“A Few Appropriate Remarks…”

151 years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln delivered quite possibly the greatest speech in American history at the dedication ceremony for the Soldier’s National Cemetery at Gettysburg. He had been asked only to provide “a few appropriate remarks” during the ceremony, delivering this masterpiece in the process:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

The Baltimore Riot

The Baltimore Riot. Engraving from Wikipedia.
The Baltimore Riot. Engraving from Wikipedia.

Today marks the 153rd anniversary of the Baltimore Riot. The 6th Massachusetts Infantry, trying to make its way through town to Camden Station, on the way to Washington D.C., ended up firing into an angry mob in the streets of Baltimore.

The 14 people left dead that day comprised the first blood shed in the Civil War.

I posted about this event in more detail a few months ago as part of a series of posts about local Civil War history.

The Conspirators

Earlier today, I posted about the burials in Loudon Park Cemetery with connections to the Lincoln Assassination, but these are not the only graves in Baltimore that have a connection to that tragic event in our nation’s history.

There were ten people involved in the conspiracy to kill Lincoln and other government officials in April of 1865. Fully half of these (bolded) are buried in Baltimore cemeteries:

  • John Wilkes Booth (Greenmount)
  • Lewis Powell
  • David E. Herold
  • Michael O’Laughlen (Greenmount)
  • Mary E. Surratt
  • John Surratt (New Cathedral)
  • Edman Spangler
  • Samuel Arnold (Greenmount)
  • George A. Atzerodt (Old Saint Paul’s)
  • Dr. Samuel A. Mudd

Eventually, I’m going to get around to covering each of these on the blog – maybe around the anniversary of the trial – I just wanted to make a note about those local Baltimore connections while the topic is fresh.

Also, if you haven’t seen it – The Conspirator is a recent movie that does a pretty good job of telling the story of the trial. It’s not available to stream at this point, but Netflix has it as a DVD (and so does Amazon).

The Lincoln Assassination

The Assassination of President Lincoln.
The Assassination of President Lincoln.

149 years ago tonight, John Wilkes Booth famously shot Abraham Lincoln during a performance of the play Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. While the Civil War had more-or-less ended a few days before with the surrender of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, the bloodshed and bad feelings clearly had not.

John T. Ford
John T. Ford

There are two burials in Loudon Park Cemetery that have a tangible connection to this tragic event in U.S. history. The first is John T. Ford – the owner and manager of the aptly-named Ford’s Theatre. A friend of John Wilkes Booth, Ford admitted to mentioning in one of their conversations that Lincoln would be attending the play, and he was thus jailed as a suspected member of the famous conspiracy. After more than a month in prison, Ford was finally cleared of wrong-doing and went on with his life, albeit embittered by the experience of being falsely accused of a capital crime. He continued to manage many theatres in the region until his death in 1894.

His grave is located almost in the middle of the cemetery, in Section XX:

Location of John T. Ford's gravesite.
Location of John T. Ford’s gravesite. Map by Apple Maps.
John T. Ford's Gravesite
John T. Ford’s Gravesite. Photo by the author.
Samuel J. Seymour
Samuel J. Seymour

Another Loudon Park Cemetery connection to that night is Samuel J. Seymour. As a 5 year-old boy, he attended the April 14, 1865 performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre with a family friend and was seated directly across from the Presidential box. While he didn’t remember seeing the gunshot, he did see Booth leap from the balcony to the stage, and his immediate reaction was that the commotion in the theatre was due to the man who fell. When Mr. Seymour passed away in 1956, he was the last surviving witness of the assassination.

He made an appearance on the television game show I’ve Got a Secret a few weeks before his death where his story was told. A video from that appearance has made its way onto YouTube.

Both Wikipedia AND FindAGrave have his gravesite location as being in Loudon Park National Cemetery, but it is in fact located in the private Loudon Park Cemetery. Specifically, it’s in the newer part of that cemetery, in the Bethel Section (and as far as I can tell, his grave is unmarked):

Location of Samuel J. Seymour's gravesite
Probable Location of Samuel J. Seymour’s gravesite. Map by Apple Maps.

Next time, we’ll get to some of the Confederate burials in Loudon Park that are directly related to the Battle of Gettysburg.

Happy Birthday, Frederick Douglass!

Today marks the adopted birthday of one of my heroes, Frederick Douglass.

Portrait of Frederick Douglass
Portrait of Frederick Douglass

Since he was born as a slave, he had no way of knowing when his birthday fell exactly, but he thought Valentine’s Day was as good a day as any to pick for the celebration. We also don’t know for certain what year he was born, but it was probably around 1818. His birth site is pretty clear from his own writings (though the Maryland State Roads Commission doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo).

Whatever the truth is, we can still take a day each year to remember what a great man he was. Happy 196th, Mr. Douglass!

