A Most Uncivil Greeting


November 18, 1990|By Carleton Jones

The recent marathon public TV show on the Civil War won huge audience and critical hosannas, but outside of lavish coverage of the battle of Antietam and Gen. Jubal Early's Potomac area raid, Maryland was hardly the star of the show.

It was interesting, though, to see accurate if quite brief coverage of the famous or infamous riots in Baltimore, April 19, 1861. That was the date about 2,000 members of the 6th Massachusetts Infantry and a detachment of Philadelphia enlistees were greeted by Confederate sympathizers in downtown Baltimore with jeers and brickbats, and then pistols and guns.

The soldiers, most of them armed, were on their way from the President Street railroad station to Camden Station to catch a train to the nation's capital.

Hundreds of accounts of the troubles have come down to us.

Francis Roberts, a youngster of 15, was standing in front of his home on Light Street. He heard a commotion and ran north to Pratt Street to find a mob running east along the waterfront thoroughfare. "Someone in the crowd fired a shot" at the Gay Street intersection, young Roberts said, and he "dusted for cover" behind a cigar store Indian.

Roberts had witnessed the beginning of Civil War bloodshed. (No military personnel had been killed during the shelling of Fort Sumter a week earlier -- the official start of the conflict -- or since then.)

Both sides of Pratt Street in those days were honeycombed with tall commercial lofts and rooming houses. As the Northern boys attempted to march through, they were showered with kitchen implements and washroom equipment, bedpans included.

Aaron Jones Fletcher, one of the troopers, commented on the attack: "You know a flatiron thrown by a woman from the second-story window hurts like anything if it hits you . . . and some of the women who threw things were good shots."

When the uproar ended four troopers were dead and about 36 wounded. Although an accurate inventory of the human casualties apparently has never been made, it is known that 12 or 13 civilians were also killed that day.

Both sides, when the smoke settled, agreed that the city's mayor, George William Brown, and the police force had risked their lives to try to calm the crowd and protect the visitors.

Who fired the first shot? The evidence seems to indicate that it was a civilian and Baltimore native. Some accounts claim the tragedy was touched off when one Edward W. Beatty, who lived near Green Mount Cemetery, fired into the troops. If he did the shooting, he did not live long to brag about it: He was soon killed himself in a Confederate unit at the battle of Harrisonburg, Va.

For years, a parallel tradition settled in that the first gunshot was fired by an Irish immigrant, a group much opposed to coercing the South.

When the battered Massachusetts boys arrived at Washington, Ben Perley Poore, a correspondent for the Boston Journal, rushed to file his dispatch about the riot, but the military wouldn't allow it -- the first example of military censorship used in the conflict.

In the Boston Music Hall, Wendell Phillips, the great anti-slavery orator, thundered to cheering crowds: "Massachusetts blood has consecrated the pavements of Baltimore and those stones are now too sacred to be trodden by slaves!"

George Templeton Strong, the New York attorney and stalwart of the U.S. Sanitary Commission often quoted during the recent PBS program, echoed the North's surging fury.

He noted in his diary that the April 19 date was the same as the battle of Lexington that launched the American Revolution.

"This is a continuance of the war that Lexington opened -- a war of democracy against oligarchy," he wrote. "God defend the right and confound all traitors . . . amen and amen!" *

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