The Sixth Massachusetts Regiment wasn’t looking for trouble when they came to Baltimore in April 1861. The city wasn’t even their destination. They were traveling to Washington, D.C., but there was no direct railroad connection between Massachusetts and Washington. The Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad ended at President Street Station. Horses then had to pull the rail cars 10 blocks along Pratt Street to Camden Station and onto the rails of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.
The soldiers were answering the request of President Abraham Lincoln who had called for 75,000 troops to put down rebellion that began at Fort Sumter a week earlier. The call had only encouraged the Confederacy. What had been seven Confederate states quickly grew to 11 and many Marylanders wanted their state to be the 12th. These people saw the arrival of Union troops, even those passing through, as a foreign invasion.
With tensions high, the Baltimore Police escorted the Massachusetts troops as they transferred between stations. Nine rail cars were allowed to pass over the Jones Falls bridge with little but catcalls like “Let the police go and we’ll lick you” or “Wait till you see Jeff Davis” harassing them.
When the tenth car approached the bridge, someone in the gathering mob managed to throw the brake on the car and stop it. The crowd then pelted the rail car with paving stones as the soldiers within took cover.
The crowd quickly grew to 800 people who began to tear up the street and tracks with shovels and picks. With no way to continue, the soldiers were faced with marching through the growing mob in order to get to Camden Station. However, the mob had continued to grow both in size and anger. It was now estimated to be 2,000 people strong.
When the troops didn’t leave the relative safety of the rail car, the mob prepared to storm it. They were only stopped by the Baltimore Police who rushed in force to put themselves between the crowd and the rail car.
With the tracks blocked, the troops had no choice but to disembark into the hostile crowd. They formed ranks and began to slowly push their way toward the Camden Street station. The mob wasn’t willing to let them go so easily, though. The soldiers tried to march in one direction and were blocked by an unyielding crowd. When they reversed direction, the mob blocked them in that direction, too.
“Then the crowd pressed stronger, until the body reached the corner of Gay street, where the troops presented arms and fired,” according to an eyewitness account published in The Sun. “Several persons fell on the first round, and the crowd became furious. A number of revolvers were used, and their shots took effect in the ranks.”
Chaos reigned as people scattered, yelling and trampling each other. The police efforts were overwhelmed within minutes as they lost control of the situation.
The soldiers now found themselves in a running fight with the mob as they tried to reach Camden Station. The mob continued throwing bricks and stones and some even got a hold of weapons and fired toward the soldiers.
“After firing this volley the soldiers again broke into a run, but another shower of stones being hurled into the ranks at Commerce street with such force as to knock several of them down, the order was given to another portion of them to halt and fire, which had to be repeated before they could be brought to a halt,” according to The Sun. “They then wheeled and fired some twenty shots, but from their stooping and dodging to avoid the stones, but four or five shots took effect, the marks of a greater portion of their balls being visible on the walls of the adjacent warehouses, even up to the second stories. Here four citizens fell, two of whom died in a few moments; and the other two were carried off, supposed to be mortally wounded.”
One soldier who was brought down by the mob begged for his life, saying “he was threatened with instant death by his officers if he refused to accompany them. He said one-half of them had been forced to come in the same manner, and he hoped all who forced others to come might be killed before they got through the city.” Whether he spoke the truth or just hoped to win his life is not known, but the mob took no further action against him.
The soldiers eventually reached Camden Station and the police formed up their own ranks to block the mob. The troops were alive but they had lost much of their equipment and some of their wounded, who they had been forced to leave behind.
The small battle left four soldiers and 12 civilians dead. It is not known how many civilians were wounded but 36 soldiers were left behind to be treated. One of the dead soldiers, Corporal Sumner Henry Needham, is sometimes considered to be the first Union casualty in the Civil War, though he was killed by civilians.
Though the Maryland legislature voted against secession on April 26, it had to meet in Frederick to do it for fear of inciting another riot. Union troops were also deployed throughout the state to ensure that it remained within the Union. Confederate sympathizers like the mayor of Baltimore and the police commissioner were imprisoned in Fort McHenry.
The most-lasting effect of the riot is that it inspired James Ryder Randall to write “Maryland, My Maryland,” a strongly Southern supporting song, which eventually became the state song.