Baltimore, April 1861
Tom Flynn stepped out onto the street that April morning and could hardly believe his eyes and ears. He had ducked into a saloon earlier for a beer and some oysters and now felt pleasantly full. His thoughts had turned to a woman he knew on Fort Avenue, wondering if she might be desiring some company. On the street, there were the usual salty smells from Baltimore harbor and the sights of damp cobblestones strewn with the soggy stumps of cigars, shards of broken green and pale blue glass that sparkled like cheap jewelry in the sunlight, and a stray cat bouncing away with its prize of a fish head. But none of that was what held Flynn’s attention at the moment.
Like the sudden appearance of a spring thunderstorm, now the street was filled with shouting people, some of the men waving clubs and knives, calling out, “Death to Yankees!” Ominously, a few carried guns in one hand and whiskey bottles in the other. A whiskey-sodden woman stumbled by, screeching like a crazed harpy that Lincoln was a devil.
Flynn rocked back on his heels, taking it all in. Considering that he had been at various times a soldier, a prizefighter, and a gambler, there were not many sights that surprised him anymore, but the appearance of these rioters on the streets of Baltimore was something altogether different. He flexed his broad shoulders and waggled the fingers of his big hands. The sight of the rioters had put him on edge. Had the world gone mad?
A man reeled drunkenly into Flynn. He shouted up into Flynn’s face, spittle flying, “Get out of my way!”
Flynn might have begged his pardon, but he wasn’t in the mood. He took the man by the elbow and flung him into the crowded street like he was skipping a stone into the sea. The man tumbled and rolled helplessly, trampled under many feet. Quickly, Flynn walked away from the shouts of outrage. Mobs were dangerous things to provoke.
At first, he tried to move in the opposite direction from the crowd flowing down Pratt Street, but it was like swimming against the stream. He turned around and allowed himself to be carried along on the current.
Someone broke into song. The tune was “Maryland, My Maryland” by James Ryder Randall that had become popular as wartime tensions built. Flynn didn’t know the words, but no matter—several voices around him sang along:
The despot’s heel is on thy shore
Maryland! My Maryland!
He hadn’t paid much attention to the rumors of war, being busy with other pursuits, such as drinking and gambling, not to mention the occasional visit to one of the women who kept rooms above the waterfront saloons.
It was a lifestyle that suited him fine, but as they say, no man is an island. There had been signs and warnings that Flynn had scarce believed. It seemed impossible to him that the United States of America could be torn asunder. But all through the winter and spring, rumors had flown that blue-coated soldiers would be marching into the South to quell the rebellion.
Rebellion. There was no other word for it. South Carolina had seceded back in December, but in Flynn’s opinion, they were all mad-eyed rebels—and far away. However, Virginia had left the Union just two days ago. It was a toss of the coin as to whether or not Maryland would follow. Like it or not, the mob was proof that the war had arrived on Baltimore’s doorstep.
Soon, the source of the mob’s outrage became apparent. He watched in amazement as a neat column of blue-coated soldiers marched down the street. For the mob, the sight of federal troops was like waving a red flag at a bull.
“These Yankees are on their way to protect the capital!” someone shouted. “Don’t let them through!”
“Go home, Yankees! You’re not wanted here!”
It seemed like madness to provoke an entire city by marching troops through the streets, but Flynn knew that the Federal troops had little choice. The railroad tracks did not go all the way through the city. There was a depot where the rails from the north ended. A few blocks away, there was a depot where the tracks south began. Passengers had to walk or take a carriage across town to connect from one depot to the other. These Union volunteers from Massachusetts were marching through Baltimore to reach the depot where they could board the train carrying them to Washington City.
Confronted by the surging mob, the soldiers were forced to halt. The two opposing forces had reached an impasse.
An officer shouted, “Fix bayonets!”
Steel flashed in the spring sun as long, gleaming bayonets were affixed to the soldiers’ muskets. He had to admit that the soldiers looked frightening and intimidating. It was looking as if the troops might try to clear the streets using force.
Instead of clearing the streets, the mob responded by jeering and booing the soldiers.
The ugly crowd simmered like a pot ready to boil over.
