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  • Emmanuel Mehr

Railroad Infrastructure and the Pratt Street Riot of 1861

BHW 44: December 1, 2023

A black-and-white illustration of violence in the streets of Baltimore, including stone throwing and people wielding weapons.
Figure 1. O. Pelton, “Attack on the Massachusetts 6th at Baltimore, April 19, 1861,” c. 1862 [1].

 

In June 1852, leaders of the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad Company decided they required an elaborate railway station at a central location in downtown Baltimore. The B&O bought a tract of land on Camden Street and went to work on the project. [2] However, the company met resistance from city residents and municipal leaders who sought to prevent rail traffic from taking over city streets. [3] Municipal ordinances required specific permission from City Council to build any railroad infrastructure in the city. [4] The B&O flexed its political influence to lay permitted tracks around its new downtown Camden depot, but a significant concession was made. Rail cars arriving from different lines or stations would need to be disembarked and paraded manually down Pratt Street to reach Camden Station. The price of a centrally located depot was a lack of streamlined system integration. Baltimorean public pressure forced this infrastructural gap, which became a shared headache for B&O leaders and rail travelers alike. Most notably, it also played a significant role in some of the first casualties of the American Civil War. When President Abraham Lincoln issued his call for volunteers on April 15, 1861, a group of the first troops to mobilize and make their way to Washington did so via Baltimore. [5] While venturing down the Pratt Street rendezvous on April 19, these Union troops were attacked by a mob of unruly South-supporting Baltimoreans. Roughly twelve civilians and four soldiers died in the ensuing skirmish. [6] Baltimore’s location in the national railway system, local politics, and corporate interests in the city all exacerbated the role of infrastructure in this fatal mass violence.


The Union troops attacked during the Pratt Street Riot of 1861 arrived from Massachusetts via the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore (PW&B) Railroad. At the time, this was the only railroad system linking Baltimore to Philadelphia. Departing from Massachusetts, the most efficient way to get to Washington, D.C. was to travel to Philadelphia, board a PW&B train there, then transfer at Baltimore to a capital-bound B&O train. Making this Baltimore transfer required disembarking all rail cars at Baltimore’s President Street depot, then using horses to move the cars to capital-bound trains at Camden Station. [7] The first Union recruits to mobilize by train boarded at Lowell, Massachusetts, and picked up their compatriots along the way. As they passed through Boston, New York City, New Jersey, and Philadelphia, they received rousing ovations and cheers from onlookers. [8] Their reception in Baltimore provided a stark contrast. Upon their arrival in Philadelphia on the evening of April 18, the troops were warned that trouble likely awaited them in Baltimore the next day. Troop leaders, foremost among them Brig. Gen. P. S. Davis and Col. Edward F. Jones, decided that their clear orders to reach Washington as soon as practicable necessitated they dismiss the warning and push on. [9] According to an eyewitness account, the regimental leadership was unaware that cars would need to be disembarked and manually led through downtown Baltimore. [10]


In April 1861, Baltimore’s municipal and law enforcement leaders represented a faction that had been in power for roughly six months and leaned towards the Confederate side of the Civil War divide. They were known as the Reformers since they mostly belonged to the relatively new City Reform Association. As historian Frank Towers points out, many of the firsthand accounts of the Pratt Street Riot are written by these South sympathizers and thus reflect problematic bias. One of the most cited accounts, that of Maryland historian J. Thomas Scharf, embodies this bias. [11] Of the newly elected Reformers he writes, “The new mayor, the Hon. George William Brown, was a man of eminent talents, spotless character, great administrative ability, and dauntless courage. Col. George P. Kane, the new marshal of police, was perhaps the best man in the city for the task confided to him.” [12] Scharf fought for the Confederacy himself, and his related biases towards these pro-Confederate Baltimore leaders are reflected in his account. Both Mayor Brown and Col. Kane directly participated in attempts to quell the April 19 riot, but it is unclear if they made substantial contributions. In Brown’s memoir, he credits Kane with expertly using his police force to diffuse the violence. [13] His ideological alignment and political alliance with Kane render this account superfluous. Some historians go along with this Reformer narrative, framing Kane and Brown as heroes in this story. [14] However, sufficient unbiased evidence does not exist to support these claims. [15]


