Northerners heeding President Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers had to pass through Baltimore to get to Washington, D.C. Baltimore was a major railroad hub in the slaveholding state of Maryland, and the residents were predominantly secessionists. Some Pennsylvania units had made the trip through the city on the 18th and shared stories of the negative reaction they had gotten from city residents and gangs such as the “plug uglies.” The 6th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was scheduled to go through Baltimore the next day.
Colonel Edward Jones, commanding the 6th Massachusetts, was warned that Baltimore was rife with secessionism while his regiment was staying in Philadelphia on the night of the 18th. He therefore issued orders for his men to load their muskets and stated: “You will undoubtedly be insulted, abused, and, perhaps, assaulted, to which you must pay no attention whatever… Do not fire into any promiscuous crowds, but select any man whom you may see aiming at you, and be sure you drop him.”
The train carrying the soldiers arrived at Baltimore’s President Street Station at 10:30 a.m. To complete their journey to the capital, the Massachusetts men had to have their 10 railcars drawn by horses along a connecting line to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, a mile across town at the Camden Street Station. Moving these cars through town so slowly gave onlookers plenty of time to tell the troops how unwelcome they were in Baltimore.
A resentful crowd of about 500 people gathered in the street to curse and jeer the railcars as they passed. The cars carrying the first seven companies made it to the Camden station, but by that time the crowd had swelled to about 2,000, and they blocked the way for the last three companies and the regimental band. The mob shouted epithets and insults, while some threw stones and bricks that shattered windows and injured some of the troops. Someone shouted, “Tear up the track!” and the mob bent the rails to ensure the cars could not pass.
The troops—raw recruits with minimal training—had no choice but to detrain. They formed ranks and started marching the remaining distance to the Camden station. The enraged crowd surged forward, shouting and cursing and hitting the troops with rocks, bricks, brickbats, and fists. Officers ordered their men to cap their muskets. When Private Luther Ladd was knocked down by a rock, someone in the crowd grabbed his rifle from him and shot him to death. The troops were ordered to fire.
A soldier later recalled: “Self-preservation called for action. Our men turned and began firing at random on the mob. For a moment, it looked as though that would end the affair. Regrouping, though, the mob surged toward us. Soon the streets became a battle ground.” According to Chaplain John W. Hanson: “Pistols and guns were fired from windows and doors of stores and houses as we passed along Pratt Street. Getting a little accustomed to these strange circumstances, our boys loaded their guns as they marched. Whenever they saw a hostile demonstration, they took as good aim as they could and fired.”
Baltimore Mayor George W. Brown hoped to restore order by going to the head of the Massachusetts column to personally lead the men to the station. He asked the officers not to have their men fire, but the mob became so vicious that even the mayor grabbed a musket and killed a man. A police officer marching alongside the mayor shot an attacker as well. The troops finally made it to the Camden station, where they were hustled onto railcars and taken out of Baltimore as soon as possible. They left around 12:45 p.m.
Colonel Jones reported that his regiment 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. The soldiers left behind 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.
These were the first combat casualties of the war, and as prominent New Yorker George Templeton Strong recognized: “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 had sparked the War for Independence 86 years before.
Telegraphic reports of the riot arrived at the capital before the 6th Massachusetts. A soldier remembered that when his regiment arrived, “it seemed that all of Washington had gathered at the station to pay homage to survivors from the Baltimore massacre.” Theodore Winthrop of the 6th New York watched as the wounded were taken off the train on stretchers: “A hush fell over the crowd of spectators. Then, one by one, other women stepped forward. Pulling out handkerchiefs of their own, they followed the lead of the little clerk from the U.S. Patent Office.”
The Massachusetts men took up quarters in the Senate chamber, across the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol from the 6th New York in the House chamber. Winthrop recalled: “Once in the Representatives’ chamber, we washed. Some of our companies were marched upstairs into the galleries. The sofas were to be their beds. Most of us were bestowed in the ampitheatre.”
President Abraham Lincoln’s secretary John Hay described the sight of the 6th Massachusetts at the Capitol: “The contrast was very painful between the gray-haired dignity that filled the Senate chamber when I saw it last, and the present throng of bright-looking Yankee boys, the most of them bearing the signs of New England rusticity in voice and manner, scattered over the desks, chairs and galleries, some loafing, many writing letters slowly and with plough-hardened hands or with rapid-glancing clerkly fingers while (House Speaker Galusha) Grow stood patient by the desk and franked for everybody…”
Back at Baltimore, authorities restored order by evening, after rioters had caused thousands of dollars’ worth of property damage. The Baltimore Police Board met and concluded that the violence would only escalate if any more Federal troops tried to come through the city. Governor Thomas H. Hicks reluctantly agreed with the board’s decision to burn all bridges bringing troops by railroad from the north.
A committee was formed to go to Washington and inform Lincoln of the decision. Mayor Brown wrote a letter that was to be delivered to the president: “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.” Lincoln had endured ridicule for secretly going through Baltimore in the middle of the night to get to Washington. But the riot showed that the threat of violence was real, and, to the president’s supporters, it seemed to vindicate his decision.
As the train lines bringing troops to Washington were cut, secessionists cut the telegraph lines, thereby preventing the capital from receiving either reinforcements or communications from the North for nearly a week. Many visitors quickly left town, and residents closed their businesses and barricaded their homes. John Hay wrote: “The town is full to-night of feverish rumors about a meditated assault upon the city.”
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.
Lincoln conferred with Brevet Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, general-in-chief of the U.S. Army, 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 secessionists got what they wanted: they had isolated the capital. They won their first battle with the Federal government. But their victory would be short-lived.
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.” The U.S. Navy managed to get the U.S.S. Constitution, the venerable warship known as “Old Ironsides” from the War of 1812, out of Annapolis before it could be seized by secessionists.
On the 20th, the Federals created an alternate route through Maryland. The 8th Massachusetts, led by Brigadier General Benjamin F. Butler (commander of the entire Massachusetts contingent), went by train to Perryville, Maryland, and from there took water transports down Chesapeake Bay to Annapolis, 40 miles from Washington. Governor Hicks pleaded with Butler not to lead his men ashore, but Butler ignored him and paraded the regiment through town. The men then rebuilt the damaged railroad tracks on their way to the capital on foot. The Annapolis route, though slower, bypassed the Baltimore problem for now.
But Washington, with a Confederate state on one side and a state seriously contemplating leaving the Union on the other, remained in great danger. Troops could only come to its defense in a trickle, and many believed that the secessionists could overthrow the government at any time. Cut off from substantial reinforcements or communications, wild rumors were taken as fact, and Washington residents lived in fear of what may happen next.
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