On April 15th,1861, President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 troops in response to the rebellion that had commenced three days earlier when Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Response to the call in the northern states was immediate. The 6th Massachusetts Infantry, a militia unit that had formed earlier in the year, departed Boston by train April 17th, headed for Washington D.C. via New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.
Maryland was a slave state and had both Union loyalists and Confederate sympathizers. The city of Baltimore had an especially strong pro southern population. En route to Baltimore from Philadelphia, the 6th’s commander, Colonel Edward F. Jones, informed his men that there would be resistance to their passage through Baltimore, and that if fired upon, they were to return fire if ordered to do so.
At that time, there was no through rail service to Washington, so passengers bound for the U.S. Capitol from Philadelphia had to not only change trains, but change stations as well. The railroad cars were attached to teams of horses, and pulled across town to the other station. Passengers could remain in the cars and be pulled or they could disembark and walk from the President Street Station to Camden Station, the departure point for the Washington train.
After the train arrived at the President Street Station, the horse teams began pulling the cars down the track along Pratt Street on the way to Camden Station. A large unruly crowd had gathered along Pratt Street. The crowd yelled derisively at the soldiers, but allowed the first nine cars containing seven companies to pass on to Camden Station. However, they barricaded the track to prevent the cars with the remaining four companies from passing through.
The four companies left the cars and formed in marching formation in an attempt to force their way through the mob and reach the station on foot. They were met with a shower of rocks, paving stones, and anything else the crowd could throw, and the infantrymen were being injured, in some cases seriously. The men picked up the pace, but the mob grew more threatening and violent with the increase in speed. Baltimore mayor George Brown marched at the head of the column in an unsuccessful attempt to calm the crowd. Finally, pistol shots were fired into the soldiers’ formation, and the troops opened fire on the mob. The Massachusetts men fought their way to Camden Station, where the Baltimore police managed to hold back the crowd and allow the train to depart for Washington.
Four soldiers and 12 Baltimore citizens had been killed, and dozens more on both sides were injured. With the city in an uproar, Baltimore officials believed that the safe movement of more Union troops through the city was impossible. They received approval from the governor of Maryland to destroy the bridges of rail lines from Pennsylvania to prevent additional troop trains from entering the city. Confederate sympathizers cut the telegraph lines that ran through Maryland to Washington, cutting off communications from the north.
Washington was full of rumors about possible Confederate attacks, and with few troops present, it was thought the city could be overrun if the reports proved accurate. There were some tense days in Washington until a troop train arrived on April 25th, followed by several others. They had arrived from Annapolis, Maryland, on a rail line that had been torn up by secessionists but rebuilt by Union soldiers.
On May 13th, Brigadier General Benjamin Butler, acting on his own without orders from Washington, moved Federal troops into Baltimore and declared martial law to quell any pro Confederate activity. Union troops were garrisoned at other places in Maryland as well. Many secessionists or those suspected of pro southern leanings, especially politicians and other authorities, were arrested. Those arrested included Mayor Brown of Baltimore. After a strongly pro Union legislature was elected in November, these political prisoners began to be released, although some were held until December 1862. Marylanders with Union sentiments began to organize regiments for the Federal army, and four such units had formed by mid June.
The measures taken were harsh, even draconian, but they had the desired effect. Baltimore’s Confederate activity was stopped, and Maryland remained in the Union.