- The Washington Times - Friday, April 13, 2007

In the spring of 1861, James Ryder Randall was inspired to write a poem that would become his state’s official anthem, “Maryland, My Maryland,” which, along with “Dixie,” would became one of the favorite marching songs of the Confederate armies.

Its opening verses thunder, “The despot’s heel is on the shore” and cry for the state to secede and “Avenge the patriotic gore / That flecked the streets of Baltimore.”

The despot is Abraham Lincoln, the gore is the blood of dead Marylanders, and the occasion is the Baltimore riot of April 19, 1861.

The events that occurred that day in Baltimore, with its population of 200,000 the largest city in the Upper South, sketch a preliminary drawing of some of the greatest issues of the Civil War panorama: states’ rights, the use of Federal force, the balance of executive and judicial powers and the ultimate Union victory and Confederate defeat.

It all began when smoke from Charleston Harbor wafted symbolically to Baltimore. After Confederate guns had brought down the U.S. flag at Fort Sumter on April 14, Lincoln called for 75,000 troops to put down the rebellion. Responding to the call five days later, about 1,800 troops of the 6th Massachusetts Volunteers and the nonuniformed 7th Pennsylvania Militia arrived in Baltimore by train en route to defend Washington.

Because their rail line ended at the President Street Station, the troops had to move about 30 blocks west to Camden Station to take a Washington-bound train. Some proceeded by horse-drawn carriage; others marched.

First blood

Mayor George Brown and other city officials had tried to ensure safe passage for the troops, but Southern sentiment in Baltimore was too strong to prevent violence. On learning of the Northerners’ arrival, masses of people gathered along the route. Two contemporary estimates put the crowd at 10,000 to 20,000.

Watching the Northern regiments move along Pratt Street, with the harbor hard on their left, hundreds of Confederate supporters at the right, rear and front of the troops shouted insults and threats and pelted them with bricks and stones; some even fired on them from the street and upper windows.

A Union lieutenant recalled, “I have been in many a battle, but I had rather, any time, face the enemy in open field than go through such a scene as that was in the streets of Baltimore.”

After Massachusetts troops returned fire, 12 Baltimoreans and four soldiers lay dead, and many more groaned from wounds. Many infantrymen boarded the train, but the Baltimoreans prevented others, along with their band, from boarding. Some soldiers scattered, and the Pennsylvania troops took another train to retreat above the Mason-Dixon Line, about 60 miles north.

Ironically, Massachusetts troops had occasioned what came to be called the “Baltimore massacre,” a replay of “foreign” troops firing on citizens as in the “Boston Massacre” of 1770. Also ironic is that the shootings occurred on the very day, April 19, that Massachusetts minutemen had fired “the shot heard ‘round the world” at British redcoats in 1775.

Thus Mayor Brown would claim that on that day “was shed the first blood in a conflict between the North and the South. … The North became wild with astonishment and rage, and the South rose to fever-heat from the conviction that Maryland was about to fall in line as the advance guard of the Southern Confederacy.”

Southern plots

Even before the riot, secession had been probable; only one year earlier, the General Assembly had vowed allegiance to the Southern cause by resolving that Maryland would join “with her sister states of the South and abide their fortune to the fullest extent.”

Few should have been surprised, least of all the new president. Since Lincoln’s election, rumors of Southern plots had been open and widespread to kill Winfield Scott, general in chief of the U.S. Army; to blow up the Capitol; and to seize the Washington Arsenal and Navy Yard, but the most persistent rumor was of a plot to assassinate the president.

On a whistle-stop journey from Springfield, Ill., to take office in Washington, Lincoln was warned in Philadelphia by the private detective Allan Pinkerton that an assassination would be attempted in Baltimore, a likely place because of its Southern sympathies, its hostile press and its refusal to extend an official welcome to the president. (It ultimately was a Marylander, John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Lincoln four years later.)

Taking Pinkerton’s warning seriously, the president had sped through Baltimore in his train by dark of night. If an attack on the president himself had been rumored and planned, few should have been surprised by an attack on “foreign” troops who violated another state’s rights by moving without permission through its major city.

