Baltimore in the Civil War

Civil War Baltimore offers a look at a large American city — at the time, the third largest in the country — in a state that did not secede but was, nevertheless, overseen and at times administered by the U.S. Army.

Baltimore's Role in the Civil War

After a violent skirmish that drew the first blood in the terrible conflict, federal troops moved in and for the next four years, Baltimoreans who supported the South lived under the watchful eyes of a military commander and his provost marshal. While the city's business ties to the South withered and died, it cared for tens of thousands of wounded from both sides and served as a major transportation hub and supply depot for the Union Army.

In the bitter electoral campaign of 1860, four parties nominated presidential candidates, three of them living in Baltimore. On May 9, a week before Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln in Chicago, the remnants of the Whig and American (Know Nothing) parties convened here as the Constitutional Union Party and settled upon moderate John Bell for president in a search for sectional compromise. Just days earlier, the Democratic Party had deadlocked without a nominee in Charleston, SC. On June 18, the party reconvened in Baltimore. This time, when Southerners walked out, the remaining delegates nominated Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. Ten days later, the seceding delegates returned to Baltimore to select John C. Breckinridge on a strong pro-Southern platform. Breckinridge would carry Baltimore, but Lincoln, who received few votes here, won the election.

Beginning a month later and throughout that winter, the states of the Deep South — led by South Carolina — left the Union. Maryland's legislature had voted to cast its lot with the South if secession became a fact, but it would not meet again for nearly two years. Maryland nervously watched developments, and the nation kept an eye on the state, for if it and Virginia joined the Confederacy, the U.S. capital would be surrounded by a foreign nation.

In February 1861, as President-elect Lincoln made his way east by train to Harrisburg and Philadelphia, detective Alan Pinkerton received word that Southern radicals intended to assassinate Lincoln in Baltimore. The city could be a violent place, murders and assaults were common, and elections sometimes brought on deadly riots. Baltimore was referred to throughout the nation as "Mobtown." Lincoln took Pinkerton's advice and made a secret passage through the city, disappointing those who had hoped to get a glimpse of him.

Just six weeks later, and little more than a month into Lincoln's presidency, war broke out with the firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion, but those destined for Washington had to first pass through Baltimore. On April 18, a Pennsylvania regiment was hooted and pelted with rocks as it marched from one train station to another. The next day, two more regiments arrived. Four companies of the sixth Massachusetts Volunteer Militia were set upon by a mob on Pratt Street and opened fire, killing a dozen civilians before reaching the safety of Camden Station.

The Riot of April 19th, as it came to be called, confirmed Northern suspicions that Baltimore was disloyal, and succeeding waves of Union volunteers treated it that way. On the night of May 13, General Benjamin F. Butler marched in beneath a violent thunderstorm and stationed his soldiers on Federal Hill. Butler was quickly relieved for impetuousness, but Union guns could now reach any part of the city. The Federal garrison at Fort McHenry was reinforced, and the fort became the place where military authorities sent persons suspected of disloyalty, including Baltimore's mayor and police commissioner. More arrests followed. Newspapers supporting the South were shut down, and others had to be careful what they printed. To celebrate the Fourth of July, 1863, and the Union victory at Gettysburg, General Robert C. Schenck ordered all loyal Union households to fly the national flag. Those who did not display it were revealing where their sympathies lie.

Although many in Baltimore were strongly Unionist, and the city furnished large numbers of recruits for white regiments and, after 1863, regiments of U.S. Colored Troops — including Medal of Honor winner Christian Fleetwood of the 4th USCT — many young men managed to make their way to Confederate lines. The city's social leadership, which favored the South, went to prison or kept quiet. Mothers and wives regularly attempted to smuggle medicines and supplies to Confederate sons and husbands, but those who were caught were detained by the provost marshal and shipped across the lines. Union spies observed the funerals of Confederate soldiers and took down the names of mourners.

Lincoln made two more visits. In 1864, he spoke briefly at a great "Sanitary Fair" staged by Baltimore organizations to raise money and medical supplies for the Union wounded soldiers. A year later, his funeral train pulled into Camden Station and his cortège made its way through the silent crowd to let his body lie in state at the Merchants' Exchange building before resuming its mournful journey back to Springfield.

The Legacy of the Civil War in Baltimore

Wartime animosity remained deep for years. Former colleagues who had supported different sides no longer spoke to one another. Social leaders resumed their influence; businesses raised money for the devastated South; and the city became a haven for displaced Southerners and Southern writers. It also became a mecca for freed slaves. The African American community, which had jubilantly celebrated emancipation in Maryland with the new state constitution of 1864, staged another mammoth celebration on the passing of the 15th Amendment — which Maryland refused to ratify until the 1970s. At the Maryland Historical Society, Union and Confederate veterans donated memorabilia to two different "rooms." The Society did not display the contents of the Union Room and the Confederate Room together until 1994. From 1861 to 1865, and for years afterward, Baltimore truly was a "house divided."

Further reading: Susan Cooke Soderberg, A Guide to Civil War Sites in Maryland: Blue and Gray in a Border State (White Mane Books, 1998).