Baltimore in Blue and Gray

The first shots of the Civil War were fired at Ft. Sumter, SC, but the first blood was spilled in downtown Baltimore. A few days after the bombardment at Ft. Sumter, Union soldiers tried to march through the city to board south-bound trains. A crowd of angry civilians blocked their way. The “Pratt Street Riot” left 16 people, both military and civilian, dead.

A strategically important, Southern-sympathizing, Union-occupied city in a border state, Baltimore experienced the Civil War with an intensity unknown elsewhere. Martial law prevailed; travelers and troops, supplies and spies passed through the port and train stations. Families worried about their sons and fathers in the armies – sometimes on both sides.


Three exhibits – “Riots, Railroads, and the Coming of Mr. Lincoln,” “Divided Voices: Maryland in the Civil War,” and “The War Came by Train” dramatically illustrate life in Baltimore in the 1860’s.

Riots, Railroads and the Coming of Mr. Lincoln

“Riots, Railroads, and the Coming of Mr. Lincoln” sets the stage.   Documents retell the incensed debates throughout the country that make the vitriol on today’s Capitol Hill sound like tributes to Mother Theresa. Everyday things — photo lockets, sheet music, playing cards –are a counterpoint to the rising tensions. As anger grew, sabers rattled, loyalties were proclaimed, and divisions ruptured communities and families alike. It culminated in the violence on Pratt Street. (One of the cobblestones thrown during the riot is on display).


Camden Street Station

The exhibit is in historic Camden Street Station, itself a witness to the War.  It served as a hospital after the Battle of Antietam. The station hosted Abraham Lincoln four times during his Presidency: his pre-dawn trek through Baltimore on the way to his inauguration, on his way to give the Gettysburg Addresses, for a speaking engagement, and his final, tragic journey to his resting place in Illinois after his assassination. The exhibition is in a special gallery of the Sports Legends Museum.

“Divided Voices: Maryland in the Civil War” expands the scope of the conflict away from military maneuvers by presenting the human side of the war. Open at the Maryland Historical Society, the largest Civil War exhibit in the state presents the war as “a tragedy in three acts.”


Initially, the war was a “Romantic” Crusade with soldiers heading off to certain glory. That ended as the carnage of battle was reflected in growing casualty lists of “The Real War.” When the fighting ended, there was “The Long Reunion” as former enemies struggled to reconcile. (Or not. Even now, most of the Union artifacts in the Society’s collection are stored in another location at the request of the donors.)

The exhibit immediately transports you back through time by using old techniques and modern technology. Stereoscope photos – a primitive type of 3-D photography popular in the 1860’s – have been digitized and enlarged to near-life size. Viewed through 3-D glasses, the photos put you on the battlefield and in encampments with the soldiers.

The sense of living in the past continues as living history actors circulate among the exhibits.  (482) They perform vignettes based on the experiences of real people, like Sgt. Major Christian Fleetwood, of the 4th Colored Troops. While they interpret the displays and answer questions, they concentrate on staying ‘in character.’

memorabilia of the war

Uniforms and clothing

The range of objects on display creates a complete environment of the period. There are the historic (like Robert E. Lee’s camp chair), the military (uniform jackets and medical tools), the personal (dresses and dolls), and the odd (a needlepoint sampler accented with bullets taken from battlefields, a bit of wood from John Brown’s gallows).


The really, really big artifacts are found at the B&O Museum. The largest collection of Civil War era railroad engines, rolling stock, and equipment in the world are displayed under the Cathedral-like dome of the Museum’s roundhouse. “The War Came by Train” explains the effects of the ‘new’ technology of railroads on warfare.

The War Came By Train

In 1861, railroading was only 30 years old and had never been used for military purposes. But its strategic, logistical, and tactical value was immediately clear. With its main line stretching from Baltimore to Wheeling, the B&O was vital to both sides. Union troops spent a lot of time and effort protecting it from Confederate attacks.  By and large, they were successful, although a Confederate raid on the Martinsburg rail yard resulted in one of the most unusual and outstanding exploits of the war. The Rebels dragged 14 captured engines, dozens of rail cars, switches, and equipment over 30 miles to put them into service on Southern railroads.

Life-size dioramas interspersed among the boxcars and equipment introduce real people who worked on the railroad. There’s John Somer, a shop worker who moved cars and organized supplies, and John Boston, a newly-freed slave earning wages for the first time as he repaired track and built rail beds.

Life-size dioramas

On weekends, excursion trains carry passengers on a two-mile journey to Carroll Mansion. Site of the largest Union encampment, reenactors demonstrate “Billy Yank’s” routine life in camp.

Trains can tell a story of the time

The trains themselves have stories to tell. There’s “Mennon,” also known as “Old Warhorse” and, most mundanely, #57. It is only one of only 5 existing locomotives documented as in service during the Civil War. Or #25, the engine that carried Lincoln to Washington for his inauguration.

For each of the five years of the sesquicentennial, the museum will change the focus of the exhibit to reflect the progress of the War. It will culminate in April 2015 with the reenactment of the vigil over the coffin of President Lincoln as it began the long, slow, sorrowful journey by train back to Illinois.

Baltimore is planning a full calendar of events throughout the sesquicentennial (Key Word: Civil War). For more information on “Riots, Railroads, and the Coming of Mr. Lincoln,” contact The Sports Legends Museum ; for “Divided Voices,” contact the Maryland Historical Society ; for “The War Came by Train,” contact the B&O Railroad Museum

All photos in this article are the works of the author:  @Fran Severn 2011 – All Rights Reserved.