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"For God's Sake Don't Shoot!"

By Ralph Brave | Posted 4/18/2001

Numerous accounts and memoirs of the events of April 19, 1861, were written in the years afterward. Unfortunately, most of them reside in yellowing historical journals or the crumbling pages of 19th-century newspapers and books; no single volume of recollections of the Pratt Street riots exists. One of the liveliest individual accounts was penned by Edward Ayrault Robinson, a 24-year-old Baltimorean at the time of the riots, whose remembrance was published in 1932 in Maryland Historical Magazine. The details of his notes are so exact as to seemingly place their veracity beyond doubt:

"The day was a dark and misty one, and it rained some during the morning. The first intimation I had of the riot was seeing crowds running through Pratt St., near Light. Just as I got down there [I saw] Wash. Goodrich, a notorious ruffian, heading the mob with the confederate flag flying. The troops had passed on up the street towards the B&O depot; occasionally they would turn on the hooting yelling mob that was following and stoning them, and give them a volley. At each firing there would be a rush backwards of the mob, and several times I saw men fall as if shot. A friend of mine in entire sympathy with the soldiers got upon a barrel head and was cheering them on, but his actions were mistaken and he was fired on; he said he looked towards the soldiers and saw one of them taking deliberate aim at him. He dropped on his knees and a minnie ball flattened itself on the wall behind him just at the height of his head would have been.

"At the corner of Pratt & South St. there was an empty freight car of which the mob took possession, and fired on the troops as they passed by. Two of this gang were killed, and I saw the car the next day riddled with bullets. Three men were standing in the door of my father's warehouse which was half a block below where the freight car was, they were one behind the other looking up the street at the firing, when a minnie ball fired at the mob by one of the soldiers, struck the first man in the breast passing through him, and through the arm of the next man, and wounding the third one on the chin. The first one shot staggered into the office and died without a groan."

The most widely circulated riots memoir is Baltimore and the Nineteenth of April, 1861: A Study of the War by George William Brown, Baltimore's mayor at the time, a new edition of which is due out this week (Johns Hopkins University Press, $15.95). The actual action of the rioting--"the fight," as Brown calls it--takes up only a small portion of this account, but each page reveals the anguish Brown experienced for his city.

"On arriving at about Smith's wharf, foot of Gay Street, I found that anchors had been placed on the track, and that Sergeant McComas and four policemen who were with him were not allowed by the group of rioters to remove the obstruction. I at once ordered the anchors to be removed, and my authority was not resisted. I hurried on, and approaching Pratt Street bridge, I saw a battalion, which proved to be four companies of the Massachusetts regiment which had crossed the bridge, coming towards me in double-quick time.

"They were firing wildly, sometimes backward, over their shoulders. So rapid was the march that they could not stop to take aim. The mob, which was not very large, as it seemed to me, was pursuing with shouts and stones, and, I think, an occasional pistol-shot. The uproar was furious. . . .

"The column continued its march. There was neither concert of action nor organization among the rioters. They were armed only with such stones or missiles as they could pick up and a few pistols. My presence for a short time had some effect, but very soon the attack was renewed with greater violence. The mob grew bolder. Stones flew thick and fast. Rioters rushed at the soldiers and attempted to snatch their muskets, and at least on two occasions succeeded. With one of these muskets a soldier was killed. Men fell on both sides. . . .

"The soldiers fired at will. There was no firing by platoons, and I heard no order given to fire. I remember that at the corner of South Street several citizens standing in a group fell, either killed or wounded. It was impossible for the troops to discriminate between the rioters and the by-standers, but the latter seemed to suffer most, because, as the main attack was from the mob pursuing the soldiers from the rear, they, in their march, could not easily face backward to fire, but could shoot at those whom they passed on the street. Near the corner of Light Street a soldier was severely wounded, who afterward died, and a boy on a vessel lying in the dock was killed, and about the same place three soldiers at the head of the column leveled their muskets and fired into a group standing on the sidewalk, who, as far as I could see, were taking no active part. The shots took effect, but I cannot say how many fell. I cried out, waving my umbrella to emphasize my words, 'For God's sake don't shoot!' but it was too late."

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