The Struggle for the Frontier States: Maryland

In the spring of 1861, as the armies of both camps were organizing, the secession of four new states, and the uncertainty surrounding the attitude of three others, posed a new strategic problem for the leaders of the two belligerents. For the South, the first urgency is to integrate the new states into the Confederation, and to ensure the defense of a territory which has become excessively large in relation to its military means. For the North, on the other hand, to ensure control of Border states is vital, as their geographic location threatens the strategic depth of the Union.

Maryland: a must

The first crucial issue for the Union was to maintain the Maryland at all costs under his control. The reason was simple: Washington, the federal capital, was in a tiny enclave (the District of Columbia, administered directly by the federal government) wedged between that slave state and the newly seceding Virginia. Let the rebels take control of Maryland, and then they could easily isolate Washington, then take over the city and the government.

The situation was all the more critical in mid-April 1861 as the town was practically empty of troops. The commander of the army, the general Winfield Scott, had done his best to bring back as many regular army units as possible during the previous weeks. The trouble was, he also had to make sure his narrow forces bolstered Fort Pickens (Florida) and Fort Monroe (Virginia), without stripping military posts in the Wild West and the Pacific Coast. The few companies of infantry, cavalry, and marines assembled in Washington were no match for protecting it against a hand from the Virginia militia, one of the best trained and equipped in the country.

Immediately after the call for volunteers signed by Lincoln on April 15, several northern states placed at his disposal regiments of their militia, which they had mobilized preventively. The president, very worried for the security of the capital (a concern which would haunt him during most of the conflict), immediately ordered them to converge on Washington. Thanks to the modern means of communication (telegraph and railroad) which served the East Coast in abundance, several units in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New York State, in particular, immediately took over the way to the capital.

These forces, however, had to pass through Maryland's largest city, Baltimore. The latter was a crucial railway junction. Not content with having seen the birth of the railroad in the United States (via a small local link going to Ellicott's Mill), it was on the axis connecting Washington to the rest of the northern states, so , but also served as a starting point for the Baltimore & Ohio. This railway line was one of the few crossing the Appalachians, and was the shortest route to the Midwest from the federal capital.

Map of Maryland in 1861. In blue, the layout of the main railway lines (map produced by the author from a map of 1861).

Southern sympathies

The metropolis of Maryland was also the city in the state with the most secession supporters. This blatant fact gave rise to Allan Pinkerton's fears for the safety of the president-elect when he crossed Baltimore on his way to Washington to be sworn in in February. If the "Baltimore conspiracy" was undoubtedly imaginary, the adherence to the Southern cause if not of the whole city, at least of a very active minority, was notorious. The city then had more than 200,000 inhabitants, which placed it fourth among American cities.

The state itself had about 687,000 inhabitants, 87,000 of whom were slaves. This was a relatively small proportion compared to other southern states. The bonded population was mostly concentrated in the eastern counties of the state around Chesapeake Bay, where they were primarily employed in tobacco growing. Despite the great industrialization of Baltimore, the planters of Maryland retained a significant influence on internal state policy.

This resulted in a certain solidarity with the South. While local authorities initially rejected secession, they now considered the use of force to suppress it illegal. Governor Thomas Hicks refused to recruit volunteers for this purpose. To these secessionist sympathies On display (in the presidential election it was Breckinridge who narrowly won the state) added Lincoln's obvious unpopularity. The Republican candidate won only 2.5% of the vote, and his behavior during the "Baltimore Plot" had not helped raise his love ratings in Maryland.

Apart from that, the city of Baltimore itself had become a major hotbed of political violence, in previous years. Important center of immigration, in particular Irish, the city undergoes the tensions which result from it, and in particular the rise in power of the "American party" or Know nothing, nationalist and violently hostile to migrants. After 1856, elections in Baltimore were rarely held without violence, and there were deaths almost every year.

