History Tracks

A tour guide takes us along the route through Baltimore that brought new Union soldiers face to face with angry Southern sympathizers 140 years ago

April 17, 2001|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

A thick April shower falls on the fine old building that was the President Street railroad station and on Pratt Street and on Camden Station and on the silent graves of the Civil War dead all across the city.

Now the Civil War Museum, the modest brick depot of the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore line nestles uneasily among its towering new neighbors between Little Italy and the Inner Harbor, a handsome antique in a neighborhood of knockoff modernism. The President Street station is 140 years old and a truly historic site. The first blood of the Civil War was spilled in the riots that exploded when Union troops arrived here April 19, 1861. At the end of the day, 21 soldiers and civilians lay dead, and more than 100 were wounded.

"A locomotive came to a stop here. Behind it in 10 or 11 cars were 700 troops of Massachusetts 6th Regiment," says Stanton Collins, a Civil War interpreter standing in the rain before the station's handsomely restored facade. A cold drizzle fell on April 19, 1861, too, he says.

His tour along the Pratt Street route of the 6th Massachusetts leads through a modern Baltimore where only the faint remnant of a house from 1861 survives. Moses Sheppard, the Quaker merchant-philanthropist, lived there then; today the brick facade at Pratt and Sharp streets frames a sports bar.

Almost everything else was lost in the Great Fire of 1904. That doesn't deter Collins, a burly man in a yellow slicker who stands at the corner of President and Fleet streets and re-creates the tumult of the beginning of the Civil War.

The train bearing the 6th Massachusetts came in along Fleet Street, which was Canton Avenue in 1861, he says. A passenger shed stretched maybe 100 feet beyond the brick depot. The train yard extended all the way to Central Avenue. Frederick Douglass began his escape from slavery here 13 years earlier.

Behind the 6th Massachusetts on that April morning 140 years ago was another trainload of about 1,100 volunteers from Philadelphia.

"They had come to Baltimore in response to the president's call for 75,000 troops to defend the capital after the fall of Fort Sumter a week before," Collins says, a retired bureaucrat who lives in Federal Hill.

He'll lead an hourlong lunchtime tour Thursday, beginning a series of events commemorating the 140th anniversary of the Baltimore Riots that the Maryland Historical Society will play host to Thursday and next weekend. MHS manages the Civil War Museum.

Collins says the 6th Massachusetts was the first regiment to respond to the president's order fully equipped and trained for battle.

"It's one of those wonderful coincidences of history," he says, "that one of the companies in the regiment, otherwise known as the Davis Guards, had come from the small town in Massachusetts which had sent a company of minutemen to the North Bridge, following Paul Revere's call to arms 86 years before."

A war's beginnings

The skirmishes between American minutemen and British troops at the North Bridge in Concord, Mass., on April 19, 1775, marked the beginning of the Revolutionary War, with, of course, "the shot heard round the world."

"So here at the outbreak of the American Civil War on the same day almost to the hour troops from the same town were involved in hostilities," Collins marvels. "These troops had left their homes and had been celebrated and hurrahed when they gathered at Lowell and on the Common in Boston and in New York and Philadelphia.

"But Col. Edward Jones [their commanding officer] knew that in Baltimore they would not be celebrated. That there'd be no hurrahs here."

Like any travelers from the North, the soldiers had to cross through the center of the city from the President Street depot to the Camden Station of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad to continue their journey south. Usually cars were drawn by horses up President Street to Pratt Street and on to Camden Station.

Jones knew that Pennsylvanians who had arrived the day before had been stoned en route to Camden Station. And a donnybrook broke out on Federal Hill when Southern sympathizers tried to raise a Confederate flag and Unionists pulled it down.

Baltimore was a rough, tough city that had just emerged from the Know Nothing anti-immigrant era when gangs named the Plug Uglies, Red Necks and Blood Tubs enforced political correctness with their fists. And Lincoln had gotten only 2,294 votes in the whole state of Maryland in the 1860 election, a fraction of the vote for the Southern Democrat John C. Breckenridge.

Jones issued 20 rounds of ammunition to each of his soldiers and told them: "Do not fire into any crowd promiscuously. But if you see someone aiming at you, make sure you drop them."

Horses started pulling cars to Camden Station about 11 a.m. Seven made it through. A screaming, yelling, stone-throwing crowd stopped the eighth car and drove it back. Four companies were still at President Street.

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