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First Blood

Baltimore, the Civil War, and the Lasting Legacy of the Pratt Street Riots

An obelisk in Lowell, Mass., honors Addison O. Whitney and Luther C. Ladd, two of the four Massachusetts militiamen killed by rioters on Pratt Street in April 1861.
Thirty years after the riots, veterans of the 6th Massachusetts Volunteer Militia were welcomed back to march through Baltimore.

By Ralph Brave | Posted 4/18/2001

"Kerouac," the librarian rasped. "You want to know about Kerouac, right? Where Kerouac's buried, right?"

At first, I didn't have a clue what she was talking about. While I was definitely on the road last summer, Jack Kerouac was the furthest thing from my mind. Then I made the mental connection: I was in Lowell, Mass. Images floated to the surface of my memory, of Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan paying tribute to the primordial beatnik at his grave site in this New England town.

No, I told her, recovering my bearings. "Well, that's good," she replied, "because he was an ornery alcoholic anyway and way overrated as a writer."

I didn't dispute her judgment, merely tried to explain myself. "I'm actually up here from Baltimore, and . . . "

"Whitney and Ladd!" she blurted. "You want to know about Whitney and Ladd!" She had me this time. This was the quarry I sought.

"Go three blocks down the street here and you'll find them, buried right under the monument honoring them."

I walked the three blocks through the deteriorating industrial town, which resembled parts of Baltimore--those parts that seem more readily perched to leap back into the 19th century than forward into the 21st. I found the modest, unembellished obelisk atop a little triangle of preserved earth across from City Hall. The serene monument revealed its purpose through a simple engraved plaque at its base:

addison o. whitney

born in waldo, me. oct. 30 1839

luther c. ladd

born in alexandria, n.h. dec. 22 1843

marched from lowell in the 6th m.v.m. to the

defence of the national capital

and fell mortally wounded in the attack

on their regiment while passing through

baltimore april 19, 1861.

Four hundred miles north of where Ladd and Whitney met their maker, here was the most visible memory of the day that brought the Republic's terrible swift sword down on Baltimore and changed its fate forever. Few Baltimoreans today are aware that their fair city is memorialized in Lowell, but for most of the half-century after the Civil War, the Pratt Street riots of April 1861 were the primary source of the city's renown.

In the North, it was an uncomplicated story: Some young men coming to the aid of their country in time of crisis were attacked in Baltimore as they passed through en route to protect Washington. In Baltimore, largest city of a middle state where slaves were still held and sympathies were split between Union and Confederacy, it was a different, more complex story--one still reflected in the Baltimore of today.

In the 1960s, when I attended Baltimore public schools, there was a decided vacuum of lessons about exactly what happened here during the Civil War and not much detail on Maryland's status as a slave-holding society. This was always described as a "border state," which seemed to imply neutrality. We were piled onto buses for field trips to Gettysburg or Harpers Ferry--that is where the Civil War happened--but I have no memory of hearing in history or civics classes that the first Union soldiers to die were killed by Baltimoreans.

But a confluence of forces is now determinedly bringing April 19, 1861, back into Baltimore's consciousness. On this year's 140th anniversary of the Pratt Street riots, the Baltimore Civil War Museum is conducting a series of events, including a walking tour of riot sites. On the same day, Johns Hopkins University Press is reissuing a memoir of the period by then-mayor George W. Brown, who tried simultaneously to quell the rioters and keep federal troops at bay. On Saturday, April 21, there will be a remembrance of the riot downtown (an annual event).

The plethora of commemorative events raises a eve-delicate issue, one all the press releases and proclamations judiciously sidestep: What exactly are Baltimoreans commemorating about their own history? Slaughtering young Union volunteers on their way to defend the nation's capital? Standing up for states' rights to enslave? Sustaining a violent political culture governed by gangs of thugs proudly united under monikers such as "Plug-Uglies" and "Blood-Tubs"?

The answer, if we are honest, is yes. Taken together, the events of April 19, 1861, and their aftermath arguably represent the defining moment in Baltimore's history, from which flowed consequences that shaped the city's life for generations. The exact nature of the definition and the consequences remain matters of much contention, even today.

