1861: “Your Officers Will Order You To Fire”

Gazette665 Blog Series 1861: In Their WordsApril 22, 1861, Washington D.C.

…After leaving Philadelphia I received intimation that our passage through the city of Baltimore would be resisted. I caused ammunition to be distribution and arms loaded, and went personally through the cars, and issued the following order, viz:

The regiment will march through Baltimore in column of sections, arms at will. You will undoubtedly be insulted, abused, and, perhaps, assaulted, to which you must pay no attention whatever, but march with your faces square to the front, and pay no attention to the mob, even if they throw stones, bricks, or other missiles; but if you are fired upon and any one of you is hit, your officers will order you to fire. Do not fire into any promiscuous crowds, but select any man whom you may see aiming at you, and be sure you drop him.

Reaching Baltimore, horses were attached the instant that the locomotive was detached, and the cars were driven at a rapid pace across the city. After the cars containing seven companies had reached the Washington depot the track behind them was barricaded, and the cars containing the band and the following companies [Companies C, D, I, L]…were vacated, and they proceeded but a short distance before they were furiously attacked by a shower of missiles, which came faster as they advanced. They increased their steps to double-quick, which seemed to infuriate the mob, as it evidently impressed the mob with the idea that the soldiers dared not fire or had no ammunition, and pistol-shots were numerously fired into the ranks, and one soldier fell dead. The order “Fire” was given, and it was executed. In consequence, several of the mob fell, and the soldiers again advanced hastily. The mayor of Baltimore placed himself at the head of the column beside Captain Follansbee, and proceeded with them a short distance, assuring him that he would protect them, and begging him to let the men fire; but the mayor’s patience was soon exhausted, and he seized a musket from the hands of one of the men and killed a man therewith, and a policeman, who was in advance of the column, also shot a man with a revolver…

Baltimore_Riot_1861

As the men went into the cars I caused the blinds to the cars to be closed, and took every precaution to prevent any shadow of offense to the people of Baltimore; but still the stones flew thick and fast into the train, and it was with the utmost difficulty that I could prevent the troops from leaving the cars and revenging the death of their comrades.

Colonel Edward F. Jones, 6th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, report written on April 22, 1861.

The arrest of Marshall Kane - enforcement of martial law in Baltimore (LOC)

The arrest of Marshall Kane – enforcement of martial law in Baltimore (LOC)

Baltimore

Baltimore was a hot-bed of Southern sympathy…and it was the major railroad hub into the Washington D.C. Weeks earlier, Abraham Lincoln had snuck through the city at night to avoid an assassination plot on his journey to the capital. Throughout the war years, the entire state of Maryland teetered between staying in the Union or joining the Confederacy. Ultimately, the state stayed, but martial law and impingement of Constitutional rights bothered the citizens.

In 1861, some Baltimore citizens agitated for secession and bitter opposed the forming the pro-Union armies. The incident described by Colonel Jones took place on April 19, 1861. The police and the city mayor supported the troops. Four soldiers died and about thirty-six were wounded. Approximately twelve civilians were killed, and many were wounded.

In the aftermath, civilians were arrested and brought to trial for their role in the riot. The city officials begged Lincoln not to send more Union troops through Baltimore, but he had little choice; the city was the rail route. Eventually, martial law was set up in the city, and the trains brought troops to the city, they marched through, and boarded other trains to continue their journeys.

Unidentified Soldiers of the 6th Massachusetts Infantry (LOC)

Unidentified Soldiers of the 6th Massachusetts Infantry (LOC)

The 6th Massachusetts

The regiment of militia was organized (not mustered into U.S. service) in January 1861. They spent weeks drilling and were provided with uniforms and rifles in March. One day after Lincoln’s call for troops on April 15th, the regiment assembled in Boston to begin their journey to Washington.

The unit had only a three month commitment of service and was relieved of duty on July 29, then mustered out on August 2, 1861.

Historical Musings

The Baltimore Riot of 1861 was proclaimed to be the first time American blood was shed in the Civil War. While at first glance, it’s civilians against soldiers…perhaps we could still say it was civilians against civilians. After-all, the 6th Massachusetts was militia: citizen soldiers. They were not professional soldiers (very few Civil War soldiers were).