Flynn didn’t like the looks of the situation. He edged away from the gathering storm until he stood at the fringes of the mob. However, the sheer number of people pouring toward the scene from all directions kept him from escaping. He did his best to keep out of the way.
That’s when he saw a young black mother, holding a small boy by the hand. She was very light-skinned, most likely what the locals called a mulatto, or mixed race. Like Flynn, they had been caught in the wrong place at the wrong time by this mob. But Flynn wasn’t a target for the mob—as far as they knew, he was one of them, another secessionist. On the other hand, the mulatto woman and her child were a target for the crowd’s wrath. Hadn’t this business about slavery brought the Union troops here? Slave or free, black or mulatto, it was all the same to them.
The woman was trying to skirt the mob and make her way down the street, but the mob was having none of it.
“Get those two!” someone shouted. “It’s all their fault, them and their kind!”
A ring of angry Baltimoreans surrounded the woman, cutting off any hope of escape. He took a step toward them, then stopped. This wasn’t any of his business. Maybe he ought to keep out of it. But then again, keeping out of things never had been in Flynn’s nature.
Before Flynn could make up his mind, he was distracted by a crescendo of angry shouts rising from the rioters nearest the troops. Despite their fixed bayonets, the troops had not been ordered to use them. In fact, their muskets remained shouldered rather than being leveled at the crowd.
Flynn frowned. The soldiers’ reluctance to use force had emboldened the mob.
It was unlike anything that he had seen before. More rioters were being drawn like a moth to a flame. He saw an empty whiskey bottle fly through the air and strike an officer. He stumbled and put his hand to his head, where he now had ugly gash in his forehead.
More objects began to be hurled at the troops in the front row. Flynn watched as a drunken civilian bent down and worked thick fingers around a paving stone to pull it from the street itself. With a furious shout, he hurled it toward the approaching troops. The stone struck with far more force than the bottle had. This time, a soldier went down.
Unfortunately for the troops, the mob had an endless supply of pavers. He saw more people stoop down and claw the stones free from the street, then throw them at the troops. Soon, the air was raining stones.
Ominously, the soldiers finally leveled their muskets at the mob. The rioters did not back now, but seemed to become more frenzied by the threat. More objects filled the air, hurled at the troops, along with insults.
Nearby, he heard more shouting from the circle of rioters surrounding the mulatto woman. He was surprised to see a young man—in truth, he was not much more than a boy—waving a cane sword at the crowd, forcing them back. The mother and child hovered behind them. He was succeeding in keeping the crowd away, but for how long?
Some in the crowd carried cudgels, knifes, or even guns. The lad would soon be overwhelmed.
Flynn headed in that direction. He should have known better, but he could seem to stop himself. The lad was doing the right thing, and he shouldn’t be doing to alone. Once they had overwhelmed the young man, the mob would tear the young mother and child to pieces.
Flynn shoved his way through the ring surrounding the boy, grabbing people and tossing them roughly aside. He joined the young man and stood shoulder to shoulder with him.
“What’s your plan, lad?” he asked.
“I don’t have a plan!” the young man responded. At first glance, he was even younger than Flynn had thought, with no more than peach fuzz covering his chin, in stark contrast to the bearded men looming around them.
“Then we’ll make it up as we go along.”
The only weapon that Flynn possessed was a derringer, but he kept that in his pocket for now. His presence seemed to keep the mob at bay. He was a good half a foot taller than anyone else. Despite his gambler’s suit, it was clear that Flynn had shoulders like an oak beam and arms to match.
One of the rioters made the mistake of stepping forward, shouting insults. Flynn’s fist sent him sprawling. Beside him, the lad’s thin blade darted this way and that. One of the rioters howled as the point stung him.
But the crowd was growing. The mother hugged her little boy protectively and pressed against the brick wall behind them as if hoping it would magically open and give them a route to safety.
Two men launched themselves at Flynn. His fist stopped one. He blocked a punch with his left arm and stomped on the man’s toes, making him howl. While the man was distracted, he hit him in the ear. Flynn had learned a long time ago that it didn’t pay to fight fair.
“We can’t do this forever, lad,” Flynn said.
