Baltimore, MARYLAND – The first bloodshed in the Civil War occurred here in Baltimore not on a battleground between Union and Confederate soldiers but when a riot broke out among Southern sympathizers and troops switching trains from the north.
Walk along Pratt Street in downtown Baltimore and the area today is a mixture of apartment buildings, narrow park spaces and sidewalk cafes. Baltimore’s pride in being the Charm City is evident in the many historical markers along the way including railroad stations and signs pointing to Babe Ruth’s birthplace.
Then as now, Baltimore is a thriving city with a navigable harbour and railroad lines bringing residents, commuters and visitors within a few hours to New York City, nearby Washington D.C. and most of the other major cities along the East Coast and the South.
Baltimore’s proximity to both the North and the South tore the state in its loyalties during the Civil War which began 150 years ago next month. There were almost an equal number of freed slaves (83,000) in Maryland as slaves (87,000) in 1861. Even a hundred years later, according to a census taken in the mid-1950s, most Maryland residents remained uncertain about which side of the war the state supported.
“A lot of people today still call the Civil War the war of Yankee aggression,” says Marshall Anservitz, a volunteer at the B&O Railway Museum. “We live in one of the most historic cities in the entire United States and our heritage is still kept alive today because it’s important to us. It’s part of our past.”
One hundred and fifty years ago, just after the first shot was fired at Fort Sumter, Baltimore was a city very much divided. Most of the workers in the city, those who made the running of the railroads and the harbour, possible were southerners and at a time when tension was high, the boiling point was reached on the streets of Baltimore.
Today the Sports Museum at Camden Yards is dedicated to the Baltimore Orioles and other major sports heroes of the city but a special exhibit commemorates the riot that occurred just outside what used to be a train station. Troops from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania had arrived in Baltimore on April 19, 1861 and were switching trains to head to Washington when a mob arrived to block them. At least 10 soldiers and as many civilians were killed in the ensuing riot.
The spot today is at a major intersection where the commuter MARC train runs past within view of the Inner Harbour that has been part of Baltimore’s commercial route since the 1700s. The area has revitalized into a tourism destination with a maritime museum and sightseeing cruises aboard the Spirit of Baltimore.
The blood spilled here 150 years ago to herald the start of the Civil War has long disappeared but the history and the historical role that Baltimore played in America’s deadliest conflict remains in this city’s proud and conflicted past.