The first men to die in the American Civil War fell on this day, 150 years ago, on Pratt Street in Baltimore. Troops en route to Washington were confronted downtown by rioters, and the fighting cost four federal soldiers and 12 civilians their lives.

The soldiers were answering President Lincoln’s call to defend the capital from the Confederates, who had achieved the bloodless takeover of Fort Sumter just days before. The men of the Sixth Massachusetts had left Boston Common to cheers and band music. In Baltimore, it was catcalls and a hail of paving stones and bricks. Trying to change rail lines at the inner harbor, the soldiers found their way blocked by Baltimore’s “rowdies,” as President Lincoln called them. More kept arriving, the disturbance mounted and, when nervous soldiers opened fire, it unleashed the mob.

The events of April 19, 1861 – sometimes called the Pratt Street Riot or the Pratt Street Massacre – are immortalized in Maryland’s state song, no less. To the tune of “O Christmas Tree” were set the words of a Baltimore-born journalist, the secessionist James Ryder Randall, who proclaims:

The despot’s heel is on thy shore, Maryland, my Maryland!

His torch is at thy temple door, Maryland, my Maryland!

Avenge the patriotic gore, that flecked the streets of Baltimore

And be the battle queen of yore, Maryland my Maryland!

The sanguinary image sticks in the mind – and Edmund Wilson only added to the effect with his book on Civil War-era literature, entitled Patriotic Gore (1962) – yet it tends to mislead. Often overlooked is that by no means did all the resisters that day want Maryland to leave the Union. Many in the melee were feisty newcomers to America – tough working men who did not have a view on union versus secession, but did have a view as to whether armed outsiders representing the federal government were welcome (they weren’t).

As the historian William Lee Miller has written, 19th century Baltimore was more of an East Coast industrial city than a Southern slaveholding center. The free blacks of Baltimore outnumbered enslaved blacks by more than ten-to-one in 1861. The “nativist-immigrant rumblings” that were heard in the city, and that added to the din and the violence on Pratt Street, were more characteristic of Philadelphia or New York than of Richmond or Atlanta.

True enough, now that the slavery controversy had brought war, Maryland and the other three northernmost slave-holding states – Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri – were plunged into uncertainty. As for Maryland, its clashing views could be traced pretty plainly on a map. On the tobacco-growing plantations of the Eastern Shore, Southern sympathies prevailed. Western Maryland, where there were few slaves, was firm for the Union. The deciding vote lay in between: Baltimore City. Which way would it go?

Two men who felt like they were sitting on a powder keg were Baltimore’s mayor, the tepidly pro-Union George Brown, and Maryland’s governor, a Unionist named Thomas Hicks. After the riot they feared greater bloodshed, and went to President Lincoln to have the provocative troop transports stopped. Lincoln, a month and half into his presidency, grasped the need for accommodation. Lose Maryland and the nation’s capital would be entirely surrounded by the Confederacy. It would not be able to hold out.

Lincoln told Maryland’s worried leaders that certain realities had to be faced. He said: “Our men are not moles and can’t dig under the earth. They are not birds and can’t fly through the air.” Maryland had to be traversed by federal troops – but Baltimore didn’t. Lincoln ordered that soldiers who were nearing the city at that moment be turned around and sent back to York, Pennsylvania. His generals devised a new route: At Perryville, the troops would be ferried down the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay to Annapolis. From there, trains would take them to Washington. Circuitous, yes – but the Baltimore rowdies must not be riled again.

That gore-flecked ditty is still in place as the state song, notwithstanding a bill introduced in the legislature in Annapolis to change it. James Ryder Randall got the last word, in a way. This is not the same as winning the support of the majority. Maryland, to the secessionists’ bitter disappointment, chose the Union in the end. Some historians say it was the true will of the people. Others say it was military coercion. In any case, as William Lee Miller writes, “Marylanders did not continue guerrilla resistance to Union troops . . . nor rise up when General Lee’s army marched into the state. They joined the Union army in twice as great numbers as the Confederate.”

On two sides, and in the thousands, Marylanders would join the casualty list that started that day in Baltimore and that would, over the course of four tragic years, total some 700,000 souls.

Lauren Weiner has lived in Baltimore since 1992.

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