Another thought… The Baltimore Riot triggers the martial law and encroachment upon Constitutional rights for the citizens of Maryland. Certainly the civilians involved in the riot deserved judgment and some level of punishment for their actions. However, they managed to bring the Federal government against other civilians- possibly innocent – too. How much power should the Federal government take during a national crisis? Is it permissible to encroach on Constitutional rights for the perceived safety of the country?These are questions we are still debating in the historical and modern sense.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Do you think Colonel Jones adequately prepared and instructed his men for what they faced?

Baltimore 1861

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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2 Responses to 1861: “Your Officers Will Order You To Fire”

  1. By Fred Melchiorre
    Teacher of US History, 1985 to 2011

    I do believe Colonel Edward Jones instructed and prepared his soldiers for the hostile conditions he predicted in his orders to the regiment after demarcation from the train cars in Baltimore. “Insulted, abused, and, perhaps, assaulted,” were the words used by the colonel to psychologically prepare his officers and infantry of the southern, sympathizing citizens of Baltimore.

    However, Colonel Jones could have coordinated with the employees of the railroad to inform the Baltimore Police of the timing for the arrival of the Philadelphia & Baltimore Railroad train carrying the regiment on over thirty cars. “At every train station along the approximately 100 mile route to Baltimore, railroad officials communicated by telegraph with their counterparts in Baltimore and were assured that things were quiet in the city. They did not communicate their progress or estimated arrival time to city officials or police until they were a half hour outside the city, a fact which Baltimore Mayor George W. Brown would later call a blunder. The police, the mayor felt, could have quelled the mob before it grew out of control, thereby diminishing the bloodshed. It might be inferred that the railroad officials trusted their own employees more than the Baltimore police to keep secret the estimated arrival of the train.” [1] [2]

    Colonel Jones was more concerned about the prospect of a sabotaged track, which could incur higher casualties to the 6th Massachusetts than a mob of rowdy civilians. To his credit, the colonel and General P.S. Davis conversed with the president of the railroad, Samuel Morse Felton pertaining to the possible sabotage. Felton ordered a pilot engine to precede the train carrying the 6th Massachusetts in order to sweep the tracks of planted bombs. [3]

    In his oversight in communicating with the rail company, Colonel Jones had no knowledge of the use of horses to pull the rail cars across the city from the Baltimore Station to the Washington Depot. [4] If Jones would have known about this railroad practice in Baltimore, he could have had his regiment exit the train quickly, and then proceeded to march toward the Washington Depot about 1.2 miles away. p. 47. “.the thirty-year-old ordinance forbidding the operation of steam engines in The city obliged the Union troops on both the eighteenth and nineteenth to transfer from their terminating depots on their way to Camden Station, where trains to Washington awaited them. The forced transfer made the soldiers of the Sixth Massachusetts vulnerable as, unlike the Pennsylvanians a day earlier, they had to stop and wait while horsecars hitched up and then rolled over Pratt Street’s rails to Camden Station.”[5] Obviously, the uncoupling of the rail cars and the hitching of teams of horses to transport the soldiers across a rebellious city, critically slowed the overall transportation of the regiment. It also placed four companies of the regiment in even more direct assault by the the mobs in the streets. The rail company also is to blame for this oversight in not passing critical information on to the colonel or his superiors for the protection of the soldiers.

    Works Cited

    [1] John Wesley Hanson, Historical Sketch of the Old Sixth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers, During Its Three Campaigns in 1861, 1862, 1863, and 1864, (1866), pp. 15-18

    [2] Browne, Patrick TJ. “6th Massachusetts and the Baltimore Riot.” Historical Digression. Patrick TJ Browne, 05 Mar. 2015. Web. 07 June 2016.

    [3] Hanson, p. 22

    [4] Hanson p. 24

    [5] Harry Ezratty, Baltimore in the Civil War: The Pratt Street Riot and a City Occupied, Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2010. P. 47

    • Thanks for sharing these extra details, Fred. Yes, it does seem there might have been some additional precautions that would’ve been logical “safety nets” for the situation, but communication wasn’t what it is today. Given the setting and the entire situation (including what Jones did and didn’t know), I agree that he prepared his men the best he could.

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