Tuesday, May 27, 2014

April 19, 1861 – Baltimore Riots Lead to Maryland’s Secession

With four men taken seriously on the ballots of the 1860 election, Abraham Lincoln’s victory sent all those who had voted solidly for Southern Democrat John C. Breckenridge calling for secession. The matter escalated, and Washington sat unsure of what to do in a legally ambiguous situation. When the new Confederate state of South Carolina opened fire on the Union Fort Sumter sitting in their capital’s harbor, civil war officially began. Lincoln now had legal standing to fight on grounds of returning captured Federal property, and he called for 75,000 volunteers to serve. The call was answered widely in the North; Ohio itself produced enough to fill the national quota.

Getting these troops to the front was a serious logistical issue. Foremost in the military’s mind was protecting Washington, D.C., just across the river from Virginia, seceded as of April 17. All around the federal city, Marylanders wondered what would become of their state. The electors had voted for Breckenridge, and folks shared the spirit of the South. They were also seafarers and traders linked to the North, creating a delicate balance that troubled many in what would become known as the Border States. Most of the Western Marylanders had voted for John Bell of the Constitutional Union party, who wanted to keep the nation together under clear terms, but his carried state of Virginia had already given up such a dream. With no way to be certain on how the vote would go, Maryland officials such as Governor Thomas Hicks were hesitant to call for a formal vote.

The military, meanwhile, acted. Union troops were brought down from the North to the rail hub in Baltimore. There, they had to march across town, through streets lined with Confederate sympathizers, to board southwest-bound trains for Washington. On April 19, the 6th Massachusetts began the transition to find the path blocked by protestors. The protestors became violent, throwing stones and shouting at the Northerners to get out of their city. Troops opened fire out of panic, and the protesters charged them. Police began to swarm the area, but even they could not stop the fighting. Somewhere in the crowd, a series of protestors produced guns and returned fire.

The regiment’s commander Colonel Edward F. Jones determined that retreat was no longer an option. He had warned his troops the night before to “pay no attention to the mob.” The civilians had created themselves combatants, so he rallied his troops into formation to return fire. Baltimoreans were leveled, and the mob scrambled to escape. Jones directed the men in fixing bayonets and marching out firmly to their waiting transport to Washington.

With dead scattered in the streets, Marylanders rose up. After the raid on Harper’s Ferry by John Brown, many in the state had formed militias as a precaution against a violent slave revolt. The call went out, and that night the militia seized the railroad bridges leading into the city. Whether they had official authority from Hicks and Balitmore’s Mayor George Brown was kept vague, but they were effective in turning around a trainload of troops. Major General Robert Patterson, commander of the Department of Washington, ordered Brigadier General Benjamin Franklin Butler to secure the state. Militia countered with guerilla warfare, but the Union’s superior arms enabled them to seize the major cities and declare martial law.

During their retreat to Virginia, the politicians who escaped arrest in Maryland voted for secession. Brown was captured and held in Baltimore while Hicks hurried to Washington to plead for peace that proved impossible, as Lincoln would explain that “Union soldiers were neither birds to fly over Maryland, nor moles to burrow under it.” Secession was politically significant, but largely moot as the military filled the void of elected government. Chaos with torn up railroads and cut telegraphs ruled in the countryside while strict regulations kept the cities from turning back into riots.

The Southern cry was to liberate the Marylanders. Virginian Generals Beauregard and Johnston were able to fend off a Union invasion at Bull Run, while Union troops held off two Confederate assaults late that summer. Eventually the stalemate around the Potomac swayed toward the Confederate side as they managed to float an army into southern Maryland. Many in Congress called for the evacuation of Washington, but Lincoln refused to budge, knowing what a political calamity it would be. The city was turned into a fortress and besieged time and again, but its defenses were unable to be cracked. Union General McClellan gained great aplomb for his efforts in drawing Confederate attention away in his Peninsular Campaign.

After years of brutal warfare that depopulated much of Maryland, victories in the West enabled the North to actualize the Anaconda Plan formulated by retiring General Winfield Scott that would choke out Confederate resources. Measures to placate Maryland tested the most effective strategies for occupying the South for Reconstruction as the war came to a close. The use of militias prompted a clear legal definition of “peaceable assembly,” which caused Federal crackdown on fraternities such as the Klan as they grew up. National loyalty was rewarded, and subversion resulted in public humiliation rather than execution to prompt vengeance. Troublemakers found themselves as forced exiles on the Canadian borders. A strong military system invaded the American populace with a continuance of the draft that used young men in civil service. Blurry “American” ideals spawned wide-spread government corruption, but it would be generations before Americans would be willing to speak out against it.


In reality, the rioters limited themselves to cobblestones and bricks for ammunition. The brawl claimed sixteen lives: four soldiers and sixteen Baltimoreans. Maryland did, in fact, vote on secession April 29, and the legislature opposed it 53 to 13. Nonetheless, for the security of the nation, General Butler declared martial law, suspending habeas corpus and ensuring no further votes could be held. In commemoration of the riot, James Ryder Randall, Marylander living in Louisiana, wrote “Maryland, My Maryland,” which would later become the state song despite somewhat shocking lyrics. Union troops also secured the border states of Delaware and Missouri, the latter with more violence.

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