The Baltimore riot

Called to Washington as soon as the secession of Virginia was known, the first unit of volunteers, a regiment of Pennsylvanians, crossed Baltimore safely on April 18. This speed of execution surprised the secessionists of the city, who organized themselves to block the route to subsequent units. Their task was made easier by the peculiarities of the US rail network, as well as by the city of Baltimore itself.

In fact, a municipal decree prohibited any steam vehicle from driving there. In addition, the rail lines serving Baltimore were owned by two separate companies, each with its own station and tracks. In other words, it was not possible to cross Baltimore by train without stopping there. Upon arriving at President Street station, terminus of the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad, the carriages had to be harnessed to horses to transfer them one by one to Camden station, from where the locomotives of the Baltimore and Ohio (who used the same gauge) then took them south.
The two stations weren't very far from each other (about ten blocks, at most), and the route was straightforward as all you had to do was take Pratt Street. When the 6th Massachusetts Regiment arrived at President Street station around 10:30 am, a large crowd gathered at the intersection of Pratt and Gay Street. She would soon have block the rails with the materials available, immobilizing about two dozen cars full of soldiers.

When it became clear that it would not be possible to clear the way, the Northerners officers dismounted their men, directing them towards Camden station. The crowd, which until then had been content to be noisy while playing many secessionist songs, turned menacing. Soon, various objects and cobblestones began to fly towards the soldiers. Losing their nerves, some of them (few were armed) unloaded their rifles, after which the riot became general, civilians retaliating with their personal weapons.

The regiment, after a few rounds, somehow made their way to Camden station, where city police were working to contain the riot and calm the civilians. This did not prevent bricks and stones from continuing to rain down on the soldiers, and more guns were fired until the train carrying the regiment left town for Washington, where it arrived that evening. When a precarious calm returned to Baltimore, four soldiers and twelve civilians had been killed, and the wounded numbered in the tens.

The Union takes back control

In the aftermath of the Pratt Street riot, Governor Hicks mobilized his militia and demanded that President Lincoln no longer transit troops through Maryland territory, which amounted to completely isolating Washington from the rest of the Union and was obviously rejected. At the same time, the (secessionist) mayor of Baltimore, George Brown, as well as the chief of the municipal police, suggested that Hicks employ the state militia to burn railway bridges and cut telegraph lines in Baltimore, which was done.

Communications with Washington were not severed for long, however. On April 22, another regiment from Massachusetts, which was traveling by sea, landed at Annapolis, the capital of Maryland. The rest of the units were diverted to it, and on April 27 the Annapolis-Washington rail link was secured, once again allowing reinforcements to flow to the federal capital. The commander of the northern forces in the region, ambitious Massachusetts politician Benjamin Butler, was authorized to use martial law if necessary, as well as the lifting of the right tohabeas corpus - the legal provision which protects American citizens against arbitrary arrests.
At the same time, pro-Southerners in Maryland lobbied for her to leave the Union, calling for the state legislature to meet to rule on the issue. Governor Hicks, who wanted his state to remain neutral instead, managed to get the assembly to meet not in Baltimore - Annapolis being occupied by federal troops - but in Frederick. In this predominantly Unionist city, it made it easier for it to use its influence, and the Maryland legislature rejected secession April 29.

In the weeks that followed, partisans on both sides recruited troops in Maryland; in all, it is estimated that during the war 60,000 state citizens served in the northern armies, and another 25,000 in the southern forces. Lincoln tolerated Maryland's neutrality as long as it no longer threatened Washington's security. However, he was taken aback by General Butler, who took the initiative to occupy the rest of the state, entering Baltimore on May 13, 1861 without encountering resistance. He decreed there martial law.

Many arrests This followed, starting with that of the city mayor, and Maryland remained firmly under Northern control for the remainder of the war. The Confederation tried well to bring into play the secessionist feeling of the state, setting up an invasion in August-September 1862. But the hopes of an uprising which the southern leaders had formed did not materialize, and the Confederate offensive was cut short. after the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862), one of the few major engagements to have been delivered on Maryland soil during the Civil War.

Video: SLIG2020 Course 7: Maryland: Researching in the Old Line State (January 2022).