Commemoration of riot is reminder of Civil War history

Re-enactors will march to the museum on Saturday


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April 14, 2005|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN STAFF

To historians, firsts and anniversaries hold great significance. And this weekend holds a bit of both.

On Saturday, the Baltimore Civil War Museum will commemorate the 144th anniversary of the Pratt Street riots. The first combat fatalities of the Civil War happened during these riots, as Union soldiers marched through Baltimore from one train station to another.

The commemoration events are meant "to remind people of the Civil War history of Baltimore," said museum director Paul O'Neil.

To that effect, Civil War re-enactors will march through Fells Point at 10 a.m. Saturday. They'll start at the base of South Broadway, walk along Lancaster Street and turn up President Street, ending at the Civil War Museum.

The route has no historic significance, except that it ends at the site of the train station where many Union soldiers arrived. The building now houses the museum.

After the re-enactors march, the names of the dead will be read in a short ceremony at the museum. The museum will hold a scavenger hunt for children and give tours of its exhibits.

And O'Neil, who will be dressed in 19th-century-style gray striped pants, a vest and a top hat, will tell the tale of the Pratt Street riots.

O'Neil is a man with an encyclopedic knowledge of the riots - he can name the differences in various historical accounts of the riots. He even knows where The Sun, which covered the riots in 1861, might have made a few mistakes its story.

Baltimore, in 1861, was a divided town. Culturally and historically, Maryland was a Southern state. But, economically Baltimore's ties were closer to the North. There were more free blacks in Baltimore than in any other city in the Union.

After President Abraham Lincoln issued a declaration of rebellion on April 15, 1861, he needed to bring troops to Washington. All routes went through Maryland, which had not yet taken sides in the war.

Maryland elected officials did not want these soldiers to pass through, and Lincoln famously said: "Our men are not moles, and can't dig under the earth; they are not birds, and can't fly through the air. There is no way but to march across, and that they must do."

So, Union soldiers waiting in Pennsylvania boarded southbound trains. The first arrived in Baltimore on April 18 - they came via the North Central Railroad and detrained in Bolton Hill. From there, they walked to Camden Station, where they could get a southbound train to Washington. (This was the pre-Amtrak era, obviously, and many of the train tracks did not neatly connect.)

The sight of 500 Union soldiers marching through the city angered pro-Southern citizens, and mobs formed along the streets. They shouted and threw bricks and bottles at the marching soldiers. Twenty-four were injured that day, but nobody was killed.

The next day, April 19, more soldiers arrived from Pennsylvania. This time they came into President Street Station, which had connecting tracks to Camden Station.

The train cars had to go through the city one at a time. (A city ordinance prevented steam engines from moving though downtown Baltimore, so the cars were individually pulled by horses.)

Pro-South Baltimoreans suspected that Union troops were aboard the train. They derailed the seventh car and put obstacles on the track - forcing the remaining soldiers to march through the city to Camden Station.

When the soldiers started marching, things began to go badly.

The soldiers were armed, and shopkeepers had handed out rifles to the mob, said O'Neil. Shots were fired, and civilians and soldiers fell.

New soldiers arrived in Baltimore that afternoon, and by then the pro-Union mobs had also formed, supporting the troops. The tensions culminated that evening in a melee among the soldiers, the pro-Southern mobs and the pro-Union mobs.

The Baltimore police broke up the fight, and the newest soldiers retreated to Philadelphia.

In total, 16 people died - five soldiers and 11 civilians. They were the first to die in combat in the Civil War.

The Civil War Museum is at 601 President St. Call 410-385-5188. Re-enactors will march 10 a.m.-11 a.m. Saturday. The march will be followed by a short ceremony at the museum at 11 a.m. Tours of the museum will take place 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday . Admission is $6.

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