Baltimore Civil War Museum

History Museum

Editorial Review

The Baltimore Civil War Museum occupies the restored President Street Station in the Inner Harbor, where in April 1861 the arrival of the first Union troops en route to Washington sparked a riot that threatened to isolate the federal capital and leave Lincoln helpless. The former railroad depot was one of the flash points of the city's internal struggle because it was a choke point for rail passengers. A city ordinance forbade smoky steam engines to enter the city center, so passengers had to plod across town in horse-drawn cars that shuttled between the four railroad stations.
The high-vaulted museum building, the last remnant of what was once an extensive freight and passenger depot, presents an unflinching account of how on April 19, 1861, just a week after Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter, the heavily pro-Southern city erupted into rioting that threatened to cut Washington's rail links to the north and west, all of which passed through Baltimore.
Mobs attacked the trains carrying men of the 6th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and Pennsylvania's Washington Brigade, hurrying toward essentially undefended Washington. The enraged Crabtowners started with stones and bottles and finally got out their guns. Most of the troops fought their way through, but quite a few got back on their trains and fled to Philadelphia and many others dispersed through the city and hid with Unionist residents.
When the smoke cleared three hours later, 10 soldiers and 11 civilians lay dead, and Maryland was on the brink of joining the Confederacy. President Lincoln sent Gen. Benjamin F. Butler (later to become known as "Beast Butler" for his administration of occupied New Orleans) to occupy the city and suppress Southern sympathizers. Butler clapped scores of citizens in jail, including the mayor, top cop, police commissioners, politicians, assorted newspaper editors and Francis Scott Key's grandson (who with intentional irony was imprisoned at Fort McHenry, in the shadow of the flagpole that had flown the Star-Spangled Banner).
Many of Baltimore's secessionists, or suspected secessionists, or people who had looked at Yankee soldiers sideways, were held for more than a year without charge or trial (one's sympathy for the mayor and police may be tempered by the fact that before Butler got to them they had burned most of the railroad bridges to the north). Annapolis also was occupied, and Maryland remained under martial law and/or puppet government throughout the war. The state anthem, written shortly after the riot, rails against the "Despot's Heel" and calls upon Marylanders to "Avenge the Patriotic Gore/ That flecks the streets of Baltimore."
Life in the city during the war may have been politically oppressive but it could be plenty profitable. Baltimore became a major center of Union shipping and rail transportation, and many a current family fortune got its start from doing business with and for the Yankees.
The city had long been a major way station on the Underground Railroad, which often went aboveground there. Fleeing slaves, including Frederick Douglass, sometimes rode north openly on the trains, and Richmond slave Henry "Box" Brown passed through Baltimore in a railroad shipping crate on his way to freedom and fame in Philadelphia.
Even before the war Baltimore was home to the nation's largest population of free blacks and raised three regiments of United States Colored Troops, who left nearly a thousand of their dead from Fort Fisher to Appomattox (the staff recruits reenactor regiments of the 4th Maryland U.S.C.T. and the 6th Massachusetts for living history programs).
Most of the Baltimore story is told in photographs and a few choice artifacts; space doesn't permit display of more than a handful of weapons and broadsheets from the period. Still, the museum is a gorgeous but small jewel of historic restoration.
-- Hank Burchard