Baltimore Riot of 1861 brought to life on video

February 07, 1994|By Sherry Joe | Sherry Joe,Sun Staff Writer

For three nights last week, shock waves from the Baltimore Riot of 1861 shook Maryland once again, as Union Army soldiers descended on the streets of historic Ellicott City.

The site: the B&O Railroad Station Museum, where museum officials and the school system on Tuesday began producing a videotape about the riot that will be shown to fifth-graders this fall.

Dressed in period costumes, more than 20 living-history actors played out scenes from a celebrated event in local Civil War history.

The 12-minute video will be used to prepare fifth-graders for the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, which tests students on their problem-solving abilities and other skills.

School officials say they believe the video is the first any school system has made specifically to prepare students for the state test.

"I'm always looking for unique and unusual ways to assess students," said Joan Heiss, a teacher whose field is social studies and language arts.

After watching the video, students will be asked to use the information to critically analyze 1861 newspaper editorials and the state song, "Maryland, My Maryland."

"We're trying to make our assessments real," Ms. Heiss said. Students are "going to actually see living history."

The video will focus on events that followed the riot on April 19, 1861, in which 16 people died when a mob attacked a group of Union soldiers passing through Baltimore on their way to Washington, D.C.

At the time, the only way to reach the nation's capital from the north was by transferring to the B&O Railroad in Baltimore.

But pro-secessionists were burning railroad bridges on the lines from Philadelphia and Harrisburg to prevent Union troops from passing through Maryland. To restore order and to keep the B&O Railroad open, Brig. Gen. Benjamin Butler placed Baltimore under martial law.

During his stay in Maryland, the general visited the B&O station in historic Ellicott City and occupied the Relay House B&O station in Elkridge, after its directors began to tear up the tracks to prevent its military use.

Although General Butler's superior, General-In-Command Winfield Scott, disapproved of the decision to place Baltimore under martial law, the order remained in place.

School officials said the conflict between the two men illustrates the passions that divided Maryland into pro-Union and pro-Confederate camps.

"Fifth-graders learn why Maryland was divided, events leading up to the Civil War and the war's effects on everybody," Ms. Heiss said. "But this particular situation would be a new situation for them."

The significance of the history lesson was not lost on the more than 20 amateur actors appearing in the video, many of whom have taken part in other living-history activities.

"People's lives were disintegrating around them," said Dr. Charles Raugh, a Falls Church resident who plays a lieutenant colonel in the movie. "Secessionists were destroying the railroad and knocking down telegraph wires."

Ed Williams, director of the B&O Railroad Station Museum, likened the Baltimore Riot to the incident at Kent State University in Ohio, where National Guard troops opened fire on and killed anti-Vietnam War demonstrators.

"It was very much like Kent State," said Mr. Williams, who plays an aide to General Butler. "Young guys who have never seen a mob before . . . bottles, bricks were thrown at them. They lowered their rifles and began firing."

Columbia resident Nigel Reed, who has directed Maryland Public Television programs and now directs and produces videos for the school system, said re-creating the Civil War era was challenging.

During Tuesday night's taping, for example, freight trains constantly rumbled by the station.

"We've had to block out light," he said. "We have to deal with minuscule space, 20th-century trains and traffic."

Mr. Reed said he appreciated the opportunity to make a video from start to finish.

"You have actors, a story you have to tell," he said. "I participated in the writing of this as well."

Leslie Walker-Bartnick, who works as an assessment specialist for the school department, said the movie and its companion lessons will help prepare students for real-life situations.

"It means kids are being taught and assessed on their thinking skills," she said, "which means they will be able to start thinking and solving today's problems."

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