The basic facts of what happened on that spring day 140 years ago are not in dispute. A week previous, Fort Sumter, S.C., had fallen to Confederate forces, and Virginia was on the brink of joining most of the rest of the South in secession. President Abraham Lincoln issued a call for troops to protect Washington. Regiments were mobilized throughout the North and began making their way to the capital. To do that, they would need to come through Baltimore, then the railroad hub for the still-young nation.

But Maryland was a slave state. While Baltimore had a large population of free blacks, it also was home to more than 2,000 slaves, and statewide 90,000 blacks were held in bondage. In the 1860 presidential election, John Breckinridge, a candidate identified with the South, won a plurality of the state's voters, far outpolling Lincoln here. Debate over whether Maryland should join the Confederacy was continuous.

The first troops to come through town were the 25th Pennsylvania Regiment, on April 18. Transferring from the North Central Railroad at Bolton Station to the D.C.-bound train at Camden Yards, they encountered a pro-Southern mob throwing bricks and stones. The presence of a black man, Nikoles Biddle, walking with the troops enraged the crowd, and he was struck in the head and seriously wounded.

That was just a prelude to the events of the next day, when more Pennsylvanians and the 6th Massachusetts Volunteer Militia arrived at the President Street Station. According to Paul O'Neil, an interpreter for the Baltimore Civil War Museum, what was to befall these soldiers might never have occurred but for an 1831 ordinance forbidding any steam engine from operating within city limits. O'Neil speculates that the law was designed to ensure business for the Teamsters, who arranged horse-drawn transport of train cars from one depot to another. So it was that the rail cars carrying the Massachusetts troops had to be hauled by horse from President Street down Pratt to Camden Yards.

Six or seven cars made it before a growing mob blocked the tracks with sand and ship anchors. The soldiers got out of their cars and began marching down Pratt Street. The incensed crowd hurled bricks, oysters, and any other objects within reach at the troops. At Gay Street the mob erected a barricade to block the Yankees. Some soldiers fired their guns in fear and self-defense, and all hell broke loose.

Accounts of the number of casualties differ; the most current estimate is that 16 people were killed in the melee, including four soldiers, and more than 100 people were wounded. After the surviving soldiers made it out of Camden Yards, the mob turned back to the President Street depot, where nearly 1,000 more Pennsylvania and Massachusetts volunteers were still in rail cars. Their cars under assault by the mob, the soldiers emptied into the streets. A group of pro-Union citizens arrived and joined the brawl; more casualties ensued. Some of the soldiers were given refuge in the homes of sympathetic city residents. Some walked all the way back to Pennsylvania.

Mayor Brown personally interceded to try to stop the rioting, and the city's police chief, George Kane, deployed his force in the troops' defense. Not because they were abolitionists or even pro-Union; their sole goal was restoring the peace. Kane, in fact, was "secesh," in the parlance of the day, and resigned his post a couple of months later to seek a commission in the Confederacy.

Brown's politics were more complex, and perhaps best exemplified the bind in which leading Baltimoreans found themselves. The mayor opposed secession and slavery, but he believed the latter should be allowed to wither of its own accord rather than through force of law or arms. He feared the inflaming presence of Union troops marching through the city. And while Brown was, for the times, a reform-minded progressive, he found himself in an unlikely alliance with the city's pro-South, pro-slavery gentry in common opposition to the corrupt, nativist Know Nothing Party, which had dominated local politics for decades with the help of violent gangs. So it was that, after doing his best to safeguard the Northern soldiers April 19, Brown went along with state leaders who ordered bridges to be destroyed to prevent more Union troops from coming through.

In the week after the riots there was turmoil on all fronts as the nation watched to see if Maryland would secede. The stakes were far greater than merely another state abandoning the Union. If Maryland joined Virginia in the Confederacy, Washington would be surrounded by enemies and cut off entirely from the North. This could not be allowed. The federal government moved quickly. On April 22, Annapolis was occupied by Union troops. Five days later, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus in the state, authorizing the detention of suspected Southern sympathizers without charge. On May 13, Union forces took possession of Federal Hill. Maryland and Baltimore would spend the remainder of the war under Union occupation.

