Diehard Civil War commemorators brave rainy anniversary

Long-planned events draw sparse crowds

April 16, 2011|By Jill Rosen, The Baltimore Sun

If war isn't glamorous or pretty, neither were Saturday's Civil War commemorations throughout Baltimore.

A cold, driving rain made sure of that, turning the centerpiece of the weekend — a parade billed as a "grand" way to mark the war's 150th anniversary — into a soggy, forlorn procession featuring only diehard re-enactors and watched by just the most dedicated history buffs.

"A gloomy start to mark what would be a gloomy day in American history," said Chuck Foulke of Eldersburg, a Civil War enthusiast and one of the few willing to endure a thorough soaking for the experience. "Very fitting."

Tourism officials and directors of the city's many historical sites with Civil War ties had high hopes for Saturday, having spent months working on what was to have been a splashy kickoff to a season of anniversary-related events.

They'd arranged to have Pratt Street shut down for a good bit of the morning and early afternoon to make way for the "grand procession," featuring hundreds and hundreds of re-enactors and National Guardsmen marching right through the center of town. But the heavy rain left downtown all but deserted and caused the guardsmen to cancel, leaving only re-enactors and a couple of municipal representatives to fill out the march.

Just after 11 a.m., when the parade was supposed to be in full swing, Pratt Street stood empty and quiet enough to hear fat raindrops pelting the concrete and storm water rushing along in the gutters. Event organizers huddled under a small canopy trying to stay at least somewhat dry.

They heard the snap of the drums before they could see any soldiers. Then came the sound of the fife and finally the militiamen themselves, slogging their way westbound from President Street with rain seeping into the wool of their uniforms and dripping from the barrels of their muskets. Even so, the would-be soldiers stared straight ahead, marching smartly, as if their boots weren't landing in deep puddles, and as if hundreds of folks were watching instead of dozens.

Three uniformed comrades who made their way up the street just ahead of the fife and drum crew pantomimed swim strokes as they passed the huddled officials.

"The weather put a damper on things to say the least," said Shauntee Daniels, outreach and education coordinator for the Baltimore National Heritage Area. "This is a huge disappointment. This is six months' worth of work."

And yet Courtney Wilson, commander general for Maryland's Defense Force, a volunteer uniformed state military agency, felt a surge of admiration, watching the re-enactors save what was left of the parade, saying, "It was really meaningful to see them come by."

Saturday's commemoration focused on the events of April 19, 1861, when a mob of Southern sympathizers attacked a regiment of Massachusetts militia making their way across town from President Street Station to Camden Station. With 16 people killed, the Pratt Street Riot is considered the Civil War's first bloodshed.

Besides the parade, scheduled events around town Saturday included an encampment at Fort McHenry featuring many of the re-enactors who braved the march, and at McKeldin Square, a tented exhibition promoting the region's other Civil War events. A play about the riot scheduled for the Inner Harbor amphitheater was instead performed in a corner of the McKeldin Square tent.

Earlier in the day, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake unveiled a new historic site marker for President Street Station and cut the ribbon for refurbished exhibits at the Baltimore Civil War Museum.

Despite wearing a soaking wet hoop skirt, Julie Cowdery, who was at the expo representing the Surratt House Museum in Clinton, decided if there was a snippet of silver lining amid the day's clouds it would have to be authenticity.

"On a day like this 150 years ago, women would have been walking around the streets wet and muddied," the 28-year-old from Clinton said. "This is authentic. A little cold, but authentic."


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