“What about the police? Won’t they help us?”
“Are you daft? This is Baltimore and those are federal troops. It’s a safe bet that the police are the ones leading the riot.”
“What are we supposed to do?”
“We’ll have to make a run for it. When I give the word, you help the young lady and I’ll try to push our way through. If nothing else, maybe I can buy you some time to get away.”
It wasn’t much of a plan and Flynn didn’t like their chances—especially his chances. One by one, or even two on one, he felt that he could fight his way through. But if the mob rushed him, it would all be over in moments.
As it turned out, they got a lucky break as the riot against the troops turned even more violent.
Bombarded by bottles and paving stones, the battered troops finally seemed to have had enough. A musket fired, and then another. Then came a ragged volley. Smoke and screams filled the street.
Some of the soldiers, to their credit, had fired over the heads of the crowd, intending to warn them off. But not all of the soldiers had done so, aiming directly into the crowd instead. Several crumpled bodies now lay in the street.
But the mob wasn’t defenseless. Several guns fired back at the soldiers. One or two went down, but the rest were busy reloading for another volley.
The distraction created their best chance of escape.
“Now!” Flynn shouted.
The young man took the mother by the shoulder and pulled her and the boy in Flynn’s wake as he bulled through the crowd, scattering the surprised rioters.
Farther away, another volley of shots rang out. Flynn kept pushing, glancing back once to make sure that the lad and the mother were still with him.
The musket fire and return gunshots created pandemonium. He looked back and caught a glimpse of a body, blood flowing down the cobblestones. A little beyond that, he saw another dead rioter. He saw a muzzle flash and the gout of smoke from a weapon, but it was impossible to tell if the shot had come from one of the soldiers or from the rioters. More scattered shots followed. Some people ran away, while others streamed toward the fight. People shoved and pushed in all directions.
Flynn took advantage of the confusion, leaving behind the small mob that had surrounded them. His plan was to head toward the waterfront, where the mob had not yet reached.
They soon arrived at the wharves of Baltimore harbor. Nobody was chasing them—for now. The mob was focused on battling the Federal troops.
He wasn’t sure how much longer the wharves would remain a refuge. Flynn had been correct that it was actually the Baltimore police and even some city officials leading the mob, outraged by the interference of Federal soldiers. The entire city remained a powder keg. You were either with the mob, or against them. Flynn worried that he might be recognized later for having interfered to help the mother and the young man. He tended to stand out in a crowd. He might have gotten off the street, but the room that he’d taken was back in the direction of Pratt Street. He’d never make it.
They heard more gunfire in the distance. The shouting came closer.
“This way,” said a black dockworker, who seemed to have some experience in knowing when someone was running from trouble. He nodded at the young mother with might have been recognition, or simply acknowledgment of her predicament. Several more men stood with him, armed with ax handles and hammers. Many of the men were skilled boatbuilders responsible for Baltimore’s fleet of skipjacks and majestic clipper ships. “You’ll be safe here. If the mob comes this way, we’ve got boats to get away.”
Several of the men defending the wharves glared at Flynn and the young man, starting toward them threateningly. The young man was empty-handed, having lost his sword cane in the earlier scuffle.
“Leave them alone!” cried the mother. “They helped me.”
The men eyed them with suspicion, but didn’t attack. Still, Flynn felt like he was caught between a rock and a hard place.
The mention of boats gave Flynn an idea. He’d had enough of Baltimore and its mobs. Looking around, he spotted a steamer at the dock, getting ready to make way. Smoke poured from the stacks as it built up steam. Crewmen hurried to free the lines securing the vessel to the pier. Evidently, the sound of the rioting had encouraged the captain that it was time to set sail before the chaos reached the waterfront.
Flynn ran up the gangplank just in time, followed by the young man. He had almost forgotten about him until he heard him pounding up the gangplank after him.
“I don’t have much money,” the young man said, panting, once they were safely aboard the ship.
“I’ll pay the fare,” Flynn said. “It’s the least I can do. You saved that young woman’s life. A favor deserves a favor.”
“Where are we going?”
Flynn laughed. “I don’t care if we’re sailing to Hades, lad, as long as it’s away from here!”