150 years ago, the bloodshed started here

First dead of Civil War fell in Baltimore's Pratt Street Riot

April 19, 2011|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

A good deal of blood was spilled on both sides. … It was one battle from the President Street Depo —- to the Camden Street depot — I can say no more.

Baltimorean Catherine N. Smith, April 1861

One week after the bloodless bombardment and gentlemanly surrender of Fort Sumter, the butchery that would become the Civil War began in Baltimore.

On April 19, 1861, the first 16 of more than 620,000 Americans who would perish in that conflict fell along the city waterfront as a pro-Southern mob clashed with a regiment of Massachusetts volunteers answering Abraham Lincoln's call to defend the nation's capital.

The most violent events of that bloody day played out along a dusty street that is now lined with the crown jewels of the Inner Harbor — the National Aquarium, the World Trade Center, Harborplace, the Baltimore Convention Center. With a tragic symbolism that resonated with people of that era, the fight erupted 86 years to the day after "the shot heard round the world" triggered the American Revolution in Massachusetts.

The death toll that day in Baltimore — at least 11 civilians and five soldiers — would amount to no more than a minor skirmish by the standards of later Civil War battles such as Antietam and Gettysburg. But the effect on public opinion in both the North and South was electrifying. And while Baltimore would soon fade into the role of a rear echelon stronghold of the Union army, for that one day it held center stage in the unfolding national tragedy.

"It certainly was the epochal event in Baltimore Civil War history," said Jean Baker, a history professor and author at Goucher University.

The clash would become known as the "Pratt Street Riot," and it stood in stark contrast to the genteel, casualty-free affair in Charleston harbor, where the Sumter commander was permitted to fold the Stars and Stripes and take it north. In Baltimore, the dispute turned into a war of popular passions — with pro-South Marylanders resisting what they saw as an invasion and with descendants of minutemen rallying to the Stars and Stripes

"Both sides would regard this as an act of war," said Burt Kummerow, president of the Maryland Historical Society. "No longer was there room for compromise."

The word "riot" may understate the strategic stakes in the clash. At the time the 6th Massachusetts Regiment hurried southward, the Lincoln administration in Washington was an island of Unionism in a sea of secession. The mob in Baltimore may not have been organized along military lines, but it identified the South's crucial interest in stopping the passage of soldiers in blue through a Maryland that was wavering between the two sides.

What started with a crowd hurling epithets and stones just north of what we now call Harbor East turned into a gun battle by the time 220 Massachusetts men marched to the wooden bridge over the Jones Falls between today's Scarlett Place condominiums and the Columbus Center. It wouldn't end until the embattled troops pulled out of Camden Station on their way to Washington, leaving behind their dead and many of their wounded.

The twin "bookends" of the April 19 brawl, the President Street Station and the Camden Street Station, have been preserved. The street grid and the names that existed in 1861 are largely unchanged. But with the exception of the Shot Tower and St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church, which would have been visible to the Massachusetts men over the heads of the rioters along President Street, no signs of the cityscape that existed along that route in 1861 remain recognizable today. Much of it was lost in the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, and the rest to development over the decades. The Pratt Street of 1861, much narrower than today's, was lined with wharves on the south side and mostly businesses — including taverns and brothels — on the north.

The riot was made possible by a quirk of transportation infrastructure. Though Baltimore had been the birthplace of American railroading three decades before, as of 1861 no trains ran through the city between Philadelphia and Washington. "Steam engines were considered a big intrusion," Kummerow said.

Rather, train passengers from the north stopped at President Street Station, boarded trolley cars and were hauled for a mile and a half by horses along streetcar tracks to Camden Station. There, passengers could board a Baltimore & Ohio train to Washington.

The soldiers confronted the same problem Lincoln faced almost two months earlier when he was traveling from Philadelphia to Washington for his inauguration. Warned of a plot to assassinate him as he traveled through Baltimore, the president-elect arrived unannounced at President Street about 3 a.m. Feb. 23. At 4:15 a.m., before any crowds could gather, his train pulled out of Camden Station along the route followed by MARC commuters today.

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