When White People Rioted in Baltimore

The despot’s heel is on thy shore,
His torch is at thy temple door,
Avenge the patriotic gore
That flecked the streets of Baltimore,
And be the battle queen of yore,
Maryland! My Maryland!

This is the opening stanza of “Maryland, My Maryland”, the official state song. You can view  the complete lyrics here. The song refers to an 1861 riot in Baltimore when Union troops traveling through the city to defend Washington DC from a possible Confederate attack were assaulted by a pro-slavery mob. The “despot” referred to was President Lincoln.

This song celebrating a riot by white racists goes on for 8 more stanzas exhorting Maryland to secede from the Union. The words were written by James Ryder Randall and set to the tune of “Oh Tannebaum” by two sisters, Hetty and Jennie Cary. The song became a hit throughout the Confederacy and the two sisters joined the high society of the Confederate aristocracy.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee had his army play the song during the 1862 invasion of Maryland which led to the Battle of Antietam and the single bloodiest day in US history. The song had such an emotional impact on the Confederacy that several pro-Union versions were penned in the North, though none achieved the popularity of the original.

Maryland’s civil war within the Civil War

Maryland, one of the first slave plantation states, was very divided on the issue of secession. South of the Mason-Dixon line but north of the emerging Confederacy, it was also divided geographically with the eastern and southern part of the state the most pro-confederate while the western region was mostly pro-union. The southern and eastern Maryland regions was where the slave plantations were concentrated.

Baltimore in 1861 was a conflicted city, home to 25,000 free African Americans and a number of white abolitionists and unionists, but Lincoln had gotten very few Baltimore votes, indicating that they were a minority of the population.

The first rioting began on April 18, a week after the surrender of Ft. Sumter and one day after the Virginia legislature voted to secede from the Union. A mob hurled bricks and stones at Union volunteers and regular army troops headed for Washington DC. Injuries included  an elderly Black orderly named Nicholas Biddle who was hit on the head by a brick. He had been a particular target of the mob’s fury.

The violence escalated on April 19.  The 6th Massachusetts Militia, en route to Washington DC by train received word that their passage through Baltimore was likely to be “resisted.” Their commander, Colonel Edward F. Jones, gave the following order as the troop train approached Baltimore:

“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 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.”

During the slow process of transferring the train cars to another engine, the rail cars came under attack with bricks and gunfire from the mob while other rioters blocked the passage of the rail cars with improvised barricades. Troops returned fire before disembarking to begin what became a bloody march down the streets of the city.

Screaming taunts like “Jeff Davis” and “Kill the white niggers”, the rioters continued attacking the soldiers with paving stones and pistols while beating some of them senseless. They also smashed store windows along the way and looted gun shops. Snipers fired at the soldiers from rooftops.

Finally, Baltimore Mayor George W. Brown ordered police to clear the barricades that were blocking the Pratt Street bridge where the troops were heading.

It was only when the Baltimore police formed a line behind the marching soldiers and threatened to open fire on the mob that the soldiers were able to reach the comparative safety of the Camden Station. Later that day a mob destroyed the offices of German-language Baltimore Wecker newspaper and threatened the lives of both editor and publisher. The Baltimore Wecker eventually resumed publishing as a staunch pro-Union newspaper.

The violence resulted in 4 deaths among the solders and 12 among the rioters. Among the wounded were 36 soldiers and an unknown number of civilians. Sumner Henry Needham was the first soldier to be fatally wounded in the riot.

Sumner H. Needham. W/Brian Swartz's CivilWarCol0510Cpl. Sumner Needham was struck in the head by a thrown brick.
He died eight days later.

In May 1861 martial law was declared in the city of Baltimore and later most of the city leaders as well as 27 Maryland legislators were arrested as Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus to forestall any further attempts at Maryland secession.

Baltimore Mayor George Brown was among those imprisoned. Brown later maintained that the Baltimore riot, even more than the firing on Ft. Sumter, put the nation into a state of total war:

“…because then was shed the first blood in a conflict between the North and the South; then a step was taken which made compromise or retreat almost impossible; then passions on both sides were aroused which could not be controlled.”

“Maryland, My Maryland” lived on even after the Civil War was over.

Despite its celebration of assault, murder, property destruction, and looting, all in defense of white supremacy and slavery, the song did not die. The Maryland legislature made it the official state song in 1939 and it remains so today.

But not without opposition voices raised against it.

In 1943 Jack Levin wrote an OpEd in which he described it as a “hateful state song”, whose message was “insulting to the Maryland Free State.” In 1970 Maryland’s Poet Laureate Vincent Burns said the song was “in extremely poor taste,” offering his own revision which you may read here. And in 2009 students at a Glen Burnie MD grade school wrote to their state representative to have the song replaced with one more appropriate. All of these and many other efforts over the years have failed.

I learned the first two stanzas to “Maryland My Maryland” in my then segregated Glenmont MD grade school. My teachers did not tell us it celebrated a racist mob attack on Union soldiers.

Ironically I have a clear memory of playing Union vrs. Confederate with other little boys during recess. We would station ourselves in gullies  on the far reaches of the school grounds and bombard one another dirt balls. I’m proud to say I always fought on the Union side.  I have no idea where our playground monitors were during our Civil War re-enactments

Like the Confederate flag, which still enjoys some popularity in the Old Line State, “Maryland, My Maryland” is a cultural symbol for the violence necessary to maintain institutional racism, an integral part of American capitalism. Maryland’s ugly racial history which dates back to the 17th century, really does weigh like a nightmare on the minds of the living.

Some people will equate the violence of the 2015 Baltimore Uprising with the violence of the 1861 Baltimore riot. But the 2015 Uprising was violence against oppression. The 1861 riot was violence on behalf of oppression. They are not the same thing.

Protesters clash with police near Mondawmin Mall after
Freddie Gray’s funeral in Baltimore April 27, 2015.

How far removed is the brutality of the old slave patrollers from the brutality of today’s Baltimore police? Both are examples direct racist violence, up-close and personal.

How far removed are the old business interests who profited off of slavery from today’s business interests who profit off of institutional racism? Both are examples of economic violence, indirect and often cloaked in a pseudo-respectability.

Although the Confederate flag is not officially recognized in Maryland, we have seen how difficult it has been to remove its official status in other states.Three generations of opposition have so far not removed the song “Maryland, My Maryland” from official recognition and there is no evidence that will happen anytime soon.

The difficulty in downgrading clearly racist cultural symbols illustrates how deeply entrenched institutional racism really is. And when blatantly racist cultural symbols are downgraded in some way, you can be sure PR firms will be hired to replace them with ones more palatable.

Although I think Marylanders should continue the struggle to bury the song, we should also fight bad music with great music. The movement against racism has always produced inspiring music. Now we need more because overcoming 21st century institutional racism is going to require a social movement even more powerful than the one which overthrew legal segregation in the 1960’s.

So rap artists, songwriters and spoken word poets of Baltimore, write and share songs that extol the courage of those who in 2015  rose up by the thousands against today’s institutional racism, enforced poverty and police brutality.

For as Plato once wrote over 2300 years ago,” When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake.”

Sources consulted

Maryland! My Maryland! from the State Historical Archives

Baltimore Riot of 1861 by Michael G. Williams

Baltimore riot of 1861 in Wikipedia

“Maryland, My Maryland”: Women, War, and Song from Women on the Border

The Baltimore Riot by J. L.  Harrison

Maryland, My Maryland in Wikipedia

Maryland! My Maryland! by John Priest

May 12, 2015 by
Filed under: Media, Race and gender, Society and Economy 


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