Gay Street.
The crowd closed in on the crippled car, pelting it with missiles and injuring several soldiers. It was then that Capt. Albert S. Follansbee, leading the four companies bringing up the rear, made the fateful decision to fall back to the President Street Station.
The delay only gave the mob more time to form and to obstruct the path of the four companies when most of the soldiers set out on foot, leaving behind the regimental band and a group of 1,000 unarmed Pennsylvania volunteers.
Kummerow said the Massachusetts soldiers would have had less experience with street-fighting than many of the rioters who surrounded them in the city known as "Mobtown" for its history of political brawling by street gangs with names such as the Plug Uglies.
"These were totally green troopers. They were mainly a sipping and singing society," he said.
The Sun reported that at Fawn and President streets, along the edge of present-day Little Italy, the mob surrounded the 220 men and began an intensified barrage of bricks and paving stones, knocking two soldiers to the ground.
Kummerow said that while some of the rioters were ardent secessionists, others may have just been wharf rats spoiling for a fight. "There were a lot of nitwits out there who never had a political bone in their body."
It was about the time the soldiers turned onto Pratt Street and approached the barricaded bridge over the Jones Falls that the first shot rang out, Kummerow said. A century and a half later, it is still unknown who fired first. A Baltimore policeman would blame the soldiers. By another account, a Southern sympathizer named Beatty wrested a musket from a soldier and turned it on the Northerners.
By most accounts, the Northern troops did not respond with a disciplined volley but fired "willy-nilly" behind them as they quickstepped along Pratt Street. The fighting took place at such close quarters that in some cases rioters took muskets from the soldiers and turned them on the troops.
Kummerow said it was apparently somewhere between Gay and Light streets that the Union army suffered its first fatality of the war, when 17-year-old Pvt. Luther Ladd of Lowell, Mass., was shot to death. Within minutes, at South Street near the present day Renaissance Harborplace Hotel, the war's first Confederate recruit was shot and killed. William R. Clark of Baltimore had enlisted in the Confederate army only days before but had not yet gone South to be mustered in.
As the fighting intensified around Light Street, police led by Marshal George P. Kane formed a cordon of officers between the soldiers and the trailing mob, threatening to shoot any civilians who tried to break through.
The officials' actions reflected a deep ambivalence felt by Baltimore's leaders. While Kane and Mayor George W. Brown would both later be jailed by the Union army for pro-Southern activities, the two men were also determined to maintain law and order.
"They didn't want to be responsible for a bloodbath," said Robert J. Brugger, senior editor at the Johns Hopkins University Press and author of a history of Maryland. "They were in a bad spot."
Some of the most intense fighting took place near the intersection of Pratt and Light streets. Among those killed was William Reed, a boy aboard an oyster boat docked near the present site of the Constellation. Nearby, a boy name Patrick Griffin died when he was "shot through the bowels while looking through the door," The Sun reported.
With police protection, most of the 220 soldiers finally rejoined the rest of the regiment at Camden Station, where Colonel Jones faced the difficult decision of departing for Washington before the mob could block the tracks or trying to retrieve his wounded men. He chose Washington.
The last death among the civilians came as the train was leaving Baltimore near what is now Washington Boulevard, when a soldier apparently fired from the train into a group of citizens shouting hurrahs for Jefferson Davis. Killed almost instantly was Robert W. Davis, a popular dry-goods merchant. In the days to come, it was his death, more than any of the others, that would stoke the anger of Baltimoreans. That night, Baltimore militiamen and police officers would destroy the bridges into Baltimore to prevent more Northern troops from coming through town.
The reports of the Pratt Street Riot would reverberate across North and South, where both sides drew parallels between the event and the battles at Concord and Lexington in 1775.
In Louisiana, outraged by the loss of civilian life, Baltimore-born James Ryder Randall would pen the fire-breathing Confederate anthem "Maryland, My Maryland," later adopted as the state song and still a source of controversy.
Meanwhile, Northerners flocked to the Union banner, vowing at New York's Tammany Hall to "go through Baltimore or die." Some Unionists threatened to raze Baltimore rather than see it join the rebellion.
Kummerow said it was "hugely important" to the Union that the 6th Massachusetts made it through. No more Northern volunteers would reach Washington for almost a week. Five days afterward, Lincoln would meet with wounded members of the regiment and bemoan the lack of reinforcements. "You are the only Northern realities," he told them.
After the riot, Goucher College's Baker said, Lincoln would move adroitly to defuse tensions in Baltimore by promising Brown that no further Northern troops would come through the city for the time being. Instead, Washington received the relief that solidified his administration's control from regiments that reached the capital via Annapolis.
In Maryland, frayed tempers eased a bit, and the General Assembly — meeting in pro-Union Frederick — turned back a secession resolution.
"Maryland clearly was not going to secede, and that's the fact that has been lost in what I call the Confederate reinterpretation of the Civil War," Baker said. Eventually, about 60,000 Marylanders would fight for the Union, compared with 20,000 to 25,000 for the Confederacy.
Less than a month after the riot, after many of Maryland's most ardent secessionists had crossed the Potomac to join the Confederate army in Virginia, Gen. Benjamin Butler surprised Baltimore authorities by stationing 500 troops, including Pratt Street veterans, atop Federal Hill — with cannon trained directly on downtown — and proclaimed military control.
For the rest of the war, the Union had no trouble moving troops through Baltimore.