It was April 1861, and the US Civil War was beginning.
Fort Sumter in South Carolina had just been abandoned by Union troops after a 36-hour battle with Confederates for control of the strategic stronghold. Miraculously, neither side had sustained a single casualty in the skirmish.
Five days later, Union soldiers were en route by train to Washington, DC.
They arrived in Baltimore on April 19. Some weirdness in the way the tracks were operated meant that to get from their current point to their connecting train, the troops would have to disembark and continue through downtown Baltimore on horse-drawn cars.
They disembarked at President Street Station and boarded the horse-drawn cars. On Pratt Street minutes later, a mob of Confederate sympathizers and, ironically, anti-war protestors blocked the road. The soldiers decided to continue on by foot. The mob followed after them.
It didn’t take long for the altercation to turn violent. The mob attacked with bricks and stones. The soldiers responded with gunfire.
And so it was that the first casualties of the Civil War occurred not on a battleground but in downtown Baltimore.
In the end, at least sixteen people were killed and countless others injured.
Not too much of this history remains today, though Pratt Street of course still cuts through downtown. Part of President Street Station, too, has been saved for future generations, and it is here that the Baltimore Civil War Museum makes its home.
The Baltimore Civil War Museum is a small, crowded space. The ample gift shop takes up almost a fourth of the floor, forcing exhibits into nooks that seem otherwise not open to the public. The entrance is overwhelmed with tourism brochures, the welcome counter slowly fusing into a pile of clutter.
When I arrive, an older volunteer is crouched in the middle of the exhibit floor, a dismantled train set spread out on the carpet before him.
But in all its chaos, there is a bounty of fascinating information to discover. A knowledgeable volunteer helps to break it all down, from the station’s role in the first bloodshed of the Civil War to its other remarkable history.
It is from this volunteer that I learn that newly elected President Lincoln arrived at President Street Station in secret after detectives foiled an assassination plot. That runaway slaves used the station to escape to freedom on the Underground Railroad. And that today the station is the oldest railroad terminal still standing in a major US city.
The exhibits do a serviceable job of explaining the Civil War timeline and Baltimore’s role in the conflict, and it is fascinating to see the building and its sliver of train track.
But it is the volunteers who bring passion and excitement to the retelling. Be sure to ask them for an overview when you go; you won’t regret it.
If You Go
The Baltimore Civil War Museum is located at 601 President Street; there is paid lot and street parking nearby. The museum is open Thursday-Monday, 10AM-5PM. Adult admission is $3. Afterward, consider hitting up the nearby James Joyce Pub for happy hour.