In addition to its strong Southern sympathies, the fierce pride of the city may have been another cause of public anger. Baltimore long had prided itself on defending American liberty; its militia, sea fencibles and volunteers had stopped the British advance in the War of 1812 at the battles of North Point and Fort McHenry.

With this history, Baltimore may have felt intense civic humiliation in being a turnpike to Washington for another state’s unwelcome troops.

Newspapers react

Within days, newspapers across the country showed their sectional sympathies. To the South, the riot was glorious. The Baltimore Sun reported that secession badges and Confederate flags were everywhere in the city. The Daily Picayune of New Orleans wrote, “The soil of that gallant old State is not to be made the thoroughfare of a Black Republican army of invasion.”

The New Orleans Bee reported that Maryland was “resisting even unto blood the passage across her soil of Northern invading hordes.” The Memphis Daily Appeal, alluding to the Alamo in the Texas War for Independence, exhorted readers to “Remember the Baltimore!”

The Richmond Enquirer praised the bravery of Baltimoreans for their attempt in “driving the ruffians back.” The Richmond Daily Dispatch charged that the Federal forces marching through Baltimore were the “riff-raff our noble Southern gentlemen must fight.” A letter in the Charleston Mercury claimed, “Baltimore has covered herself with glory.” The South of Baltimore concluded that “the truest interests and sympathies of Maryland point to a union with the South.”

Northern newspapers, however, were either saddened or enraged. The Boston Post compared the “heroic dead” of the 6th Massachusetts with “the men who fell on Lexington Green in the Revolution.” The Philadelphia Inquirer called Baltimoreans “cowardly rebels.”

Other Northern papers did more than name-calling. The Chicago Tribune forecast that “Baltimore will properly and rigorously be dealt with,” while the Illinois State Journal editorialized, “Treason must make an unconditional surrender and the ring-leaders must hang.”

The New York Times warned Marylanders, “We hold the fate of your State in our hands.” The New York Herald threatened that another such occurrence “may possibly result in the reduction of the city to the condition of Fort Sumter.” The New York Tribune’s editor, Horace Greeley, called for Baltimore “to be burned to the ground.”

With similar sectional biases, widely published pictures followed suit. In one etching, Baltimore artist Adalbert Johann Volck showed a resolute band of Rebel Davids poised with rocks and revolvers standing firm as a mass of Yankee Goliaths armed with rifles and bayonets retreat in disorder. Likewise, an E.B. and E.C. Kellogg lithograph, “The Massacre at Baltimore,” pictures ordered ranks of Union troops with rifles trained on sparsely armed citizens.

Currier and Ives’ Northern bias is clear in a lithograph that shows mobbed, ragged Baltimore hoodlums throwing bricks at charging Union troops. Likewise, the title of a wood engraving in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly telegraphs its opinion: “The Sixth Massachusetts Repelling the Attack of the Mob in Pratt Street, Baltimore.”

Fear grips city

As news, pictures, rumors and opinion flashed around the country, Baltimore feared the worst that the New York newspapers had threatened. The Encyclopedia of the Confederacy notes, “Hysteria gripped Baltimore. A mass meeting [the evening of April 19] evoked extreme state rights statements from Governor Thomas Hicks. … Meanwhile, Baltimore prepared for a siege.”

The Baltimore Sun asserted, “It is no longer a time to discuss, but to act,” and the Baltimore County American vowed, “Northern troops shall not pass unharmed through the State of Maryland for the purpose of subjugating the South.”

City residents armed themselves. Purchasers and looters emptied stores of weapons. The Sun reported, “There was a great rush on Saturday and yesterday for arms, muskets, pistols, Bowie knives, pitchforks, and every other instrument of attack or defense.”

Reasons for very different Northern and Southern fears were plain. Because Maryland was a slave state that enclosed Washington on three sides, with the already seceded Virginia on the other, it was crucial for the Confederacy that Maryland secede and for the Union that the state remain in the Union. However, it also was crucial to Maryland to have free choice — a state’s sovereign right, it believed — not to be imposed upon by the Federal government.

Although sparsely populated Western Maryland, with its small farms and a highly anti-slavery German population, sympathized with the North, sentiment for secession was strong in Baltimore, central and Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore, regions where plantations and slaves were more numerous.

