Wet, but hardy reenactors march along Baltimore's Pratt Street, where the first deaths of the Civil War occurred 150 years ago. (Photo by Bonnie J. Schupp)
its inglorious history
from the Civil War
‘Pratt Street Riot’ wrought conflict’s first deaths
Celebrating the 150th anniversary of Baltimore’s biggest and most inglorious contribution to the American Civil War, city leaders joined with several dozen costumed history reenactors Saturday to rededicate and reopen for visitors the historic President Street railroad station.
Here, soldiers from Massachusetts arrived on April 19, 1861, summoned by Abraham Lincoln to defend the nation’s capital in the wake of the confederate attack a week earlier taking control of the union’s Fort Sumter in South Carolina.
They had to change train lines in Baltimore – from the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad’s station to the venerable Baltimore and Ohio’s Camden Station just under a mile to the west. In between was a gauntlet of angry southern sympathizers whose greeting brought the city a new nickname: Mobtown.
Bottles and rocks, even stones ripped from the roadway, were thrown at the soldiers, and gunshots from both sides claimed at least 16 lives: The first deaths of a war that would rage for nearly four years and cost the lives of hundreds of thousands more. Among the four Massachusetts casualties recounted in displays at the old rail station was 17-year-old Pvt. Luther Ladd of Lowell, Mass., shot through an eye by a minnie ball.
Lincoln himself had to make the same rail transfer as he passed through Baltimore on the way to his inauguration a few weeks earlier, under the much-lampooned cover of darkness.
Baltimore of 2011 looks nothing like the rough-and-tumble city at the outbreak of the Civil War, the passage of time having seen the Great Fire of 1904 and periods of redevelopment – the latest having reclaimed the area around President Street. The rebuilt station was once largely a ruin in danger of collapse, and as a Civil War museum now is overshadowed by a 31-story Marriott hotel. Just down the street is an incongruous memorial to an ugly event in Poland during in World War II – the Katyn Forest Massacre.
Camden Station also survives, housing a pair of sports and entertainment museums and neighbor to the 1992-vintage Oriole Park at Camden Yards baseball stadium. But in keeping with the spirit of celebrating history, it has a display on Lincoln’s journey. And a bit further to the west, the B&O Railroad Museum has added pieces from the Civil War era as part of its commemoration.
The reopening of President Street Station reverses a trend that has seen the closing of several small museums in Baltimore in recent years. Key to its rescue have been more than two decades of efforts by a strong “friends” organization, and the more recent involvement of the Maryland Historical Society which has assumed a lease on the property.
Just across President Street is one of the shuttered attractions – Baltimore’s Public Works Museum, housed in an old brick sewage pumping station. Among the mysteries it addressed for visitors were how water gets from reservoirs to homes, and what happens to it after you flush the toilet.
Baltimore of 1861, then the nation’s fourth-largest city, had no such niceties.
Not that Baltimore of 2011 is without problems, including the still-unresolved question of identity: Is it, as many ask, the most southern city of the North or most northern city of the South?
At the outbreak of the Civil War, it was also a city of contradictions: It had strong southern leanings, and the nation’s largest population of free people of color. That minority population has grown over time, and become Baltimore’s majority. Amid the demographic transition, there seems to have been no issue of government or society untouched by matters of race. Housing patterns, school districting, church membership, bank loans, car insurance rates, medical care, welfare, politics – especially politics, during a gradual shift to better represent city demographics.
Baltimore’s fourth African-American mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, spoke briefly and took part in a ceremonial ribbon-cutting for the Civil War museum’s new book and souvenir shop. White City Councilman James B. Kraft, whose largely southeastern district reaches to President Street, read a passage from a pre-inaugural Lincoln speech emphasizing friendship across the political divide – followed by incendiary verses from a riot-inspired poem by James Ryder Randall.
The poem, “Maryland, My Maryland,” was subsequently set to music (as in “O Tannenbaum”) and became the official state song. But the verses Kraft read are not those heard in the shortened rendition performed by the U.S. Naval Academy chorus at the annual running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course.
Here’s some of the offensive verses:
The despot's heel is on thy shore,
His torch is at thy temple door,
Avenge the pariotic gore
That flecked the streets of Baltimore,
And be the battle queen of yore,
Maryland! My Maryland!
Dear Mother! burst the tyrant's chain,
Virginia should not call in vain,
She meets her sisters on the plain-
“Sic semper!” 'tis the proud refrain
That baffles minions back amain,
Arise in majesty again,
Maryland! My Maryland!
I hear the distant thunder-hum,
The Old Line’s bugle, fife, and drum,
She is not dead, nor deaf, nor dumb-
Huzza! she spurns the Northern scum!
She breathes! she burns! she'll come! she'll come!
Maryland! My Maryland!
(Interestingly, assassin and Maryland-born actor John Wilkes Booth shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis!” after shooting Lincoln on April 14, 1865, five days short of the riot’s fourth anniversary.)
When Councilman Kraft noted the song’s official state status, a man in the back of the crowd inside the station retorted, “Change it!”
That’s been proposed periodically. But spurning “Northern scum” remains with us Marylanders, a relic easily as offensive as the Confederate battle flag. Go figure.
Despite miserable weather of wind and heavy rain – and, as a result, the mayor announcing that a planned grand procession along Pratt Street was canceled – the battle-hardy reenactors embarked with a motorized police escort on a ceremonial march north on President Street and west along Pratt.
A handful of Confederates walked along the adjacent sidewalks, protesting the passage of the Union soldiers on southern soil, and a lone man with slight beard shouted and waved a fist. It was a far cry from the bad old days of 1861.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake receives a plaque from Ralph Vincent, former director of Friends of President Street Station, commemorating the contribution of Civil War-era Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad President Samuel M. Felton. (Photo by Bonnie J. Schupp)