A visit one recent Sunday to the Baltimore Civil War Museum, housed in the old President Street Station, quickly reveals the modern-day reverberations of the Pratt Street riots and subsequent occupation. On this day James Holechek and his wife, Pat, make a visit to the museum. Holechek proudly shows off the museum's 18-inch bonded-bronze model of a statue at Gettysburg that memorializes the Marylanders who fought there. A longtime Baltimore resident and a descendent of Civil War veterans, including an aide to Confederate generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, Holechek launched the drive to erect the statue at Gettysburg of a Johnny Reb and Union soldier, both wounded, helping each other to walk.

"Sure, there was controversy in doing this," Holechek says of the monument movement. "So we had people from both sides working on this. Some thought this head [of the Confederate soldier] was too low and wanted the head to be raised somewhat in the same attitude as the Northern soldier. So we made the adjustment."

The conversation--as conversations with Maryland Civil War buffs inevitably do--quickly segues to the big question: Would Maryland have seceded if not for the Pratt Street riots and subsequent occupation? Holechek has no doubt. "Absolutely," he says. "I always chuckle when people say 'Southern sympathizers.' I say, 'Well, they may have been sympathizing with the Northerners, but they were Confederates.' Maryland was a Southern state. You ask anybody in the country."

Holechek turns to O'Neil for backup. The museum staffer, an amateur military historian, treads cautiously. "I'm no expert," he says. "I do know that when it came time to vote on April 26, 1861, on the question of secession, the state legislature said they did not have the authority to vote for secession." This is the essential fact that those who disagree with Holechek invariably cite. "Now, they did this with the knowledge that there were 22 regiments of Union troops along the Maryland-Pennsylvania border. And with the Pennsylvania newspapers saying if Maryland secedes, Pennsylvania should invade." This is the essential fact with which those on the other side invariably parry.

O'Neil quickly adds a caveat, intended to cool passions on both sides of the issue: Regardless of the rioting, regardless of the legislature, "it was a definite fact--Maryland was going to be occupied by Union troops." Lincoln could not afford any other course of action. "The only question," O'Neil says, "was whether they were coming in peacefully or whether the first battle of the Civil War would be in Havre de Grace or Port Deposit."

In other words, the Pratt Street riots hastened the arrival of the inevitable. Whether you believe the state and city were predominantly Union or Rebel in sentiment, Maryland's geographical and geopolitical position dictated federal occupation. But there is little doubt that the riots accelerated the advent of that occupation, leaving a legacy of uncertainty over what Maryland would have done left to its own devices, and generations of ambiguity over the state's place in the complicated confluence of North and South, black and white, slave and free.

Colorado State University historian Frank Towers, who has researched the backgrounds of more than 150 people who took part in the Pratt Street riots, is dismissive of secessionist claims. "Those who want to argue that Maryland was always secessionist, they're going to be hard to persuade otherwise. We still live with the 'lost cause' mythology, and it covers a wide spectrum of political opinions. There's been a lot of that kind of historical writing in Maryland. Postwar, there was a strong campaign to suggest that Maryland was part of the Confederacy and the iron hand of the Union came in and squelched it."

The campaign was not just "postwar," though--it continues to this day. While most academic and professional historians agree with Towers' perspective--that "economic and demographic forces had decisively placed Baltimore on the side of the Union"--there remains a vigorous cottage industry of local, mostly amateur historians whose feelings are summed up by the title of Lawrence Denton's 1995 book A Southern Star for Maryland.

"Marylanders consistently expressed Southern sentiment," Denton wrote. "They voted in patterns similar to their Southern counterparts before the war, and after the war they did so again," overwhelmingly opposing Union war hero Ulysses S. Grant in the 1868 presidential election

Kevin Ruffner views Denton as a credible historian, even if he disagrees with his conclusion. And Ruffner has some credibility of his own. A staff historian at the Central Intelligence Agency, he is the author of Maryland's Blue & Gray, an in-depth survey of the state's Union and Confederate junior-officer corps. He also wrote the introduction to the new edition of George Brown's memoir.