The state’s political leaning was clear from its presidential vote in 1860 for the pro-slavery Democrat John Breckinridge. Also, with states’ rights Democrats controlling the General Assembly, Maryland leaned hard to secession. The nation watched.

Martial law

Wanting to avoid more violence to Marylanders, Mayor Brown, Gov. Hicks and other officials demanded that no more Federal troops be sent through the state. They ordered that railroad bridges in the northern sections be destroyed to prevent the arrival of more Federal troops. Other Marylanders chopped down telegraph poles or clipped wires to Washington, for a while cutting off the capital’s rapid communication with the North.

A chief result of this destruction was a display of Federal force over a state’s rights. Union Gen. Benjamin F. Butler ordered the Federal occupation of Baltimore and declared martial law. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and invoked executive privilege in ordering the arrests of the mayor, the police chief, city councilmen, police commissioners, some state delegates and senators, newspapers editors, judges and many others.

All were imprisoned, most in Fort McHenry. The prisoners there were so numerous that Union Gen. John A. Dix complained that the crowds of prisoners, one cell with 20 men and tents filled with more, “hardly left room for the guard to parade.”

Fearful of secession by Maryland and other states in the Upper South, Lincoln’s administration contemplated bombardment of their cities. After threatening to incite a slave revolt in the state, Butler moved to carry out Lincoln’s plan. From Federal Hill, the highest ground overlooking the city and the port, he had cannons ready to level Baltimore if Maryland seceded.

Legal reckoning

One of the officers arrested for treason was Lt. John Merryman of a Maryland Confederate cavalry unit, who had led his men in destroying some of the northern railroad bridges. From Fort McHenry he protested his arrest on grounds that he had been denied his right of habeas corpus. Merryman’s petition reached U.S. Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, who, in the fiery words of Ex parte Merryman, decided against Lincoln.

“These great and fundamental laws, which Congress itself could not suspend, have been disregarded by force of arms [and Lincoln] was proving more despotic than any English monarch,” Taney wrote. Nevertheless, Lincoln prevailed. He had the Army. From the president’s actions, Taney and Randall, the judge and the poet, agreed that Lincoln was a despot.

Besides the unconstitutional revoking of habeas corpus, imprisonments and the military occupation of the state, another result of the Baltimore riot was a loss of the constitutional right of a free press. Through the course of the war, the occupying Union Army discontinued publication of seven pro-Confederate Baltimore newspapers, among them the Baltimore Evening News, the South and the Catholic Mirror. Twelve editors of these and other Baltimore papers were jailed without trial.

The legal consequences of the riot, then, struck at the roots of the Constitution and government. Not only had it led to Federal violations of the First, Fifth and Sixth amendments, it led also to the president’s rejection of judicial review and thus governmental balance of power.

Cause and effect

Beyond these legal consequences, the chief political significance of April 19, 1861, is that the massive Federal occupation caused Maryland to remain in the Union. With U.S. guns trained down on its most populous city; biggest port; major railway crossroads; and greatest banking, commercial and industrial city, Baltimore’s loss to the state would be irreparable. It is no surprise that the General Assembly, which just one year before had resolved allegiance to the South, voted not to secede.

One military consequence is that the riot may have assured the Union’s victory. With the Federal occupation of Baltimore, Washington was no longer cut off from its manpower and industrial bases in the North, so more troop and supply trains could arrive faster as the Union carried the war into the South.

Another military effect was that the Federal occupation forced removal of many militant secessionists from Maryland. All Maryland Confederate regiments had to be camped in Virginia; only scattered Confederate raiders operated in their home state.

Likewise, with Baltimore in Union control, the Anaconda Plan (the Union blockade of Southern coasts) could be strengthened because Federal warships that might have been needed to patrol the Maryland shoreline could be deployed farther south.

Finally, an international consequence of events on that April day in Baltimore is that Maryland’s being held at cannon-point in the Union helped prevent British and French recognition and even economic and military support of the Confederacy that might possibly have ended the United States of America as the inseparable union of its founding.

As Lexington and Concord were more than just skirmishes, the “Baltimore massacre of 1861,” however much overlooked, had consequences far beyond those of a mere local riot.

Emily Hahn, a native Baltimorean, is a student at New York University with a deep interest in her city’s history. Her article on the Protestant Reformation appeared in the Concord Review.

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