Brown, Kane, and other Reformer Baltimore City leaders held pro-secession views like those advocated by the rioters, but in this specific case sought to restore order by suppressing the riot. [16] This raises the question of how public knowledge of the views of these leaders influenced the pro-secession Baltimoreans who resorted to mass political violence. Unlike in the more recent historic political violence of January 6, 2021, the leaders did not directly encourage the rioters. Yet, their shared beliefs must not be removed from this story. These Confederate leanings are evident in how Brown and Kane consistently downplayed the size of the mob in later years. [17] They are also reflected in their leadership decisions in the days and hours that followed. Indeed, Brown and Kane ordered the burning of all railroad bridges in and out of Baltimore to prevent any more Union troops traveling through the city. [18] Baltimore’s location as a railroad nexus was weaponized through the destruction of rail infrastructure. This was a one-sided infrastructural blow since Confederate forces had no reason to travel through Baltimore whereas the city was the clearest path for Union forces to reach their capital at Washington. [19] President Lincoln and other Union leaders then scrambled to find ways to mobilize troops through an Annapolis railhead instead, with Baltimore’s volatility forcing these sacrifices of efficiency. [20]


Corporate interests in Baltimore City firmly supported the Union side, thus balancing out the secessionist leanings of municipal leaders and ensuring that Baltimore would ultimately support the Union. The most directly relevant Baltimore corporation was the B&O Railroad itself, the headquarters of which were located on the top floor of Camden Station. From these offices, company executives watched rioters mob the station and destroy property in efforts to prevent the Union troops at the end of their disembarkation from departing. [21] While the company had significant political power, B&O onlookers surely recognized that the unfolding debacle resulted from their inability to sufficiently strong-arm policymakers into allowing train tracks down Pratt Street. Nevertheless, Baltimore business leaders overall believed that the success of their booming capitalist city depended on Union victory. Most local businesspeople recognized that the majority of the city’s investment was in Northern modern industries rather than the economy of Southern slaveholders. These views likely moderated the positions of Mayor Brown and associates. [22] The Unionist leanings of the Baltimore business community were crystal clear for months before April 1861. [23]


Recent scholarship on the characteristics of capitalist infrastructure sheds light on its role in the Pratt Street Riot. Scholar Deb Chapra’s 2023 book How Infrastructure Works: Inside the Systems That Shape Our World focuses on the present, but its conceptual analysis is helpful for considering Baltimore’s 1861 example. Chapra points out that “Roads are perhaps the oldest systems that we would recognize as infrastructure.” [24] From the perspective of capitalist development, Pratt Street became outdated infrastructure in 1861 by getting in the way of corporate rail transport efficiency. Local residents campaigned to preserve this historic roadway at the expense of streamlining rail passage through their city. [25] The underlying causes of the resulting inefficiencies are what Chapra refers to as “ultrastructure,” meaning the “web of social strictures, all of the cultural, political, regulatory, and other systems that shape and govern infrastructure.” [26] Baltimoreans who opposed laying tracks through the streets harnessed their cultural and political capital to prevent the urban integration of the B&O. They stood firmly behind old infrastructure to prevent its replacement with newer systems. The city government’s regulatory ability to prevent this corporation from overruling public sentiment shows that elected officials also played a major role in this anti-development ultrastructure. For B&O leaders, the advantages of having a central depot outweighed the disadvantages of the Pratt Street concession they were forced to make. Resistant Baltimorean ultrastructure proved too strong to be overwhelmed by corporate interests in this case. As a result, Union troops were forced to use impractical infrastructure during their mobilization. The Civil War context in a divided city turned this infrastructural gap into a matter of life and death.


Taken together, Baltimore’s location in the national railway system, the secessionist political leanings of its elected municipal leaders, and the mostly Unionist views of its business community provide great insights into the April 1861 Pratt Street Riot. The largest constant throughout this story is that it shows the historical power and importance of transportation infrastructure in urban settings. While his account is deeply biased, we can take Mayor Brown at his word that the riot made clear “that no more troops, while the excitement lasted, could pass through without a bloody conflict.” [27] The vulnerability of troops moving through the city resulted from the inability of B&O leaders to secure permission to lay tracks down Pratt Street to Camden Station. Brown recognized that as long as this infrastructural gap remained, restless pro-secessionist residents of his city would likely continue to take advantage of it. As a result, the Union capital of Washington, D.C. was substantially isolated from the rest of Union territory in the early stages of the American Civil War.

