2nd Civil War riot, rivaling Pratt Street, is unearthed

March 18, 1992|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,Staff Writer

Historians have overlooked a bloody skirmish in Baltimore between a local mob and Pennsylvania volunteers that left at least five of the Pennsylvanians dead and 13 of them wounded, a local group of Civil War buffs contends.

The group, the Friends of the President Street Station, pieced together a lengthy account of the brutal fight at President and Fleet streets that occurred April 19, 1861, early in the Civil War.

The newly discovered encounter between the largely unarmed volunteers from Philadelphia, who had not yet been mustered into federal service, and a Baltimore mob took place alongside the historic President Street Station railway terminal, presently owned by the city. It stands about four blocks east of the National Aquarium.

The battle occurred hours after the famous Pratt Street Riot, when Massachusetts troops en route to Washington opened fire on taunting, stone-throwing Baltimoreans. Eight rioters, one bystander and three soldiers were killed that day on Pratt Street.

While the Pratt Street Riot was reported widely in local newspapers, the engagement at the President Street Station went undocumented in either The Sun or the Baltimore American. However, details of the battle were reported at length in the Philadelphia Public Ledger, a respected journal. Local history books have overlooked the account.

"The station has more significance than we had ever anticipated," said Robert E. Reyes, vice president of the preservation group and one of the researchers who began a search for evidence to document the now-unused terminal.

Mr. Reyes and Ralph B. Vincent, president of the preservation group, are amateur historians. They made trips to Pennsylvania archives and libraries, where they found the critical newspaper account nearly a month ago.

James M. McPherson, a leading Civil War historian who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book "Battle Cry of Freedom," said yesterday that he had been unaware of the action at the President Street Station.

"A battle is a rather flexible concept. One man's battle is another man's skirmish and a third man's riot. There's no fixed definition. . . . Probably quite a few of the people there had been drinking," said Mr. McPherson, a professor of American history at Princeton University who lived in Baltimore as a student.

The author, who is scheduled to speak at the Maryland Historical Society April 23, applauded the local group for its research and preservation efforts.

The unarmed Pennsylvanians -- who numbered between 500 and 700 -- had just answered President Lincoln's call for a volunteer army of 75,000. Both the Massachusetts and Pennsylvania units were on their way to Washington via Baltimore. They traveled on the same steam-powered train.

Rail travel was primitive at that time. One railroad line terminated at what is now President and Fleet streets, just south of Little Italy. A number of the rail cars were then pulled by horse to Camden Station, a mile away, and transferred to the Baltimore and Ohio railroad for the rest of the journey.

But Baltimoreans blocked the path of the rail cars with paving stones and ships' anchors.

Baltimore was a city ready to explode with rage. Rumors of an invasion by non-Maryland, pro-Union troops circulated throughout the city and countryside.

A crowd formed, "lustily cheering for the South, for Jefferson Davis, South Carolina and secession," at Pratt and Gay streets, The Sun reported on Saturday, April 20, 1861.

Local mobs attacked the Massachusetts troops at two separate locations. The first encounter was at Pratt and Gay. Local police and city officials intervened and tried to impose order. They escorted the bulk of the troops to Camden Station, where they boarded coaches for Washington.

While Baltimore police focused on Camden Station, the mob re-formed, rearmed itself and started fighting at the President Street Station. The majority of the Pennsylvania volunteers had no uniforms, swords or guns. Some officers did and were recognized by the angry crowd.

"The Pennsylvanians behaved gallantly, and many of them sprang from the cars upon their assailants, and engaged in hand-to-hand combat with them," the Philadelphia Public Ledger reported April 20. "It was impossible, however, to distinguish friends from foes, as the mob was composed of Union men and Secessionists, who were fighting among themselves; and the Pennsylvanians, not being uniformed, could not be distinguished from one another."

The riot was quelled when an order was given for the train to return to Philadelphia. Not all the Pennsylvanians were able to board, however. Some walked home.

Philadelphia reporters met the returning troops, who related the day's harrowing events.

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