Streets of Baltimore witness the first bloodshed of the Civil War

Johns Hopkins alumni discuss the Pratt Street Riot

Pratt Street Riot of 1861 (cropped)

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

Baltimoreans of the mid-1800s had a thing about brawls. Dubbed Mobtown because of the spats that broke out between gangs in competing firehouses, the city was ripe for a big fight and on a Friday afternoon in 1861, it got it. While many locals were celebrating the end of a work week at the bars downtown, about 700 Massachusetts soldiers arrived at the President Street Depot, their very presence the trigger for the most famous street fight the city has ever seen.

A week prior, the first shots of the Civil War were fired when the Confederacy attacked Fort Sumter in South Carolina. However, it wasn’t until the troops arrived in Baltimore on their way to Washington D.C. to secure the nation’s capital, was the first blood spilt. As the soldiers marched to Camden Station to board a southward train, the resentful mob of southern sympathizers attacked the Union troops. Rocks were thrown, shots were fired and by the time the police were able to separate the sides, nearly 20 people had fallen along Pratt Street. Historians cannot provide a count with certainty, but they say about a dozen civilians were killed in the melee.

Three graduates of the Johns Hopkins University’s Department of History recently discussed this riot – a conflict that produced the first bloodshed of the war and forever changed the city.

Edward Papenfuse is the director of the Maryland State Archives and Commissioner of Land Patents. Having received his doctorate in history from Johns Hopkins University, he oversees the extensive collection of government and private materials in Annapolis. For more than 25 years, he has taught courses at Johns Hopkins through the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences Advanced Academic Programs on American, Maryland and Baltimore history.

Bob J. Brugger is the senior acquisitions editor at the Johns Hopkins University Press, where he has acquired and published numerous books about U.S. history, the history of science and technology, and the Chesapeake region. He completed his doctorate in American history at Johns Hopkins in 1974, as a student of the two‑time Pulitzer Prize winner David Herbert Donald.  Before joining the Press staff, he taught at the University of Virginia and was named an Andrew W. Mellon Faculty Fellow at Harvard University.  He served in editorial positions with the Papers of James Madison and the Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower and is the author of several books, including Maryland, A Middle Temperament, published by the JHU Press in 1988.

Jean Baker, an expert in 19th century U.S. history and women’s history, received two graduate degrees from Johns Hopkins University including her doctorate. The Bennett-Harwood Professor of History at Goucher College, she has published numerous books, including a biography on Mary Todd Lincoln. She is member of the Society of American Historians and the Abraham Lincoln Society.

Special thanks to the Library of Congress, the Maryland State Archives, the Maryland Historical Society, the Baltimore Civil War Museum and Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine and the Johns Hopkins University Press for providing images and locations for the video.