Baltimore’s Civil War Riot

The “First Bloodshed of the Civil War” did not happen at Fort Sumter: it happened in the streets of Baltimore.


President Street Train Station

After the bombardment and surrender of Fort Sumter, President Lincoln issued a call for an army of 75,000 volunteers to serve for 90 days to deal with the insurrection, and also ordered a number of troops to move in to protect Washington DC. Since all the railroads into DC passed through Baltimore, Federal soldiers began to concentrate in that city.

It was a tense situation. Southern sympathies were strong there: in the elections Lincoln had received less than 4% of the vote in Baltimore, and even before he had taken office there was an assassination plot to kill him as he traveled by train through the city—which was foiled by the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency. Even many Maryland citizens who did not support secession also did not want to see a war to prevent the Southern states from leaving. (Those anti-secessionists who were also against the war became known as “Copperheads”.)

On April 17, a group of militia from Pennsylvania and several Army regiments that had been pulled from duty on the western frontier had stopped in Baltimore and were stoned by an angry mob. So when the 6th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment arrived in the city at noon on April 19, on their way to DC, everyone expected trouble.

The soldiers had arrived at the Wilmington and Baltimore Line’s President Street Station, but the only track that went on to Washington DC was the Baltimore and Ohio Line, at the Camden Station about ten blocks away. So the troop train had to be disconnected and dragged by horses, one car at a time, down the waterfront along Pratt Street. To prevent trouble, the troops were ordered to keep their window shades down so they would not be visible. But as the mob of citizens grew it became more and more unruly. When only two railroad cars remained at President Street Station, the crowd began piling up large stones, ship anchors, and wooden timbers to block the street at a bridge so they could not be moved.

The 240 remaining Massachusetts troopers were ordered out of the cars, loaded their weapons, and formed up in marching column before setting off down Pratt Street on foot, led by Capt Albert Follansbee. Things now became more violent, as groups of people began pulling up paving stones and throwing them at the troops. A small group of Confederate sympathizers marched in front of the Federals with a Palmetto Flag, the symbol of secession—soon one of the Union soldiers broke ranks, dashed ahead, and tore down the flag.

Shortly after that, rioters began appearing with pistols and muskets. Several shots were fired from the windows of buildings along the road and several troops went down. Finally Follansbee gave the order to fire: the soldiers leveled their muskets and shot directly into the crowd. Those rioters who had firearms shot back. In the ensuing melee, three Federal troops were shot dead, one was beaten to death, and a dozen members of the crowd were killed. Some 36 troopers and an unknown number of rioters were wounded in the fracas.

When Mayor George Brown arrived at the scene, having heard the shots, he picked up a fallen musket and placed himself at the head of the column in an attempt to end the violence. As more gunfire was exchanged (with Mayor Brown recorded as shooting one of the rioters himself), he was quickly joined by Police Marshall George Kane, who placed a line of officers between the troops and the crowd and declared to the rioters, “Keep back, or I shoot!”

With this police escort, the remaining Federal troops made it to their train and departed. The mob, meanwhile, moved on to the offices of the German-language newspaper Baltimore Wecker, which was openly anti-secession in its views. The printing presses were smashed, the building set afire, and the publisher and editor were run out of town.

The next day, Mayor Brown sent a message to President Lincoln urging him to stop sending troops through Baltimore, arguing that it would only lead to more conflicts. Lincoln, in turn, is said to have remarked that his troops simply had to cross Maryland to reach the Confederates—and they were not birds who could fly over it, nor were they moles who could burrow under it. In desperation, city officials sent local militia to burn several of the railroad bridges leading into the city, hoping to prevent any further troop trains from arriving.

During this time, another group of Federal troops, the 8th Massachusetts under General Benjamin Franklin Butler, was sent to Annapolis with orders to secure a safe passage from that city to Washington DC. When Maryland Governor Thomas Hicks refused him permission to land there, Butler replied that his troops hadn’t eaten for several days and needed supplies: when Hicks declared that nobody in Maryland would sell anything to him, Butler pointedly noted that his men were armed and didn’t necessarily need to buy their supplies. With this route to Washington now open, Federal troops began to arrive at the capitol in force.

It would be another three weeks before any Northern soldiers tried to enter Baltimore again, covered by a gunship in the harbor and with a heavy police escort. When threats were then made in rebel newspapers to attack Fort McHenry, which was garrisoned by Union troops, the Governor ordered the state militia to help defend it: the Fort’s commander in turn, knowing that there were Southern sympathizers in the militia, announced that any militiamen who approached within half a mile of the Fort would be fired upon.

All of these events caused a political crisis in Maryland. Governor Hicks called together a special session of the State Legislature to vote on whether to secede: they chose by 53-13 to remain in the Union, but also tried to defuse further conflict by asking Lincoln to withdraw Federal troops from the state.

Instead, realizing that he simply could not allow Maryland—which surrounded Washington DC itself—to be swayed to a pro-Southern stance, Lincoln dispatched Gen Butler to Baltimore with his troops. Butler declared martial law, suspended habeus corpus, replaced nearly all of the police force, and began arresting Confederate supporters and sympathizers—including the entire city government and, a few months later, most of the State Legislature. They were held without trial in Fort McHenry. (Ironically, one of these prisoners, arrested for criticizing the suspension of habeus corpus, was Frank Key Howard, grandson of Francis Scott Key who had written the National Anthem at Fort McHenry.)

To reinforce the point, Butler sent a detachment of New York Zouaves under Lt Col Abram Duryee to occupy a prominent hill next to the Inner Harbor that overlooked the Baltimore business district. On the night of May 13 the Zouaves constructed a series of bank and ditch earthenworks with cannons, and over the next few months this was strengthened with wooden palisades, 42 guns, and 1,000 troops. The fortress became known as Federal Hill. Its sole purpose was to control the residents of Baltimore.


Federal Hill, overlooking the Inner Harbor

The Confederate States of America, meanwhile, viewed Maryland as one of its member states which had become occupied by the Federals. But, while Baltimore remained a hotbed of resentment and Southern sympathies throughout the war, in the end Maryland was firmly on the Union side: she sent 55,000 troops to fight for the Federals, and only 22,000 to fight for the Confederates.

Today, Platt Street, where the riot took place, is one of the major thoroughfares of downtown Baltimore at the Inner Harbor. A series of historical plaques and interpretive signs marks the site of the Baltimore Riot, explaining its role as “The First Bloodshed in the Civil War”. The nearby President Street Station (the oldest existing railroad station in the US) houses the Baltimore Civil War Museum. Federal Hill, across the Harbor, is now a city park, with monuments, cannon displays, and interpretive signs.





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