Pratt Street Riots, April 19, 1861


Conventional wisdom holds that the Civil War started at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, on April 12 and 13, 1861, when provisional Confederate forces drove out the Federal garrison. But conventional wisdom does not always tell the whole story.

The corner of Pratt and Gay Streets in downtown Baltimore, Maryland is one of the busiest spots in the Mid Atlantic. Stand there on that cross town thoroughfare: You are immediately in front of the National Aquarium and within sight of Harbor Place, the World Trade Center, the Power Plant entertainment complex, a half-dozen convention hotels, and Baltimore’s financial and business district. And, had you been standing there on April 19, 1861, you would have witnessed the actual first fatalities of America’s War Between the States.

For all of its significance, Fort Sumter was a bloodless encounter. The only casualties of the two-day bombardment were sustained when a Union cannon, fired to salute the victorious Confederate forces, exploded prematurely killing one artillerist and wounding three others. It wasn’t until a week later and 500 miles to the north that the killing began.

Through a quirk of mercantilism, in 1861, steam locomotives were not allowed within Baltimore’s city limits. The Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad going north began at the President Street Station and ran up the east side of town. The Northern Central from York and Central Pennsylvania halted at Bolton Street. The train line to Washington and the south went down the city’s west side from the Camden Station. Horse teams pulled the train carriages across town from terminal to terminal.

Five days after Fort Sumter fell, Federal troops from the Sixth Massachusetts Militia boarded a train in Boston, bound for Washington DC, as one of the first regiments to respond to President Lincoln’s call for troops. At Noon, two days later, along with a Pennsylvania regiment, they arrived in Baltimore, one day after the 25th Pennsylvania had marched across the city. Baltimore and most of eastern Maryland was strongly Southern in attitude and did not welcome being a waypoint for blue-coated troops fortifying the Union capital.

Colonel Edward F. Jones, commanding the Sixth, had some forewarning that Baltimore’s secessionist sympathizers and violent political gangs of “Plug-Uglies” and “Blood-Tubs” might try to keep his men from reaching Washington. He issued ammunition and ordered his men to “…pay no attention to the mob, even if they throw stones, bricks, or other missiles; but if you are fired upon and any one of you is hit, your officers will order you to fire. Do not fire into any promiscuous crowds, but select any man whom you may see aiming at you, and be sure you drop him.”

The locomotive disconnected and horses quickly pulled carriages containing the first seven companies to Camden Station before the gathering mobs barricaded the tracks, trying to turn back the Yankee infantry. The Sixth’s regimental band and four companies of soldiers were stranded and surrounded. Dismounting the stalled carriages, the troopers marched a few short blocks under a barrage of stones, bricks, oyster shells, and other garbage.

At Gay and Pratt Streets, a barricade blocked the Yankees. Pistols fired from the mob and a soldier fell dead. The Federal soldiers were ordered to fire; or, perhaps they simply panicked and fired. Either way, the ensuing day-long melee killed four soldiers and a dozen civilians and left 100 injured.


Baltimore’s mayor, George William Brown, interceded to try to stop the rioting and placed himself at the head of the column beside Captain Follansbee of C Company. The mayor is reputed to have shot a particularly egregious rioter, using a rifle snatched from a Union soldier. Police chief George Kane deployed his force to defend the troops and restore peace. Neither man supported the Union, but both seemed to understand the consequences of the mayhem in the streets.

As they sprinted to the railroad station, the soldiers fired randomly into the following mobs. The police managed to hold the crowd back at the terminal, and the infantrymen scrambled aboard, leaving behind their equipment and marching band. Of the 1,800 Federal soldiers, 130 were missing. New Federal regiments were steadily arriving on the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore and the Northern Central Railroads, adding to the pandemonium. Stragglers sought out the police stations for help and were safely sent off to Havre de Grace or Philadelphia. Some simply walked back to Pennsylvania.


The Pratt Street Riots were one of the last straws for Lincoln’s government. If Maryland, a slave state, seceded, Washington would be cut off from the rest of the Union. Compounding the problem, Maryland officials demanded that no more Federal soldiers be allowed to travel through the state, and Baltimore’s mayor and police chief had the key rail bridges destroyed to prevent troops from entering the city. Secessionist groups even tore down the telegraph wires to Washington, temporarily isolating the nation’s capital.

Lincoln reacted by instituting martial law. On May 13, Federal troops, including members of the Sixth Massachusetts, occupied the still riotous Baltimore. They suspended habeas corpus and arrested the police chief, city commissioners, state legislators, and numerous citizens for participating in the riot or other suspected secessionist activities. Union General Benjamin Butler placed artillery atop Federal Hill, aimed at the harbor, downtown, and City Hall, to cow the mobs and maintain order. For the rest of the war, Baltimore was an occupied city.

The riots and occupation had another unforeseen result. James Ryder Randall, a young Baltimorean teaching English literature at Poydras College in Pointe-Coupee, Louisiana, heard the news and believed that Maryland was about to secede. An ardent Confederate, he wrote a defiant poem condemning the Union troops marching through his city and extolling the crowd’s armed resistance.

Avenge the patriotic gore
That flecked the streets of Baltimore,
And be the battle queen of yore,
Maryland! My Maryland!

Published in late April 1861, “Maryland, My Maryland” was sung to the traditional tune of “Lauriger Horatius” (“O, Tannenbaum”) and became widely popular throughout the South. The nine-stanza poem was adopted as the Maryland State song in 1939.

Today, the corner of Pratt and Gay is undergoing one more re-creation as Baltimore continues to grow and evolve. The old President Street Station has been recycled as The Civil War Museum (410-385-5188), displaying the City and State’s roles in the Civil War. Camden Station is integrated into the Camden Yards Stadium complex, and on lofty Federal Hill, overlooking the Harbor, a single vintage canon still points at City Hall.



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  1. Michael Lantz 8 years ago

    Was this the worst riot in Maryland history?I know that the civil disorders in Baltimore in 1968 was bad,but the one in 1861 looks like a Civil War battlefield.Were people smashing windows like they were in The New York Draft Riots in 1861?

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  2. Reed Hellman 8 years ago

    Hello Michael, and thanks for reading my stuff. I don’t know for sure how you go about determining which riot has been “the worst”. The 1968 disorders were very bad, but this is the only Baltimore riot to usher in a civil war.

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  3. Jan R 8 years ago

    Very well written. I have two questions:

    “…arrested the police chief, city commissioners, state legislators, and…”. What happen to these people – did prosecutions resulted from the riots?

    As you pointed out, Maryland has a unique control over access to Washington D.C. This, no doubt, made federal authorities react decisively. But, how did the Baltimore riots compare to riots in other “border states” at the start of the Civil War?

    Thank you.

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  4. Robert L.Williams 7 years ago

    I am working on the History of President Street Station, Looking for photographs and etc. Please contact me

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  5. Henry A. Fleckenstein, Jr. 7 years ago

    With Habeus Corpus suspended by Lincoln, were the police chief, commissioners, state legislators, & their cohorts held under arrest for any length of time. I’ve read somewhere that the state legislators were confined in unlawful custody until their legislative session ended, because Lincoln feared that Maryland would vote with her sister state of Virginia to secede from the Union & Washington would be surrounded by Confederate States.
    Many Marylanders, pissed that their state was placed under Federal martial law, left the eastern half of the state for Richmond to join the Confederacy & fight in the War of Northern Aggression…My great, great Grandfather whose name was William Hoffman, left Baltimore with his family & moved to Richmond where at the age of ten, he became a water boy for the Confederate army.

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