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Monday, April 11, 2011

150 year ago: The Civil War really begins—in Baltimore

"Massachusetts militia passing through Baltimore,"
oil on Canvas (1861).

Guest blog post by Harold Holzer, editor of The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now

Writers and readers alike usually mark their Civil War sesquicentennial calendars by the so-called “official” beginning of the conflict: the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861.

In fact, that show of firepower cost no lives, and caused little damage save for the temporary splintering of the flagpole that hoisted the American flag. The “real” war began a week later, in a state that never seceded: Maryland. On April 19, the 6th Massachusetts Infantry, passing from one train station to another in Baltimore en route to the defense of Washington, fell under attack from local toughs. When the smoke cleared, four soldiers and nine civilians lay dead in the streets.

Horrifically bloody as it was, the fury that the pro-secession mob unleashed that day should have surprised no one—least of all President Abraham Lincoln. Just two months earlier, the 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 visit to the 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.

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, Lincoln 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.

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, who insisted that the Administration divert further trainloads of troops, 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.”

The following morning he met wounded survivors of the attack on the 6th Massachusetts and lamented, “I begin to believe that there is no North.” But in a tougher manner, he told one of Maryland’s senators that day that the capital would be defended no matter what. Striking a tone that he would maintain for the next four years, Lincoln declared bluntly of the secessionists: “I do not mean to let them invade us without striking back.”

“And,” as he put it four years later, “the war came.”

Also of interest:
  • A recent blog post on Iron Brigader details the events of the Baltimore Riot
  • Read Ralph Brave on how the “Pratt Street Riots” affected the history of Baltimore
  • Read William Howard Russell’s famous report on the Battle of Fort Sumter, a previous Story of the Week
  • Read Brooks D. Simpson on Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, a previous Reader’s Almanac post
  • Read Harriet Jacobs on the horror of slave auctions, a previous Reader's Almanac post
Related LOA works: The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It (includes eyewitness accounts of the April 19 Baltimore Riot); The Lincoln Bicentennial Collection (3-book boxed set)

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