Ruffner calls the debate over whether Maryland would have seceded "one of these great what-ifs. One can play either side and be swayed by one or the other. In my own mind, I don't think Maryland would have gone with the South. I think there was a large percentage of the population that was pro-Southern, but I think it was outweighed by the percentage of the population that remained pro-Northern or was just neutral and didn't want to get sucked into the war. Kind of like the silent majority--not partisan enough to join the military themselves."

To Ruffner, the riots are less important as a reflection of Baltimore's Civil War leanings than as a function of the industrialization and urbanization of the United States. "All through the 1840s and 1850s, Baltimore had been in an upheaval over all sorts of different things: the Know-Nothings, the politics of gang violence, the growing urbanization, diverse immigrant groups," he says.

Towers also rejects viewing the riots in stark shades of blue and gray; the alliances and allegiances that formed the template for the violence were far muddier. Reformers such as Mayor Brown, allied with the slaveholding gentry, opposed Northern intervention. Their political foes, while no supporters of rights for blacks, took up the Union cause. "One of the first displays of pro-Union sentiment [after the riots] comes from the Blood Tubs, who sail up and down the harbor in a schooner filled with displays of U.S. flags," Towers says.

"This story does not readily fit anything people are looking for," he continues. "There are so many ironies on which side people are taking that it's hard to really say, 'Here are the heroes and here are the villains.' Baltimore is a really murky place when you get to political allegiances. They've never been easily interpreted in the ways that most of us remember the Civil War."

In 1905, the eminent American novelist and expatriate Henry James, touring the United States after 30 years in Europe, made his first and only visit to Baltimore. To appreciate the city, this member of the Civil War generation found that he had first to forgive Baltimore for "that particular bloodstained patch . . . flung across the path of the north"--in short, for the Pratt Street riots. James wrote that he consulted the Muse of History, who informed him that, indeed, the citizens of Baltimore "have lived with me, and it has done them good, and we have buried together all their past."

It was, perhaps, a noble sentiment for a Northerner (born in New York) to express, the riots having long been a subject of fulmination above the Mason-Dixon. It was also not entirely correct. The year James visited Baltimore, the Maryland Democratic Party's platform declared that "the only issue" in the upcoming state election "is whether Negro suffrage, put upon us against our will by force, shall be restricted and its powerful evil destroyed." The party backed a referendum, drafted by the dean of the segregated University of Maryland Law School, to restrict blacks' voting rights.

Whether because of or in spite of the legacy of Maryland's enforced "neutrality" four decades earlier, the measure was defeated (most decisively in Baltimore City), and, while segregation remained a fact of local life for another half century, the worst excesses of Jim Crow were not visited here. But it was clear that the past was not entirely buried--nor has it been since. Rather, the symbols and rhetoric of the riots and the war, and the legacy of Maryland's status as occupied territory, remain very much a part of Maryland's political and social landscape, in ways both obvious and subtle.

"We're still fighting the war for memory in Maryland," Ruffner says. "Look at what's happening today. You have the battle over the Sons of Confederate Veterans license plate. [In 1997, the state Motor Vehicle Administration recalled license plates featuring the Rebel flag that were issued to members of the group under a program allowing nonprofits to buy specialized tags; the decision was overturned in federal court.] You've got the battle over [the state song] 'Maryland, My Maryland.' You've got the battle over flying the Confederate flag over Point Lookout cemetery in St. Mary's County. So we are still very much waging a war, trying to grapple with the memory of Maryland's role during the Civil War."

The controversy over the state song, adopted as such in 1939 and still performed at official functions, is very much a direct legacy of the Pratt Street riots. The lyrics were written on April 26, 1861, by a Marylander then living in Louisiana, in response to the events of the week before. "The despot's heel is on thy shore," James Ryder Randall wrote of the presence in Maryland of Union troops ("the Northern scum," as the song has it). Even Frank Hall, a lieutenant commander in an Ellicott City chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, acknowledges that "by certain standards, I guess some people could be offended" by the lyrics. Proposals to replace the state song are debated annually in Annapolis (some have also proposed merely rewriting the lyrics) and have always been rejected.

