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A House Divided
Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 04/19/2011

Harold Holzer: How do you explain the crazed, homicidal fury of city residents during the Baltimore Riots of April 19, 1861 in response to Massachusetts troops passing through that city. Was that event an anomaly?

Author or editor of 36 books, many on Lincoln, and chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation


Horrifically bloody as it was, the fury that a pro-secession mob unleashed against federal troops on the streets of Baltimore in April 1861 should have surprised no one--least of all President Abraham Lincoln. Just two months earlier, festering hostility there nearly ended his presidency before it began.

Bowing to warnings of violence, even assassination, he had reluctantly but wisely cancelled his planned pre-inaugural public schedule in that city and slipped through town secretly overnight en route to Washington. Had he chosen to brave the gangs committed to preventing his safe passage to the capital, President-elect Lincoln might not have lived to become President Lincoln. What sort of Civil War sesquicentennial we might be observing today, had we lost him to history before he changed it, is almost too depressing to imagine.

Baltimore remained a particularly churning,pro-slavery hotbed--especially after the President called for volunteers to suppress the Rebellion after the attack on Fort Sumter. To many Baltimoreans, particularly its large population of Catholics, Lincoln and other anti-Slavery Protestant reformers threatened nothing less than invasion of sovereign states, and no doubt the President’s decision to send troops to prevent formation of a Maryland secession convention fueled the fear and resentment further.

Occupying Union forces promptly squashed dissent, eventually moving against even local artists who, judging the community marketplace to be entirely sympathetic to secession, began churning out pro-Confederate propaganda prints until they were suppressed.

Adalbert Volck, a particularly talented dentist-turned-etcher, was reduced to producing his racist, anti-Lincoln prints in secret. One George Willig persisted with a flattering image of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson as late as 1863. Most merely seethed.

Even composers seemed more “inspired” here than elsewhere in the Upper South: the vitriolic words of “O Maryland My Maryland” came out of the depths of anger against Lincoln, his alleged tyranny, and the imagined danger from the Republican majority.

Lincoln long remained embarrassed about slipping through Baltimore in February, but he never apologized for sending Massachusetts volunteers through the city in April--even into the fury of people he angrily condemned as “rowdies.” To objections from its Mayor, he erupted: “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.”

By Harold Holzer  |  10:00 AM ET, 04/19/2011

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