On the Border

Secessionists clashing with Federal troops in Baltimore Secessionists clash with Federal troops in Baltimore on April 19, 1861. "The Lexington of 1861," Currier and Ives, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

As a border state, Maryland had an anomalous position in the American Civil War. Strategically placed directly between North and South, close to the Confederate and Union capitals (Richmond, Va, and Washington, D.C.), Maryland's geographic location set the state apart. Generally, the western and northern portions of the state identified with the Northern cause, while the southern and eastern counties identified with the South. Economically, as a busy shipping and manufacturing center, Maryland depended on both the North and the South. Much of Maryland's economy was still fundamentally based in agriculture, but in the years preceding the war many of Maryland's farmers had initiated a shift away from crops like tobacco, which required large numbers of slaves to maintain production. As the nature of slavery in Maryland changed, slave-owners manumitted (freed) slaves, sold them further south, or hired them out to skilled tradesman. Maryland did not entirely resemble the slaveholding states that seceded from the Union or the other border states of Missouri, Kentucky, and Delaware. From the 1810s to the beginning of the war, Maryland had the largest free black population of any slave state.

In the early days of the war the allegiance of the border states, including Maryland, remained in question. Baltimore, at the time the third most populous city in the country, was the scene of the first bloodshed of the Civil War. (Although shots had been fired at Fort Sumter in South Carolina on April 12, 1861, no loss of life occurred during the bombardment.) In Baltimore, on April 19, 1861, a mob of secessionists and Southern sympathizers clashed with the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment, en route to Washington via train. Four soldiers and twelve civilians lost their lives, assuring the nation that a terrible conflict had begun.

While Governor Thomas Hicks and the General Assembly remained undecided on the secession question, President Lincoln, keenly aware of the danger of being surrounded by Confederate states, ensured that Maryland remained in the Union. Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus in Maryland, allowing the Federal government to assume broad powers to arrest suspected secessionists and other dissidents without charges or trial. The Federal government also stationed troops in Baltimore and Annapolis, and at strategic points along transportation routes. Some Marylanders traveled to Virginia in order to fight for the Confederacy, while many others joined the Union army. In the end, Marylanders were forced to take sides, instead of retaining their valued middle ground.

Lyric sheet recounting the April 1861 Baltimore riot from a Unionist perspective. Maryland Manuscripts Collection, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries.

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