The Great Baltimore Fire

I was recently reminded that 110 years ago today, a horrific fire swept through downtown Baltimore near the inner harbor. It was the third-worst fire in American history, behind the 1871 Chicago fire, and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake/fire.

It started in the basement of the Hurst Building. Though we don’t know for sure, it may have been caused by a dropped cigar or cigarette left smoldering overnight among stacks of cotton fabric that were in storage there.

The corner of Hopkins Pl. and Lombard St. The fire started here.
The corner of Hopkins Pl. and modern-day Lombard St. The fire started here.

By the time firefighters arrived just before 11am, the blaze was already out-of-control. The building partially exploded, sending flaming debris flying onto adjacent structures. Strong winds from the southwest gusting up to 30 mph also helped spread the destruction. Within an hour, firefighters recognized the severity of the situation, and a distress call was put out for help from other fire departments, and they came from as far away as New York.

There was an early attempt to create a fire-break by blowing up the surrounding buildings with dynamite. The mayor endorsed this plan with the thought that it would save more property than it would destroy, but many of the buildings were too strong to collapse, and the additional explosions only served to create more fires.

It wasn’t until the fire reached the Jones Falls, and almost 1,700 firefighters had labored for nearly 2 days, that the fire was finally brought under control. In all, almost 1,500 buildings spread over 140 acres of the city’s central business district were completely destroyed. Estimated damages totaled perhaps as high as $175 million (roughly $4.4 billion in today’s dollars), with only about $32 million of that loss insured. As many as 35,000 people were put out of work by the disaster.

This 1904 map shows the area of the city that burned for 2 days. 140 acres in all.
This 1904 map shows the area of the city that burned for 2 days. 140 acres in all.

Despite all the destruction of property, the death toll was almost non-existent. Many sources report that there were no deaths as a result of the fire, but there was at least one badly burned body discovered in the harbor in the days following the event. Several first responders also suffered injuries that would eventually lead to their death, but all-in-all, the damage was much greater in economic terms than in human ones.

Amazingly, the city was able to (literally) rise from the ashes very quickly. Within 2 years, almost the entire area had been rebuilt using new city-wide fire codes, and more fire-resistant materials. Even in the wake of tragedy, Baltimore got to have a fresh start.

I first wrote about this local disaster a few months ago when I discovered a book about the fire among my grandfather’s things. I still have a PDF scan of the book available for people who want to see more photos of the destruction.

Update: A friend points out in the comments that there is a great animated map of the fire that gives more detail of how it spread. It’s definitely worth checking out. Thanks, Laura!

Update 2: My mother-in-law pointed out this wonderful collection of photos posted by the Baltimore Sun on the anniversary. I’d never seen a lot of these. Thanks, Karen!

September 17

Today is a big day in American history.

226 years ago, the US Constitution was signed. Its brilliance has yet to be matched by any other political document. While it certainly wasn’t perfect, it has the ability to be made better as time goes on.

151 years ago, the bloodiest single day in American history – the Battle of Antietam – took place. Despite their overwhelming numerical advantage, the Union Army of the Potomac under Maj. Gen. George McClellan fought the Confederates under Gen. Robert E. Lee to a stalemate, claiming around 24,000 casualties in the process. While it was a Union victory strategically (as it ended Lee’s invasion of the north), it didn’t make anyone feel good.

Sadly though, today isn’t marked on many people’s calendars. For whatever reason, these two events don’t reach even the level of Flag Day in the American schedule. I’m not calling for a national holiday or anything – I mean, do we really need another Congressionally-mandated 3-day weekend that everyone uses to go to the beach?

So take a few minutes today and learn about these events. If you’re inclined, plan a trip to Antietam. Read the Constitution (or better yet, the Federalist). Let’s bring some meaning to this day.

The Battle of North Point

Just about now, 199 years ago, a land-based British invasion force was met by Maryland militia a few miles east of Baltimore in what would become the Battle of North Point.

As part of their plan to take Baltimore, several thousand (different sources say anywhere from 4,000-7,000) British troops landed at North Point and began a march toward the city. They were met by militia under the command of Major General Samuel Smith and held for a few hours. Eventually, the Americans were forced to fall back into the defenses of the city, but not before mortally wounding the British commander, Maj. Gen. Robert Ross.

The momentum was beginning to leave the combined British invasion force. The actions to come at Fort McHenry would prove to be the deciding factor.

The Battle of Lake Erie

Today is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie.

The Americans under Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry defeated the British squadron on Lake Erie, opening the way for a land invasion of Canada. It was the first time in history that an entire British Naval squadron surrendered.

The battle is famous for the flag that Perry flew aboard his flagships, the USS Lawrence (and later the USS Niagara) – a blue banner with the motto of his friend Capt. Lawrence who had been killed earlier – “DONT GIVE UP THE SHIP“.