First Blood: The Pratt Street Riot

(A version of this article originally appeared in the Johns Hopkins News-Letter on April 14, 2011.)

On April 19, 1861, four days after the surrender of Fort Sumter and 86 years to the day after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the City of Baltimore witnessed an outbreak of violence that resulted in the first combat deaths of the American Civil War.

Six months earlier, on November 6, 1860, Abraham Lincoln had been elected to the presidency on a platform that promised to block slavery’s further expansion and denying “the authority of Congress, of a territorial legislature, or of any individuals, to give legal existence to slavery in any territory of the United States.” The results of the election terrified the slaveholding class that dominated Southern politics, prompting them to take drastic action. Thus, by the time the Lincoln took office on March 4, 1861, seven slave states had declared themselves seceded from the Union and organized themselves into the Confederate States of America.

Lincoln immediately found himself engaged in a tense standoff over Fort Sumter, a United States military base in Charleston Harbor. While the secessionists believed the fort was theirs by right, Lincoln was reluctant to surrender federal property to a treasonous junta lacking any kind of legal or moral legitimacy. Neither side, however, wished to shoulder the blame of firing the first shot.

Eventually, Lincoln forced the rebels’ hands, informing them that he intended to send unarmed ships loaded with non-military provisions to resupply the fort’s federal garrison, which would otherwise need to surrender soon due to lack of food. If the rebels attempted to stop this “humanitarian mission,” the supply ships would be reinforced by a naval squadron. Faced with the choice of appearing weak by allowing the Union to resupply the fort or appearing barbaric by firing on unarmed ships, the outmaneuvered rebels opened fire on Fort Sumter on April 12 before the supply ships could arrive. Two days later, on April 14, Fort Sumter formally surrendered.

In response, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to deal with an insurrection “too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings.” Many of those troops rushed towards Washington. To get to the capital, however, they would have to pass through Baltimore, Maryland.

In 1861, Baltimore was a prosperous railway hub. It was also the most populous city in a slave state and the fourth most populous city in the country, with well over 200,000 residents. While slavery played a major role in other parts of Maryland, it played a relatively minor role in Baltimore itself. The city’s 25,680 free African Americans, the largest such population in the United States, heavily outnumbered the 2,218 slaves there.

Although Baltimore emerged as a headquarters for Maryland emancipationists over the course of the war, it was also home to many with Southern sympathies. In addition, Baltimore had earned the nickname “Mobtown” due to its frequent bouts of political violence. Lincoln, during his journey to Washington as president-elect, had chosen to pass through the city undetected as a safety precaution. Northern soldiers passing through the city did not have that option.

While several Union companies made it through the city on April 18, their presence provoked angry crowds. Nick Biddle, an African American servant to a Union officer, was injured when someone threw a brick at his head. Worried that the situation was deteriorating, Baltimore Mayor George W. Brown wrote to Lincoln that “it is not possible for more soldiers to pass through Baltimore unless they fight their way at every step.” Brown requested that “no more troops be permitted or ordered by the Government to pass through the City.” By the time Lincoln received Brown’s message, however, it was too late.

On Friday April 19, the Sixth Massachusetts Volunteers arrived in Baltimore. To get from the train station they arrived at, President Street Station, to the train that would take them to Washington, they would have to travel a mile to Camden Station. Because locomotives were not allowed to pass through the city, the train cars in which the troops rode were pulled by horses over the tracks connecting the two stations.

Colonel Edward Jones, the regiment’s commander, expected trouble. He told his untrained and inexperienced men, “You will undoubtedly be insulted, abused, and perhaps assaulted, to which you must pay no attention whatever, but march, with your faces square to the front, and pay no attention to the mob, even if they throw stones, bricks, or other missiles; but if you are fired upon, and any of you are hit, your officers will order you to fire. Do not fire into any promiscuous crowds, but select any man who you may see aiming at you, and be sure to drop him.”

pratt street riot map

A map of the area in which the riot took place.

The first six cars made it through safely, having to endure little more than taunts, jeers, and hisses. The crowd soon grew bolder, however, showering the seventh and eighth cars with paving stones. According to the Baltimore American, “almost every window was broken to pieces.” While the ninth car was empty and thus allowed to pass by mostly unscathed, the tenth car was not so lucky. Mayor Brown, accompanying the soldiers who had already reached Camden Station, later recalled, “when I was about to leave…supposing all danger to be over, news was brought…that some troops had been left behind, and that the mob was tearing up the track on Pratt Street, so as to obstruct the progress of the cars.”

