It’s April and the people of Baltimore – some of them, that is – are rioting. No, I’m not talking about the recent riots, nor those of April 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. I’m talking about the riots of April 1861!
On April 18 of that year, Abraham Lincoln had been President for only a month and a half, and the nation was in complete turmoil. In just the last week, Fort Sumter had fallen to the rebels, Lincoln had called for 75,000 volunteer soldiers to defend federal property, and the all-important state of Virginia had voted to secede from the Union and join the original seven southern states in the Confederacy. The other southern states were threatening to secede as well, among them another very strategic one: Maryland.
If Maryland had joined the Confederacy at that moment, it might have struck a fatal blow to the North. Washington, DC would have been cut off from the rest of the North, and would have easily fallen to the Confederates as it had no troops to defend itself. If the nation’s capital were controlled by the South, England and France would have been much more likely to recognize the South and come to her aid.
The situation was dire and tense. All of Washington – southern sympathizers excluded – anxiously awaited the arrival of the first northern troops. Finally, on April 18, several hundred Pennsylvania volunteers reached Baltimore, only 40 miles away. Baltimore presented a complication, however, as it had separate train stations for the lines arriving from different directions, meaning that travelers needed to have their railcars pulled a mile by horses through the center of the city, or they had to cover that distance on foot or by stagecoach. In addition, Baltimore was a secessionist hotbed. In fact, two months earlier, these two factors had coalesced in a plot to assassinate Lincoln while he changed trains in Baltimore, which was only thwarted by disguising him and sneaking him through the city in the middle of the night.
As the Pennsylvania troops proceeded from one train station to another, an angry mob of southern sympathizers confronted them, throwing bricks and stones and causing some serious injuries. The next day, a Massachusetts regiment arrived and was also confronted by a mob, this time armed with pistols and knives. The situation escalated, and four soldiers and a dozen civilians were killed, the first fatalities of the Civil War. The mob also looted and destroyed properties such as the office of a German pro-Union newspaper.
How would the new President, still inexperienced and perhaps unprepared for the demands of the office, respond to the Baltimore riots? His response gives us a glimpse of something of the thought processes, temperament, and character which later would be recognized for what made him an effective leader.
- He gave his opponents the opportunity to be heard
Lincoln summoned Maryland Governor Thomas Hicks and Baltimore Mayor George Brown to the White House to consult with them, and he also received another rather hostile delegation from Baltimore. He gave them the opportunity to air their grievances and to make their case that no more northern troops should be allowed to pass through not only Baltimore, but also no part of the entire state.
- He consulted with others
Lincoln consulted with his Cabinet, which by his own design was split evenly between the two major groups which made up the still-new Republican Party. Although they would not be of one accord on this, nor many other issues, their frank discussion would allow Lincoln to consider the merits of conflicting points of view as he deliberated on the best course of action.
- He made a decision consistent with his obligations and with justice
Although Lincoln still desperately needed to keep Maryland in the Union, he could not accept the demands of her officials and still meet his own obligation to defend Washington. As he explained to them: “I must have troops to defend this Capital. Geographically it lies surrounded by the soil of Maryland; and mathematically the necessity exists that they should come over her territory…”
- He used humor to help explain his reasoning and to alleviate tension
Lincoln’s explanation continued as follows: “…Our men are not moles, and can’t dig under the earth; they are not birds, and can’t fly through the air. There is no way but to march across, and that they must do.”
- He made concessions when possible
Lincoln directed subsequent troops to come by ship to Annapolis and then continue by train or on foot to Washington, in order to avoid Baltimore. He also appealed to the Maryland officials to do their part in reducing the tension: “Keep your rowdies in Baltimore, and there will be no bloodshed. Go home and tell your people that if they will not attack us, we will not attack them; but if they do attack us, we will return it, and that severely.”
- He didn’t act out of vengeance or pettiness
When Governor Hicks called the state legislature to a special session a week later, General Benjamin Butler asked Lincoln to allow him to “bag [arrest] the whole nest of traitorous Maryland legislators”, who were expected to vote for secession. Lincoln chose instead to allow them to meet, and his gamble paid off when they adopted a neutral position in the conflict while overwhelmingly rejecting secession.
- He didn’t allow inflammatory criticism to influence him
The Baltimore riots were immediately memorialized in a poem by James Randall, “Maryland, My Maryland” – later to become the official state song –, which urges the people to “Avenge the patriotic gore that flecked the streets of Baltimore”, and which calls Lincoln a despot and tyrant. Lincoln didn’t allow these nor many other vituperative and inflammatory comments to influence him or his decisions.
- He held firm to his decision
Over the next few years, Lincoln would make many controversial and heavy-handed decisions in order to keep Maryland in the Union, including suspending the writ of habeas corpus and imprisoning Mayor Brown and other pro-Confederate officials. But these were always done with the understanding that they were only warranted by the extraordinary conditions of civil rebellion, and he still opted for a softer approach whenever possible.
Perhaps those responsible for responding to the recent Baltimore riots would do well to study Lincoln’s response in 1861, in hopes of preventing her streets from being ‘flecked’ even more.
Kevin J. Wood
May 1, 2015