When we think about the Civil War, the Battle of Fort Sumter and Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House are usually the events that we often use to mark the beginning and end of the nation’s bloodiest war. But for many soldiers and civilians alike, the Civil War started and finished in Maryland.
The University of Maryland Special Collections and University Archives, with generous funding and support from the estate of Gordon S. McKenzie, has recently acquired documents from Baltimore’s Pratt Street Riot- the site of the Civil War’s first causalities- and Point Lookout prison camp- where many soldiers spent the last years of the war. Highlights of these new collections are currently on display in the Maryland Room in an exhibit called Bookends of the Civil War.
The Pratt Street Riot
Once the Civil War began on April 12th, 1861, federal troops began marching south from the Northern states to Washington, D.C., where they would begin the campaign to bring the rebellious South back into the Union. Just a few days later on April 19th, violence broke out as members of the Massachusetts militia made their way through Baltimore, a city known for its support for slavery and secession. By the end of the day, four Union troops and twelve Baltimore civilians lay dead- the first causalities of the war.
The “Pratt Street Riot” had immediate impacts on Maryland citizens that they recorded in letters to family members and friends, many of which can be found in the new Pratt Street Riot Collection. Shortly after the riot, news spread of a terrifying new weapon, the Winans Steam Gun, which had been built by Ross Winans in order to oppose further Union troop movements in Maryland. Although it was later revealed that this gun was not nearly as effective as conventional canons, it was still featured in newspapers across the country. The Steam Gun was captured by Union troops near Ellicott Mills (today Ellicott City), as it was being taken by some Baltimoreans to sell to Confederate forces.
Marylanders with Southern sympathies and Confederates alike reacted strongly to the Pratt Street Riot. According to the Baltimore mayor George William Brown, the riot was the event that pushed the North and South into full-scale war. Maryland native James Ryder Randal was inspired by the death of a friend in the riot to write the song “Maryland, My Maryland,” which soon became a favorite battle hymn of Confederate soldiers and later became the official Maryland state song.
In the wake of the riot, fear of further violence in the Baltimore area prompted Union General Benjamin Butler to declare martial law in the city the next month. Butler’s men constructed a fort at Federal Hill, keeping cannons constantly trained on Baltimore to discourage further secessionist activity. Federal troops remained in the city for the duration of the war.
The Pratt Street Riot Collection contains letters written by Baltimore citizens and observers who discuss the riot and life in Maryland in its aftermath. The collection also contains a handwritten copy of “A Southern Song,” that was written by a Confederate supporter and describes how many pro-Southern Marylanders felt about the Civil War in its first year.
At “a point of land where the Potomac empties into the Chesapeake Bay,” the U.S. government established a military base at Point Lookout, “where it seemed nature formed it especially for a prison camp” according to Confederate prisoner C.W. Jones. Originally constructed in 1862 as a base and military hospital, Point Lookout grew to become one of the largest Union prison camps of the war.
Point Lookout’s prison camp was built shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Originally intended to house 10,000 men, the prison camp’s population expanded after thousands of captured Confederate soldiers and sailors were transported to Point Lookout and housed in small tents. Poet and author Sidney Lanier was one such prisoner who recounted his Point Lookout experience in an 1867 novel:
Passing a row of small A tents presently, the corporal looked at his book. “Tent fifteen; think there’s four men in it. Let’s see.” He thrust his head into the low opening. “How many in here?” “‘Bout a million, countin’ lice and all!” responded a voice, whose tone blent in itself sorrow, anger, hunger, and the sardonic fearlessness of desperation.
The Point Lookout Collection contains letters, photographs, and official camp records documenting the experiences of Confederate prisoners, camp surgeons, and Union soldiers stationed at the camp. Prisoners often discussed the details of daily life in the prison camp including the food they ate, illnesses and diseases that spread amongst prisoners, and interactions with guards. Union soldiers and officers commonly wrote about official camp matters, details of nearby battles, and life in and around Point Lookout. Aside from the prison camp, Point Lookout also had a busy military hospital (that even had its own weekly newspaper), a “Contraband Camp” that housed escaped slaves, and a bustling dock that supplied Union gunboats and ships in the area.
For many of the approximately 52,000 prisoners, Point Lookout became the place where the Civil War finally ended. Although death rates in camp were actually lower than in the field, about 4,000 prisoners died due to injury, disease, or poor living conditions in the crowded and inadequately supplied prison. When the Civil War ended in 1865, surviving prisoners were released after they signed an official oath of loyalty to the United States (one can be seen in the exhibit). The last prisoner was released in July of 1865.
The Point Lookout Collection consists of dozens of letters from Union and Confederate soldiers and sailors, diaries and scrapbooks, official camp records, photographs, and over twenty issues of the “Hammond Gazette,” the newspaper published by Point Lookout’s hospital each week.
Written by Tyler Stump, former Student Assistant in Special Collections and University Archives.
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