The battle over symbols is one of which many Marylanders, particularly those with Southern roots, have long since tired. "You can get real weary about the whole Confederate-flag thing," says Hall, whose great-great-great-grandfather was held at the Union prison at Point Lookout. The Sons of Confederate Veterans, he notes, is "not affiliated with any political group or hate group. . . . People just look at that right away and they immediately assume you're either in the KKK or you're redneck. If you ever got to an SCV meeting, it's nothing like that. It's just guys that like history that have a common ancestor."

But the symbols and even the language with which we recall Maryland's Civil War heritage have meanings beyond the images and words themselves. For generations, the standard reference of the city's history was The Chronicles of Baltimore, penned in 1874 by J. Thomas Scharf, a Confederate colonel. Scharf does more than portray a decidedly pro-secession city; in his recounting of April 19, 1861, he describes blacks joining the fight against the Massachusetts troops:

A number of negroes employed as sailors upon schooners hailing from the South came ashore from their vessels and rendered every assistance in their power, hauling the immense anchors to the centre of the railroad track [in order to block the troops], with cheers for the "Souf," and "Massa Jeff. Davis."

Even after the dubiousness of such accounts was acknowledged, the response seemed for a time to be a sort of historical timidity. A century after Scharf, the Maryland Historical Society issued a history of Maryland that does not even mention that anyone died on April 19, 1861.

Today the debate is widely joined, and frequently viewed through the prism of the modern "culture wars." More recent scholarship suggesting that Maryland was inclined to the North and that slavery--rather than the right of states to oppose the "despot's heel"--was at the center of the Civil War is often denounced by those who contend such history accedes more to contemporary mores than to accuracy. "If you look at the academic historians [of the war in Maryland] for the entire 20th century, you see that they're divided," says A Southern Star for Maryland author Denton, whose Maryland ancestry dates to the 1660s and whose family was split between Union and Reb. "But if you look at if from the perspective of political correctness, couched in the eyes of not what the facts say but what a particular genre of thought would say, then certainly academic historians in the last couple of decades have swung decidedly to the point of view that Maryland would have been a Northern state."

But to many historians, it is the secessionist view of Maryland's past that reflects the biases of its time. "Respectable and responsible opinion in the border states tried for a long time to deny it, to insist that disunion, not slavery, was the enemy" at the war's heart, wrote Columbia University history professor Barbara Jeanne Fields, who won a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant in 1992 in part for her groundbreaking studies on slavery in Maryland. "That [enemy] was slavery."

"A lot of Maryland folklore is that we had a certain kind of dignity and gentility because we were true to our state, above the fray, in the middle," Colorado State historian Towers says regarding Fields' work. "She says you did have slavery, and it was pretty harsh, and there was nothing great or noble about the middle ground." (This debate among historians has its larger echoes in the growing national discussion of reparations for the descendants of slaves. Several nationally renowned African-American lawyers and scholars, including Johnnie Cochran, Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, and philosopher Cornel West are preparing a suit against the federal government and/or still-existing corporations that profited from slavery, such as insurance giant Aetna, which issued slaveholders policies covering their human "property.")

Questions like these aren't merely the province of academics and authors. The Baltimore Civil War Round Table, a collection of buffs organized in 1982, meets monthly to thrash out such issues, and the discussions can be spirited. Don Macreadie, president of the 300-plus-member organization, says that when guest speakers address the group, "people in the audience [who] don't agree with them kind of voice their opinions. It doesn't get out of hand, though I won't say that it's always friendly."

Far from the passive ignorance of the city and state's Civil War history that marked my schooling, 140 years after the Pratt Street riots Marylanders are more and more coming to grips with that history, working out the thorny questions that remain--about Marylanders' sympathies, the causes behind them, and how those issues still manifest themselves, in Baltimore and statewide. And that addressing those questions is a significant and necessary pathway to greater understanding of the racial and social issues still grappled with today, exasperating and troubling as that process may be.

George W. Brown recognized this, more than a century ago. "[I]t is not pleasant to disturb the ashes of a great conflagration, which, although they have grown cold on the surface, cover embers still capable of emitting both smoke and heat," he wrote in his memoir. But he added, "The nation has learned many lessons of wisdom from its civil war, and not the least among them is that every truthful contribution to its annals or to its teachings is not without some value."

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