 

[1] O. Pelton and William Momberger, “Attack on the Massachusetts 6th at Baltimore, April 19, 1861,” steel engraving (Hartford, CT, c. 1861), https://www.loc.gov/item/2004680236/.

[2] Lawrence W. Sagle, “Baltimore & Ohio Stations in Baltimore,” The Railway and Locomotive Historical Society Bulletin 106 (April 1962): 25, https://www.jstor.org/stable/43518016.

[3] David Schley, Steam City: Railroads, Urban Space, and Corporate Capitalism in Nineteenth-Century Baltimore (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2020), 122-123, Kindle edition.

[4] Mary P. Ryan, Taking the Land to Make the City: A Bicoastal History of North America (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2019), 234, Kindle edition.

[5] President Abraham Lincoln, “Abraham Lincoln, Monday, April 15, 1861 (Proclamation on State Militia),” April 15, 1861, U.S. Senate Historical Office (Washington, D.C.), https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/civil_war/LincolnExtraordinarySession_Transcript.htm.

[6] Ryan, Taking the Land to Make the City, 324.

[7] Edward G. Everett, “The Baltimore Riots, April, 1861,” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 24, no. 4 (October 1957): 333-334, https://www.jstor.org/stable/27769762.

[8] George William Brown, Baltimore and the Nineteenth of April, 1861: A Study of the War (Baltimore: N. Murray, Publication Agent, Johns Hopkins University, 1887), 43, https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=hO9QAQAAMAAJ&rdid=book-hO9QAQAAMAAJ&rdot=1.

[9] John W. Hanson, Historical sketch of the old Sixth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers, during its three campaigns in 1861, 1862, 1863, and 1864 (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1866), 21-22, https://archive.org/details/historicalsketch00hans.

[10] Hanson, Historical sketch of the old Sixth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers, 24.

[11] Frank Towers, “Baltimore’s Secessionist Moment: Conservatism and Political Networks in the Pratt Street Riot and Its Aftermath,” in The Civil War in Maryland Reconsidered, eds. Charles W. Mitchell and Jean H. Baker (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2021), 155-156, Kindle edition.

[12] J. Thomas Scharf, History of Baltimore City and County (Philadelphia: Louis H. Everts, 1881 [1874]), 788, https://www.loc.gov/item/rc01003473/.

[13] Brown, Baltimore and the Nineteenth of April, 37.

[14] William C. Harris, Lincoln and the Border States: Preserving the Union (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2011), 43-46, https://archive.org/details/lincolnbordersta0000harr.

[15] Robert Bailey, “The Pratt Street Riots Revisited: A Case of Overstated Significance?,” Maryland Historical Magazine 98, no. 2 (Summer 2003): 155, https://mdhs.msa.maryland.gov/pages/Viewer.aspx?speccol=5881&Series=1&Item=391.

[16] Charles W. Mitchell, “‘The Whirlwind Now Gathering’: Baltimore’s Pratt Street Riot and the End of Maryland Secession,” Maryland Historical Magazine 97, no. 2 (Summer 2002): 203, https://mdhs.msa.maryland.gov/pages/Viewer.aspx?speccol=5881&Series=1&Item=387.

[17] Tony Silber, Twelve Days: How the Union Nearly Lost Washington in the First Days of the Civil War (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, Potomac Books, 2023), 117, Kindle edition.

[18] Bailey, “The Pratt Street Riots Revisited,” 154.

[19] Towers, “Baltimore’s Secessionist Moment,” 159-160.

[20] John F. Stover, History of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1987), 101-103, https://archive.org/details/historyofbaltimo0000stov.

[21] Hanson, Historical sketch of the old Sixth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers, 31-32; Sagle, “Baltimore & Ohio Stations in Baltimore,” 25.

[22] Ryan, Taking the Land to Make the City, 326.

[23] Mitchell, “The Whirlwind Now Gathering,” 203.

[24] Deb Chachra, How Infrastructure Works: Inside the Systems That Shape Our World (New York: Riverhead Books, 2023), 53, Kindle edition.

[25] Schley, Steam City, 122-123.

[26] Chachra, How Infrastructure Works, 62.

[27] Brown, Baltimore and the Nineteenth of April, 55-56.

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