When Baltimore was under the guns

March 22, 1997|By Antero Pietila

I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN fascinated by the way many Americans view the Civil War.

Celebrations of rebel symbols or re-enactments of bloody battles would be totally unthinkable in my native Finland, which went through a civil war in 1917, or in Spain which experienced fratricide in the mid-1930s. Yet thousands of Americans think nothing of donning Union or Confederate uniforms every weekend in historic role-playing exercises that can only be described as bizarre.

Because of the proximity of so many crucial battle fields, Maryland has a veritable army of Civil War buffs. On weekends, some of them can be seen combing through former camp sites some of them can be seen combing through former camp sites with metal detectors. Various localities also have discovered the potential of Civil War tourism. Hagerstown, which last year lured the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites from Fredericksburg, Virginia, even attempted to wrest a museum of Civil War medicine from nearby Frederick.

Baltimore will try to capture a share of this thriving tourism business, when a new Civil War Museum opens April 12 at President Street Station. Much of its focus will be on the events of April 19, 1861, when troops of the Sixth Massachusetts Volunteer Militia disembarked at the station and were attacked by a mob of Southern sympathizers. The riot lasted for several hours and produced the first casualties of the Civil War. Four soldiers and 12 civilians were killed and 36 soldiers and an untold number of civilians were wounded.

This clash so close to Washington alarmed Abraham Lincoln. Within weeks, Union Army troops occupied Baltimore. Guns at Fort McHenry and Federal Hill were trained on the city. The mayor, chief of police and a bevy of leading citizens were arrested and held without charge for more than a year. The constitutional rights of Baltimoreans were suspended. ''Civil War in our midst!'' a Towson newspaper exclaimed.

A second focus

''Our exhibits explain what life was like in Baltimore in the 1860s politically, economically and socially,'' says Shawn Cunningham, who is leaving his job as managing director of B&O Railroad Museum to head the new institution.

The $1.5 million Civil War Museum will have another focus as well. Before the current President Street Station was constructed in 1849, the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad terminus was an escape route along the Underground Railroad.

In 1838, Frederick Douglass, who had once worked as a slave in nearby Fells Point, fled to the North aboard a PW&B train. Ten years later, Henry ''Box'' Brown did the same -- packed into a startingly small box that was shipped to Philadelphia.

Countless others made it to the North. William and Ellen Craft VTC escaped by train, with the light-skinned Ellen posing as an infirm young slave master and William as a servant. In 1856, when Charlotte Giles and Harriett Eglin made their successful escape, they posed as mourners covering their faces with black veils.

The small museum opens at a time when the far bigger Baltimore City Life Museums just a few blocks north is in deep financial trouble. Nevertheless Mr. Cunningham exudes optimism. ''We are very, very focused,'' he said. ''For a lot of people in Baltimore this is going to be a destination.''

The recent controversy over rebel flags on Sons of the Confederacy license plates shows that 132 years after the Civil War, Baltimore is still a divided city. It always has been. After the collapse of the Confederacy, this was a center of Southern relief efforts. And a Confederate monument was erected near the Maryland Institute in 1903, six years before a Union monument was dedicated.

Antero Pietila writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/23/97

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