"Pratt Street Riot;" Massachusetts Militia Unit Attacked by Baltimore Mob

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"Pratt Street Riot;" Massachusetts Militia Unit Attacked by Baltimore Mob

Today in Military History: April 19, 1861


In the spring of 1861, the city of Baltimore, Maryland was a hotbed of secessionist sympathy. In the presidential election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln received less than 1100 votes out of about 30,000. As a result, Marylanders faced a difficult period of economic and political strife, since the state had cultural and business ties to both the North and the South and felt the pull of allegiances to both sections. Maryland's geographic location as a border state also assured that it would be contested ground should armed conflict occur.

The attack on Fort Sumter greatly worried Maryland's governor Thomas H. Hicks. He refused to call the state legislature into session to decide on the issue of secession. Hicks supported the Union and hoped to keep his state neutral by waiting until the passions of Fort Sumter had cooled to convene the legislature. Lincoln's call for volunteers on April 15 brought the more bellicose secessionists out in the open. These feelings worsened on April 17 when the Virginia legislature voted in favor of secession. Many federal officials feared that Washington would become isolated, surrounded by two states that were teetering on the brink of breaking with the Union. The only links that the nation's capitol had with the North were by the Potomac River, or by the railroad – which ran through Baltimore.

Lincoln's April 15 proclamation calling for 75,000 90-day volunteers to prosecute the war was followed up by a telegram from Secretary of War Simon Cameron to the governors of all the other states still in the Union (except California and Oregon; they were thought to be too geographically remote to send troops eastward). Each state was assigned a quota of militia units to send to various gathering points in each state. Some states, like Maine, Wisconsin and Iowa, were charged with raising one regiment. Others, like Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, were to raise 13, 14 and 17, respectively. [All together, nearly 92,000 officers and men answered Mr. Lincoln's call for 75,000 volunteers, including a unit from the newly-admitted state of Kansas.]

Mass. Governor John A. Andrew

Massachusetts was asked for 2 regiments, totaling 1,560 men. Within 48 hours of receiving Cameron's missive, Bay State Governor John A. Andrew had a unit on its way south to Washington, DC; the 720 men of the 6th Massachusetts Volunteer Militia Regiment. They were fully uniformed and equipped to be mustered into Federal service. They left Boston at 7:00 p.m. on the evening of April 17.

The 6th Massachusetts was not the first militia unit to travel to Washington via Baltimore. On April 18, a unit of 460 Pennsylvania militia had passed through the city with little incident. The citizenry of "Charm City" were caught by surprise, and vowed not to let that happen again.

"Gore...Flecked the Streets of Baltimore"

The city of Baltimore, besides being one of America's largest seaports, was also a major railroad hub. However, city ordinances prohibited trains from going through the downtown business district. The Sixth Massachusetts arrived in Baltimore at the President Street Station on the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad shortly before noon on the 19th. To continue the journey south to the nation's capitol, train cars were typically disconnected from the locomotives, pulled along tracks west through the city by horses to the Camden Street Station of the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad, where they were reconnected to B&O engines to proceed southward. It was a journey of ten blocks.

Upon the regiment's arrival, Col. Edward F. Jones was warned by railroad personnel of the rumors of potential civil unrest while en route to the B&O station. He instructed the soldiers to load their weapons but issued the order that no one was to fire unless ordered to do so. Arriving at the President Street Station, they had to wait for the horses to be hooked to the cars. Seven companies of the Regiment were successfully pulled through the city in this manner. However, as citizens learned that troops were arriving in the city, mobs began to gather along the streets and placed ships' anchors on the rails between the stations. The remaining four companies of soldiers – Companies C, D, I, and L, around 250 men under Captain Albert S. Follansbee – were forced to disembark and march to the Camden Station. One newspaper story stated that some of the militiamen were such new recruits that they did not even have muskets.

Although Police Marshal George Kane and Mayor George Brown provided a police escort of some 50 men for the troops, crowds along the streets began throwing rocks, bricks, and paving stones at the marching soldiers. Several shots were fired at the troops by individuals in the crowd and, when one soldier fell dead, the officers ordered the men to return fire into the mob. One newspaper account related that the one group of rioters carried a Confederate flag – likely the old "Stars and Bars." [See below]

Baltimore Mayor George Brown marched at the head of the column of troops for a period of time to attempt to calm the mob, but he was unsuccessful. The Sixth Massachusetts, with a police escort surrounding them, proceeded quickly down Pratt Street and eventually arrived at the Camden Station, where they boarded a train for Washington. [They were forced to leave much of their equipment behind, including the musical instruments of the regimental band.] But even as they attempted to leave, the Baltimore mobs grew larger. Many people ran along the track bed, placing logs and large stones to obstruct the train's progress. Policemen tried to block the crowd, moving the obstacles as quickly as they could be placed. The angry crowd followed the train for at least a mile after leaving the Pratt Street station, but finally tired of their sport and returned to the city.


The death toll was not large. Four soldiers were killed in the riot – Corporal Sumner Needham of Co I and Privates Luther C. Ladd, Charles Taylor,] and Addison Whitney of Company D – as well as 36 men were wounded. At least 12 of the rioters were dead, with an unknown number of wounded. Later that afternoon, Mayor Brown organized a mass meeting in Monument Square hoping to persuade the citizens to remain calm. Fearing that this plea by public officials was not enough, the mayor met with Gov. Hicks and several other city officials in the evening to discuss options. Realizing that more troops were on the way, Mayor Brown ordered a group of men to burn the railroad bridges north of the city. Several bridges were accordingly damaged (but not destroyed) later that night.

Footnote: Shortly afterward, James Ryder Randall, a native Marylander teaching in Louisiana, received word that a friend had been killed in the Baltimore riots. Saddened and angered by the news, Randall wrote a nine-stanza poem urging Maryland to secede from the Union. The poem, entitled "Maryland, My Maryland," was published on April 26, 1861 in the New Orleans "Sunday Delta." Set to the tune of "O Tannenbaum," the poem became an unofficial battle song of the Confederacy, sometimes called the "Marseillaise of the South." In 1939, it was adopted as Maryland's official state song. The first verse states:

The despot's heel is on thy shore,

Maryland! My Maryland!

His torch is at thy temple door,

Maryland! My Maryland!

Avenge the patriotic gore

That flecked the streets of Baltimore,

And be the battle queen of yore,

Maryland! My Maryland!

However, as the "despot" in the first line is Lincoln, there have been efforts recently to either change the lyrics or adopt a new song. To date, those efforts have been unsuccessful. 

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