With their path blocked, the soldiers turned back, returning to President Street Station. A police sergeant urged the crowd to let the men from Massachusetts pass. His spoke in vain, however, as the rioters “expressed their determination to prevent the passage of the troops,” no matter the cost.

Eventually, the four companies still at President Street Station received orders to proceed on foot. The American reported that the troops “were surrounded by a dense mass of people, who impeded their march up President Street by every possible means, stones being thrown in great numbers. At Fawn Street two of the soldiers were knocked down by stones and greatly injured.”

The rioters were urged on by a man waving what was variously reported as either a Confederate flag or a South Carolina Palmetto flag. Looking back on events decades later, one of the rioters recalled that “The men of the regiment were very pale and quiet; the Corporal on the left especially exposed. I saw a man spit in his face, and another kick him. Tears ran down his cheeks, and he was as pale as death. It was he who a little later was killed on the Pratt Street bridge.”

The crowd continued to shower the soldiers with bricks and stones and began firing on them with muskets and pistols as well. The wounded, crawling on their hands and knees, attempted to find shelter in the stores lining Pratt Street. The soldiers in the rear, taking the brunt of the mob’s attack, eventually began to return fire. Brown remembered seeing the green soldiers “firing wildly, sometimes backward, over their shoulders, so rapid was the march that they could not stop to take aim.” Brown urged the soldiers to defend themselves, but suggested they slow down so they could do so more effectively.

Hoping to restore calm, Brown marched alongside the Massachusetts troops. He wrote that his 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.”

Again attempting to diffuse the situation, Brown “cried out, waving my umbrella to emphasize my words, ‘For God’s sake, don’t shoot!’ but it was too late.” He later wrote, “It was impossible for the troops to discriminate between the rioters and the by-standers, but the latter seemed to suffer most, as the main attack was from the mob pursuing the soldiers form the rear, they, in their march, could not easily face backward to fire, but could shoot at those whom they passed on the street.” A group of policemen soon “came at a run from the direction of the Camden-street station, and throwing themselves in the rear of the troops they formed a line in front of the mob, and with drawn revolvers kept it back.”

Once the troops finally made it to Camden Station and escaped the city, the mob turned on the Sixth Massachusetts’s regimental band, which was still stuck at President Street Station, as well as a group of unarmed volunteers from Pennsylvania. Unable to continue through Baltimore, these men returned by train to Philadelphia.

Luther C. Ladd

17 year old Luther C. Ladd was one of four soldiers killed on April 19, 1861.

When all was said and done, sixteen men were killed in the fighting. Among the dead were four soldiers: Cpl. Sumner Henry Needham, Pvt. Charles Taylor, Pvt. Luther Ladd, and Pvt. Addison Whitney. Ladd was only 17 years old.

Delegations from Baltimore came to Lincoln, begging him to prevent any more troops from passing through their city. Lincoln, with what seems to have been a rare burst of anger, replied “You, gentleman, come here to me and ask for peace on any terms, and yet have no word of condemnation for those who are making war on us. You express great horror of bloodshed, and yet would not lay a straw in the way of those who are organizing…to capture this city. The rebels attack Fort Sumter, and your citizens attack troops sent to the defense of the Government…and yet you would have me break my oath and surrender the Government without a blow. There is no Washington in that—no Jackson in that—no manhood nor honor in that.”

While he had no desire for bloodshed, Lincoln explained, “I must have troops to defend this Capital. Geographically it lies surrounded by the soil of Maryland; and mathematically the necessity exists that they should come over her territory. Our men are not moles, and can’t dig under the earth; they are not birds, and can’t fly through the air. There is no way but to march across, and that they must do.”

Hoping to prevent further clashes, Mayor Brown and other officials took matters into their own hands, cutting telegraph lines and destroying railroad bridges. Washington was thus left isolated and vulnerable until federal troops were able to reinforce the city by bypassing Baltimore and travelling down the Chesapeake Bay to Annapolis. Brown ultimately spent more than a year in prison as a result of the sabotage.

On the night of May 13, Brig. Gen. Benjamin Butler arrived in Baltimore with a force of Union infantry and artillery and took position on a high point known as Federal Hill. Although Butler had been instructed to approach the city more cautiously, his bold gambit made him one of the Union’s first military heroes. Federal troops would remain in Baltimore throughout the rest of the war.

In a strange twist of irony, Baltimore hosted the 1864 National Union Convention, during which Abraham Lincoln was nominated for a second term on a platform calling for a constitutional amendment permanently outlawing slavery.

– P. Sicher

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