Outrage in Baltimore — the Pratt Street Riot and the First Bloodshed of the Civil War

This illustration depicts the Baltimore Riot of 1861. Image Source: Library of Congress.

The Pratt Street Riot of 1861 — also known as the Baltimore Riot — was a violent clash between Massachusetts troops traveling to Washington, D.C., and secessionists in Maryland. The riot led to the first bloodshed of the Civil War, as 12 people were killed, including eight rioters, one bystander, and three soldiers.

Following the Battle of Fort Sumter (April 12, 1861), President Lincoln issued a proclamation, asking for the states to raise 75,000 men to help reclaim Federal installations in the Confederate states. 

Baltimore Riot, 1861, Troops Firing on Mob, NYPL
This illustration depicts the Massachusetts troops firing into the mob. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Fortunately, no one was killed during the bombardment of Fort Sumter, although one man was killed in an accident during the surrender ceremony.

On April 19, 1861, the 6th Massachusetts Infantry arrived at the President Street Station in Baltimore and started to change trains. With two trainloads of men still needing to be transferred, a mob gathered and blocked the tracks with timbers and anchors while some of the people shouted at the soldiers. Some people in the crowd were carrying pistols and muskets.

Eventually, a shot was fired.

The Union officers ordered the men to fire into the crowd, which escalated the situation. The mob responded by throwing stones and bricks at the troops. There were casualties among the mob, the soldiers, and innocent bystanders.

Baltimore police were able to restore order and escorted the troops to Camden Station, where they boarded the train and left Baltimore. 

Soon after, martial law was declared. 

In May, General Benjamin Butler and the 6th Massachusetts occupied the city, arresting Confederate sympathizers and holding them without due process.

General Benjamin F Butler, Portrait
General Benjamin Butler. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Report from the New York Tribune

The following story — “The Rattlesnake’s Fangs” — appeared in Horace Greeley’s pro-Union newspaper, New York Tribune. It is an example of how newspapers reported on events related to the war and shows how many called for quick, decisive action regarding secession.

Please note that some minor text corrections have been made to the original text. Section headings have also been added to improve readability.

Horace Greeley, Illustration, LOC
Horace Greeley. Image Source: Library of Congress.

The Rattlesnake’s Fangs

The Massachusetts soldiery passing quietly and inoffensively through that city, in obedience to the orders of their Government, were assaulted by a vast Disunion mob, which first obstructed the Railroad, then blocked up the streets through which they were compelled to march, and passing rapidly from hooting and yelling to throwing showers of paving-stones, they at last wore out the patience of the troops by shooting three of them dead, and wounding several others, when the soldiers fired back, and stretched a few of the miscreants on the ground. 

The Disunion Mob Moves Aside

The mob then gave way sufficiently to allow the defenders of their country’s Government and flag to push on to the depot of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, where they took the cars provided for them, and proceeded quietly to Washington.

That the villains who fomented this attack are at once traitors and murderers, no loyal mind can doubt. 

Maryland and Secession

There is no pretense that Maryland has seceded from the Union — on the contrary, the most desperate efforts to plunge her into the abyss of rebellion have proved abortive. She is among the States whose authorities, though sorely tried, stand firmly by the Government and Flag of the Union. 

The Secessionist Meeting

Yet, in full view of this fact, the Baltimore secessionists held a great public meeting on Thursday morning and were harangued by their leaders in the most exciting and treasonable language. 

One of them, Wilson N. C. Carr, announced himself as ready and willing to shoulder his musket for the defense of Southern homes and firesides. His interrogatory whether the 75,000 minions of Lincoln should pass over the soil of Maryland to subjugate our sisters of the South was. answered with deafening shouts of “No, never.” 

Martial Law in Baltimore

Such was the direct and calculated incitement to the murderous attack of yesterday. We rejoice to add that it resulted in the triumph of Loyalty and the Union, and in the necessary proclamation of Martial Law.

Secessionist Aggression

In every instance of collision between the Unionists and the secessionists up to this moment, the latter have not only been the aggressors, but the wanton, unprovoked, murderous aggressors. 

An Appeal for Action to be Taken

How much longer is this to go on? 

What can martial law in Baltimore be worth if the traitors who instigated this assassination be not dealt with according to law If the authorities of Maryland do not suppress these murderous traitors, the United States will be compelled to occupy Baltimore with a force sufficient to preserve order and keep the way open to the city of Washington. 

This is no time for half-measures.

A Modern Look at the Pratt Street Riot in Baltimore

This video from Johns Hopkins University provides an overview of the Pratt Street Riot.