As May began, Maryland was still part of the Union, but Baltimore remained a hotbed of secessionism. The Lincoln administration had avoided sending Federal troops through Baltimore to get to Washington ever since the bloody riot of April 19, but since then the Maryland legislature had rejected secession, Virginians had begun arming for defense, and Washington needed to be fully secured. Moreover, the president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad had asked the administration to allow the resumption of passenger rail service between Baltimore and Washington.
The administration was reluctant to reopen the line because it would require extensive repairs and up to 1,000 Federal troops to guard the work from sabotage. However, if the line was reopened, it would bring northern troops to Washington much quicker than the current route through Annapolis. Secretary of War Simon Cameron finally concluded: “The North seems to be spoiling for a fight with Baltimore, and if there is to be one… the sooner it comes off the better.”
General-in-Chief Winfield Scott met with Brigadier General Benjamin F. Butler, commanding the Federal Department of Annapolis, to discuss how best to restore the railroad line. The main B&O line went from Baltimore to Harpers Ferry in northwestern Virginia. At Relay House, southwest of Baltimore, a spur of the main line went to Washington. Scott noted that if Confederates at Harpers Ferry wanted to attack Washington, they would have to control the vital junction at Relay House. Scott therefore directed Butler to seize that point.
Butler’s Federals took Relay House on the 5th and posted an artillery battery on the high ground overlooking the Patapsco River bridge. The troops built strong fortifications that were sure to repel any Confederate advance or any secessionist sabotage. They also threatened Frederick, Maryland, where the state legislature had assembled, and deterred the legislators from changing their mind about staying in the Union. Butler then invoked President Abraham Lincoln’s order suspending the writ of habeas corpus by jailing without warrant several nearby citizens suspected of working against his troops.
Once at Relay House, Butler received word of rampant secessionist activity in Baltimore. Scott had not ordered Butler to seize the city, but such activity could be a problem for his command. Scouts informed Butler that “military stores” in Baltimore were being gathered to be sent to the Confederates at Harpers Ferry. Butler relayed this information to Scott, who gave Butler permission to learn the identities of the people gathering these supplies “on inquiry.”
To conduct this “inquiry,” Butler assembled about 1,000 troops (half of whom belonged to the 6th Massachusetts that had been involved in the Baltimore riot) and two cannon and took a train to the city’s Camden Street station. Shielded by a heavy thunderstorm, Butler led the troops to Federal Hill, which overlooked the business district and harbor. Butler trained his two guns on the business district and sent a message to the Federal commander at Fort McHenry in the harbor: “I have taken possession of Baltimore. My troops are on Federal Hill, which I can hold with the aid of my artillery. If I am attacked to-night, please open upon Monument Square with your mortars. I will keep the hill fully lighted with fires during the night so that you may know where we are and not hit us.”
Meanwhile, Baltimore Mayor George Brown received word that the troops had taken a train into town, but he was unaware they were on Federal Hill. Brown wrote Butler: “As the sudden arrival of such a force will create much surprise in the Community…” Brown asked if the Federals “shall remain at the Camden Station, so that the Police may be notified and proper precaution may be taken to prevent any disturbance of the peace.” Baltimore police hurried to move hundreds of arms out of the city to prevent Federal confiscation.
As the rain cleared on the morning of the 14th, Baltimore residents woke to find that Butler’s troops now commanded Federal Hill. Butler issued a proclamation to the people of Baltimore that read in part:
“A detachment of the forces of the Federal Government under my command have occupied the city of Baltimore for the purpose, among other things, of enforcing respect and obedience to the laws… which are being violated within its limits by some malignant and traitorous men, and in order to testify the acceptance by the Federal Government of the fact that the city and all the well-intentioned portion of its inhabitants are loyal to the Union and the Constitution, and are to be so regarded and treated as all… all manufacturers of arms and munitions of war are hereby requested to report to me forthwith, so that the lawfulness of their occupation may be known and understood, and all misconstruction of their doings avoided… No flag, banner, ensign, or device of the so-called Confederate States, or any of them, will be permitted to be raised or shown in this department, and the exhibition of either of them by evil-disposed persons will be deemed and taken to be evidence of a design to afford aid and comfort to the enemies of the country.”
As Butler’s troops moved to disarm the residents of Baltimore, they confiscated several thousand muskets and pikes that belonged to the city. They also arrested many suspected secessionists, including wealthy inventor Ross Winans. Winans dealt with locomotive engines and had recently invented a weapon that the press called a “steam gun.” Winans hired as his attorney Reverdy Johnson, a former U.S. attorney general and personal friend of President Lincoln’s. Johnson eventually persuaded Lincoln to release his client, and rumors spread that Lincoln had released Winans on the promise that the “steam gun” invented for Confederate use would be given to the Federals.
General Scott learned of Butler’s actions and was alarmed he had acted so aggressively without direct orders. Scott wrote him: “Your hazardous occupation of Baltimore was made without my knowledge, and of course without my approbation. It is a God-send that it was without conflict of arms. It is also reported that you have sent a detachment to Frederick, but this is impossible. Not a word have I received from you as to either movement. Let me hear from you.”
Butler exceeded his authority mainly because, as he later wrote, he had “promised my old comrades of the Sixth Regiment, with whom I had served for many years, that I would march them through Baltimore and revenge the cowardly attack made upon them on the 19th of April.” Butler also acknowledged that “if I asked General Scott for orders to occupy Baltimore he would refuse them.” And Baltimore was ripe for the taking now that the Maryland militia had disbanded and most secessionists had fled to Virginia.
While many questioned the legality of Butler’s actions, the seizure of Baltimore (along with Federal control of the Maryland railroads) helped suppress secessionist activity, and thus most northerners approved this controversial action. This was ostensibly done to safely transport Federal troops through Baltimore, even though President Lincoln had pledged not to do so unless no other line of transport was available. On the same day of Butler’s proclamation, Maryland Governor Thomas H. Hicks issued a call for four militia regiments to fill the quota Lincoln had set for the state in his 15 April proclamation requesting volunteers.
In Lincoln’s cabinet, Butler had support from Secretary of War Simon Cameron and Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. Butler was a key Democrat who favored the administration’s policies, and he could be useful in getting Democratic support for the war effort. Lincoln would need bipartisan support in the coming war against the South, and as such he was willing to forgive Butler for overstepping his authority. For now.
When Butler did not immediately reply to Scott’s telegram, the general-in-chief wrote a more direct message: “Issue no more proclamations… Answer my letter of last evening. Did you leave any men at Relay House? Look to their safety. Not a word received from you in several days…” Scott then contacted Major General George Cadwalader to take his force of 1,000 Pennsylvanians to Baltimore. Once there, Cadwalader was to “halt there with them and relieve Brigadier-General Butler in command of the Department of Annapolis.”
President Lincoln summoned Butler to Washington, where he met with the president and general-in-chief. Scott admonished Butler: “Boldness in execution is nearly always necessary, but in planning and fitting out expeditions or detachments, great circumspection is a virtue.” In his memoirs, Butler wrote that the meeting caused him so much grief that “upon my return to my quarters I threw myself on my lounge, and burst into a flood of tears.”
Butler had enraged many Marylanders with this controversial act. But most northerners, especially Republicans, praised Butler’s audacity, which helped ensure that Washington would remain secure. Soon trains providing service for both civilians and the military began moving from the North through Baltimore to Washington regularly once more. What Butler had done would not be undone. Federals would remain in control of Baltimore and Maryland for the rest of the war.
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