Director of policy and communications for the Civil War Preservation Trust
In 1861, Baltimore was a bastion of secessionism. Much like Washington, D.C., it was considered a southern town, with strong economic ties to the South. Maryland, a slave state, had rejected Lincoln in the November 1860 election.
Lincoln knew he must move quickly for Washington to remain the Union capital. He had to secure the principal rail connection to the North, which ran through Baltimore. He also needed substantial reinforcements to defend the capital. The need became acute when Virginia seceded on April 17.
Complicating matters, there was no direct railroad line through Baltimore. The railroad from Philadelphia ended at President Street Station; the railroad to Washington ended at Camden Street Station, several blocks away. Horses pulled individual rail cars between the two stations.
The first Federal troops to pass through Baltimore did so without incident on April 18. It was the lull before the storm. The Sixth Massachusetts regiment was scheduled to make the trip the next day. As a precaution, the regiment’s commander ordered his men to load their rifles.
All was peaceful at President Street Station when the Sixth Massachusetts arrived. More than half the regiment made it to Camden Street before disruptions began. But a crowd barricaded the route between the two stations, forcing the remainder to dismount from the horse-drawn rail cars and walk.
Despite police escort, an angry mob quickly surrounded the Massachusetts men. Stones and bricks were thrown at the soldiers, and shots were fired. In the end, four soldiers were killed and dozens more wounded. Numbers vary on civilian deaths, but the toll was high enough to spark further outrage. That night, the mayor ordered bridges burnt to prevent further troop transfers. Telegraph lines to Washington were torn down, severing the Lincoln’s communication with the North. Baltimore would remain a simmering cauldron for weeks.
In the immediate aftermath of the riot, Lincoln’s need for troops was too great to force the issue. For nearly a month, there was an informal truce: Union reinforcements were brought by ship to Annapolis and then routed by train to Washington. However, this compromise was short-lived. On May 13, Union troops occupied Baltimore, effectively ending open opposition to Federal rule.
The Baltimore riots would became a rallying cry in the South. “Maryland, My Maryland,” written by a friend of a Baltimorean killed in the riots, calls for avenging the dead of that bloody day. Today, it is the Maryland state song.