Director of the Richards Civil War Era Center at Penn State University
The Baltimore Riot was significant and shocking to some extent, but it represented a rather unremarkable explosion of street violence. If we only look at the war years, we can get a distorted picture. Examined in a fuller context of antebellum America, the Baltimore Riot appears as a fairly typical street protest of the era. It was not “homicidal fury” that compelled the rioters, but decades-long practices of protest behavior on the part of the masses which often employed bloody means to contest unpopular policies.
The extent of rioting in antebellum America commanded the attention of reformers, stimulated the creation of municipal police forces, and fed momentum for other causes such as temperance. The height of this kind of activity probably came in the mid-1830s. While declining to a degree as the Civil War approached, street violence remained a problem in American life. One study by David Grimsted, “American Mobbing”, based its analysis on 1,200 riots between 1828 and 1861. Riots targeted various ethnic groups and Catholics, abolitionists and African Americans, and political opponents. They occurred in cities and rural areas, and in all parts of the country. Abraham Lincoln, for instance, in a speech delivered in Illinois in 1838 noted that “accounts of outrages committed by mobs form the everyday news of the times.”
Baltimore was known for its political violence, stimulated by gangs with colorful names such as the Plug-Uglies. In 1856, Democratic party rowdies in the city attacked their political opponents with guns and clubs, causing a backlash the following day. Violence and intimidation proved effective tools in political campaigns because there was no secret ballot. Everyone knew how someone voted by the color-coded ballots that announced their choice, which were often dropped into a box for a particular party. States did not begin phasing in the secret ballot until the 1880s.
By 1861, Baltimore was known to contain people with ardent southern sympathies. Maryland’s concentration of southern support began roughly in the city and stretched south and east into the plantation regions along the Chesapeake. When Lincoln traveled to Washington, detectives had him pass through Baltimore at night without his family because they feared an assassination attempt. Although he was appalled and concerned by the riot of April 19, it is unlikely that he was surprised by such an outbreak.
Street violence continued during the war, with mobs attacking both abolition and pro-southern newspapers. Of course, the most infamous riot took place in New York City in July 1863, which had to be quelled by Union soldiers. That we now look back on such actions as something peculiar testifies to a positive change in American life and behavior.