The Baltimore Riot

April 19, 1861 – Troops of the 6th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment traveling through Baltimore fired on a jeering mob of citizens, sparking mass unrest.

Federal troops heeding President Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers needed to pass through Baltimore, a major railroad hub, to get to Washington, D.C. Some Pennsylvania units had made the trip on April 18 and informed capital officials of the poor reception they received from secessionists and city gangs such as the “plug uglies” in predominately pro-Confederate Baltimore. The Massachusetts men came through the next day.

The train carrying the soldiers arrived at the President Street Station at 10:30 a.m. Baltimore Mayor George W. Brown asserted that neither he nor city police had been notified that Federal troops would be arriving that day. To complete their journey to the capital, the Massachusetts men had to have their 10 rail cars drawn by horses along a connecting line to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, a mile across town at the Camden Street Station.

Resentful crowds gathered in the streets to curse and jeer the troops as they passed. The first eight cars went through with no incident, but the mob pelted the ninth car with paving stones and bricks, shattering windows and injuring some troops. Debris on the tracks prevented the 10th car from passing. The men had to detrain and march the remaining distance to Camden Street. Officers instructed their men to load their rifles but not to fire unless ordered to do so.

As the mob cursed and pelted the scared, inexperienced soldiers with brickbats and paving stones, shots rang out. When the smoke cleared, Colonel Edward Jones reported that the 6th had lost three killed (later amended to four) and 39 wounded. Mayor Brown reported that 12 civilians had been killed and dozens of others wounded, though the total figure was unknown.

Massachusetts Soldiers Firing into a Baltimore Crowd | Image Credit:
Massachusetts Soldiers Firing into a Baltimore Crowd | Image Credit:

These marked the first combat casualties of the war. Prominent journalist George Templeton Strong wrote, “It’s a notable coincidence that the first blood in this great struggle is drawn by Massachusetts men on the anniversary” of the Battles of Lexington and Concord that sparked the War for Independence 86 years before.

Mayor Brown and Police Marshal George Kane tried protecting the soldiers by getting them to the station and hustling them onto rail cars as soon as possible. The train left the Camden Street Station around 12:45 p.m. The soldiers left their dead, some of their wounded, and their regimental band. City police returned baggage and equipment that had been seized by the mob. Some 17 wounded soldiers were carried into the capital on stretchers. Those killed were packed with ice and returned to Massachusetts for honorable interment.

The 6th Massachusetts took up quarters in the Senate chamber of the U.S. Capitol. Baltimore authorities restored order by evening, after rioters had caused thousands of dollars’ worth of property damage.

When a rumor spread that more Federal troops were approaching the city via the northern railroads, Governor Thomas H. Hicks reluctantly approved the recommendation of Mayor Brown and Police Marshal Kane to destroy four railroad bridges leading from Philadelphia and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Secessionists also cut telegraph lines.

Cutting rail and telegraph lines prevented Washington from receiving reinforcements or communications, thus isolating the capital from the North for nearly a week. Many capital visitors quickly fled town, while residents closed their businesses and barricaded their homes. Mayor Brown dispatched three representatives to deliver a letter to President Lincoln warning about Baltimore’s volatility:

“The people are exasperated to the highest degree by the passage of troops, and the citizens are universally decided in the opinion that no more should be ordered to come… It is my solemn duty to inform you that it is not possible for more soldiers to pass through Baltimore unless they fight their way at every step.”

A demonstration took place on the night of the 19th at Baltimore’s Monument Square, where speakers denounced the Lincoln administration and called for Maryland to secede. Governor Hicks, who had straddled both sides of the secession question, now joined the secessionists in declaring to the crowd: “I will suffer my right arm to be torn from my body before I will raise it to strike a sister State.” The next day, Hicks further emboldened the secessionists by informing the Lincoln administration that order could only be maintained by prohibiting the entry of Federal troops.

President Lincoln conferred with General-in-Chief Winfield Scott and then responded by temporarily closing the Baltimore line of transport: “For the future, troops must be brought here (Washington), but I make no point of bringing them through Baltimore.”

The Federals created an alternate route through Maryland via water to Annapolis. Brigadier General Benjamin F. Butler’s 8th Massachusetts paraded his men through that town before they rebuilt damaged railroad tracks on their march to the capital on foot. The Annapolis route, though slower, bypassed the Baltimore problem for now.

Meanwhile, Washington remained in chaos since Federals took more time coming to the city’s defense. Many feared that secessionists would invade at any time. Cut off from reinforcements or communications, wild rumors spreading throughout the capital were taken as fact. 

Northerners were outraged by Maryland’s defiance of Federal authority. Massachusetts soon provided double its quota of troops for the war effort. New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley declared that Baltimore should “be burned with fire and leveled to the earth and made an abode for owls and satyrs and a place for fishermen to dry their nets.”

Marylanders responded differently. School teacher James Randall, a native Marylander reading about the Baltimore riot from New Orleans, composed the poem “My Maryland.” This denounced the Federal invasion of Maryland, and its circulation increased when Baltimore socialite sisters Jennie and Hettie Cary began singing it to audiences to the tune of the Yale song “Lauriger Horatius.” A publisher later changed the song accompaniment to “O Tannenbaum,” a 1799 German song also known as “Oh Christmas Tree.”



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