Museum marks site of first deaths in Civil War


A howling mob of stone-throwing Baltimore Rebels will be about the only thing missing from the ceremonies on Saturday celebrating the transformation of the derelict President Street Railroad Station into the Baltimore Civil War Museum.

The first deaths of the Civil War occurred April 19, 1861, on Pratt Street when a crowd of mostly Southern sympathizers set upon volunteer troops from the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment who had detrained at the President Street depot of the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad.

"Some call it a riot and some call it a massacre," says Shawn Cunningham, the director of the new museum who has been frenetically shepherding the President Street Station into shape

for the festivities this weekend.

On Saturday about 300 Civil War re-enactors -- in Union and Rebel uniforms -- will assemble and drill at 10 a.m. in Fells Point, where a Civil War Film Festival has been playing all week at the Orpheum Cinema on Thames Street.

The troops will march to President Street Station at 10: 30 a.m., accompanied by a 30-piece band of youthful enactors playing period music. "Yankee Doodle" and "Dixie" vied with each other on Pratt street in 1861.

That split in the city between supporters of the Union and the Confederacy, even within families, will be shown graphically in the new museum.

"People going to fight on one side or the other, even within families," says Cunningham. "It's a very American story."

At President Street on Saturday, there will be a ribbon-cutting, speeches, living history demonstrations, more military drill and even a Post Office commemorative cancellation.

The new museum opens officially to the public at noon and a Civil War Ball will be held at 7 p.m. at the Polish Hall at 1627 Eastern Ave. A weeklong lecture series begins Monday at 7 p.m. The anniversary of the Pratt Street Riot will be observed Sunday, April 19, with another parade from Fells Point, more drill, more living history and another postal commemorative cancellation.

But massacre or riot, 136 years ago, four Massachusetts soldiers and 12 Baltimore civilians died in the clash on Pratt Street.

The event moved James Ryder Randall to write his "lurid secessionist poem," Maryland, My Maryland, which swiftly became the anthem of the Confederacy -- and remains the state song.

A week earlier, the first shots of the war had been fired at 4: 30 a.m. April 12, by Confederate artillerymen bombarding Fort Sumter, S.C. At 7: 30 a.m., U. S. Capt. Abner Doubleday -- yes, the "inventor" of baseball -- ordered U. S. cannoneers to fire back. But no one was even wounded on either side and very little damage was done.

On April 19, about 2,200 troops from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania rallying to President Lincoln's call to defend Washington had arrived at the President Street Station in a 35-car Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad train.

In those days, trains from the north had to be pulled by horses car by car across Pratt Street to the B.& O.'s Camden Station for the trip south. City officials didn't like smoky steam locomotives chugging through a main street of the city.

President Street, incidentally, is the oldest surviving big city passenger station in the United States, says the railroad historian Herbert H. Harwood Jr. Camden Station is second oldest.

"There was wild excitement among the great concourse of men that assembled on Pratt Street," recalled Jacob Frey in his "Reminisces of Baltimore." Many Baltimoreans construed the passage of Northern troops through Maryland "into an act of invasion."

The city was full of Southern sympathizers. Abraham Lincoln had come in dead last in the 1860 elections with 1,084 votes. John C. Breckenridge, a fire-eating Southern Democrat, led with 14,850 votes.

On the way to his inauguration in March, Frey says, Lincoln "stole through our city in the dead of night." Warned of an assassination attempt, Allan Pinkerton, founder of the Secret Service, kept Lincoln tucked into a bunk of a P.W.B. sleeping car that passed through the President Street depot.

"An avoidance of danger," Frey writes, that "did not fill a Southerner's ideal of courage in a leader."

A little more than a month later among the Pratt Street mob -- "composed largely of the most unruly element of the city" -- Frey says, "the expressions of contempt were all for Lincoln and the Federals, while the cheers were for [Jefferson] Davis and the Confederacy."

At Commerce Street, the crowd may have reached 20,000 and "almost every man provided himself with a huge paving stone," according to that prodigious chronicler of Baltimore, J. Thomas Scharf.

"As the troops advanced a shower of stones was poured on them," Scharf says. They fired, and the rest is the history which will be related in considerable detail in the exhibits at the President Street Station.

The museum's primary focus will be split between Baltimore in the Civil War and the Underground Railroad, the generic term for the routes and ruses enslaved African-Americans used to escape to the North and Canada.

The President Street Station had not yet been built when Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist author and orator, hopped on a P.W.B. train in Canton to evade the stringent rules that regulated the travel of African-Americans before the Civil War.

"On Monday, the third day of September, 1838," writes Douglass in his autobiography, "I bade farewell to the city of Baltimore, and to that slavery which had been my abhorrence from childhood."

The Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad began construction of the station in May 1849. It opened Feb. 18, 1851, without much fanfare or fuss.

But it wasn't opened yet when Henry Brown had himself shipped north from Richmond to Philadelphia aboard a P.W.B. train in a box 2 1/2 feet by 3 feet. He was called "Box" Brown ever after.

After the Civil War, the President Street Station served passengers until the beginning of the century. But the Pennsylvania Railroad purchased the P.W.B. in 1881 and built its first Union Station on Charles Street five years later, and that's where most passengers left Baltimore for points north.

President Street remained an active freight yard until about 1980, according to Herbert Harwood, the railroad historian. But a fire had destroyed the train shed in 1978, and neglect would leave the "headhouse" -- the museum -- a derelict curiosity at the edge of the sprawling parking lots across Jones Falls from the Pier Six pavilion.

"It was a pretty sad sight," says Shawn Cunningham. "This was a place that could have gone away very easily.

"But now it becomes the threshold for a very exciting redevelopment of this area," Cunningham says. "This is a part of Baltimore history that becomes the gateway to Inner Harbor East."


What: Historic President Street Station reopens as Baltimore Civil War Museum with marching bands, military drills, speeches, living history and a weeklong lecture series.

When: Saturday, 10 a.m., beginning with a parade from Fells Point to museum.

Where: 601 President St., at Fleet Street.

Admission: Adults $2, children $1, under 4 free.

Call: (410) 385-5188

Pub Date: 4/10/97

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