A Fair to Remember
The speaker was President Lincoln. The date was April 18, 1864--140 years ago this week. The place was the Maryland Institute Hall (not to be confused with the College of Art, this was an assembly hall at East Baltimore Street and Market Place that burned down in the 1904 fire). The occasion was the Baltimore Sanitary Fair, a moniker that hits the ears oddly today but was essentially a joint fund raiser for the U.S. Sanitary Commission and the Christian Commission--precursors to the Red Cross that provided relief services to Union troops. The "moving" allusion Lincoln offered up is quite simple: On this day throngs of stars-and-stripes-waving Baltimoreans welcomed the Union Army's commander in chief with cheers. Almost three years earlier to the day, however, train-changing Union soldiers were besieged in Baltimore by stone-wielding Southern sympathizers as the troops marched through downtown (aka the Pratt Street Riots, aka the First Blood of the Civil War). And in February 1861, an inaugural-bound Lincoln passed through Baltimore--and was so fearful of assassination that he squeaked through town anonymously in semi-disguise. Baltimore was a politically divided city in a politically divided state.
But now it was 1864. Union Troops had long perched atop Federal Hill, pacifying the town's Confederate sympathizers with displays of cannonry. The Civil War appeared to be tilting toward a Union victory. The world--and specifically Baltimore's portion of it--had indeed moved. The Great Emancipator was greeted here with open arms.
Lincoln's Sanitary Fair appearance was the president's only proper and true visit to this city: He had passed through town in 1863 en route to give his famed address before the blood-damped battlefields of Gettysburg; in 1865 his body lay in state in Baltimore for a few hours before heading west for an Illinois burial.
Sanitary fairs were held in cities across the Union, but you can imagine that Lincoln took special delight in attending Baltimore's, given the city's change of face. The affair was largely organized by women, who solicited lady Union backers all across Maryland to set up booths and offer goods for auction or sale. Contingents from various counties established elaborate displays, and the event proved to be a precursor to today's apolitical Maryland State Fair. (Middle and western counties were well represented; conspicuously absent were the secessionist-bent Eastern Shore and southern counties of St. Mary's, Charles, Somerset, Caroline, Wicomoco, and Queen Anne's.)
Lincoln made the trip up from Washington solo, though his wife, Mary Todd, visited the fair on her own the following day. After touring the fair and delivering an address many Lincoln enthusiasts rank in the upper echelon of the poetic president's oratorical efforts, he supped and spent the night at 702 Cathedral St., a handsome brick and limestone mansion that still faces the west end of Mount Vernon Place. (Some history buffs have long desired--without luck--that a placard denoting Lincoln's visit be placed on the building.) The following morning, Lincoln rather unceremoniously boarded a train for Washington--where just shy of a year later erstwhile Baltimorean John Wilkes Booth would assassinate him in a theater box.
As it turns out, "Honest Abe" is making a return visit to Baltimore this April 17. Friends of the President Street Station, a group of history buffs who helped save the aged depot from demolition and now act to promote its new use as the Baltimore Civil War Museum, have long commemorated the Pratt Street Riots via an annual memorial procession of soldier re-enactors. The Sanitary Fair will also be remembered this go around. Renowned Gettysburg-based Lincoln impersonator James Getty, a member of the Association of Lincoln Presenters (who knew?), will deliver Abe's Sanitary Fair speech (and from memory, apparently) at the museum.
Today you can still find folks who discount slavery's role in the Civil War, which some wags have taken to calling the War of Northern Aggression. While your best bet is to hear the whole speech from ersatz Abe's mouth this weekend, this snippet of his Baltimore speech leaves little doubt what this bloodletting was all about:
The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men's labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name--liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names--liberty and tyranny.
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