In 1861, the Sixth Massachusetts Volunteer Militia was formally organized. With war approaching, men who worked in the textile cities of Lowell and Lawrence joined this new infantry regiment. They were issued uniforms and rifles; they learned to drill. They waited for the call. It came on April 15th, three days after the attack on Fort Sumter. They were needed to defend Washington, D.C. The mood when they left Boston was almost festive. When they arrived in the border state of Maryland three days later, everything changed. An angry mob awaited them. In the riot that followed, 16 people lost their lives. Four were soldiers from Massachusetts. These men were the first combat fatalities of the Civil War.
In early January 1861, as civil war approached, the men of Massachusetts began to form volunteer militia units. Many workers in the textile cities of Lowell and Lawrence were among the first to join a new infantry regiment, the Sixth Massachusetts Volunteer Militia, when it was formally organized on January 21, 1861.
All through the winter and early spring, the men met regularly to drill. In March, they were issued uniforms and Springfield rifles and told to be ready to assemble at any time. When Fort Sumter was attacked on April 12th, the men of the Massachusetts Sixth knew their days of drilling were over.
Three days later, President Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 volunteers to serve for three months. They were ordered to Washington, D.C. to protect the capital and lead the effort to quash the "rebellion."
Years later the men from Lawrence and Lowell remembered their hurried visits to say good-bye to loved ones and gather supplies before meeting their regiment in Boston. One man from Lowell recalled, "I was working in the machine shop at the time. I got my notice at the armory that we were going in the morning. I hired a horse and buggy at a livery stable and drove to Pelham, N.H. where I bade farewell to my sister. I then drove to Tingsboro, as I wanted to see my brother who came with me to Lowell. The mill bells were ringing as we reached Merrimack St."
The Sixth Massachusetts gathered with other regiments in Boston on April 16th. The Lowell Daily Courier published one soldier's letter home: "We have been quartered since our arrival in this city at Faneuil Hall and the old cradle of liberty rocked to its foundation from the shouting patriotism of the gallant sixth. During all the heavy rain the streets, windows, and house tops have been filled with enthusiastic spectators, who loudly cheered our regiment. The city is completely filled with enthusiasm; gray-haired old men, young boys, old women and young, are alike wild with patriotism."
Not everyone was celebrating. A corporal from Lowell was more subdued. He wrote to his wife at home, "My heart is full for you, and I hope we may meet again. I shall believe that we shall. You must hope for the best and be as cheerful as you can. But I know your feelings and can judge what they will be when you get this."
The Sixth Massachusetts Volunteers boarded trains the next day. One soldier reported, "Cheers upon cheers rent the air as we left Boston; at every station we passed anxious multitudes were waiting to cheer us on our way." In Springfield, Hartford, New York, Trenton, and Philadelphia, bells, fireworks, bonfires, bands, booming cannon, and thousands of supporters greeted the Massachusetts men as their train passed through.
The mood changed dramatically when the train arrived in Baltimore on the morning of April 19th. Although the state had not seceded from the Union, many Baltimoreans were sympathetic to the Confederate cause and objected strenuously to the presence of northern soldiers.
Steam engines were not allowed to operate in the city limits, so the regiment crossed the city in train cars drawn by horses. Most of the men made it before a growing mob threw sand and ship anchors onto the tracks. At that point, the soldiers had no choice but to disembark and begin marching.
The commanding officer ordered the men to load their weapons but not to use them unless fired upon. An anxious corporal sent a note to a friend, "We shall have trouble to-day and I shall not get out of it alive. Promise me if I fall that my body shall be sent home."
Four companies of men from Lowell and Lawrence were separated by the crowd from the rest of the regiment. As they attempted to make their way through the city, angry citizens began to shout insults. As one soldier later told a reporter, we "were immediately assailed with stones, clubs and missiles, which we bore according to orders. Orders came for double quick march, but the streets had been torn up by the mob and piles of stones and every other obstacle had been laid in the streets to impede our progress. Pistols began to be discharged at us, shots and missiles were fired from windows and house tops. The crowd followed us to the depot, keeping up an irregular shooting, even after we entered the [railroad] cars."
Once the surviving members of the Sixth made it to safety, the mob returned to the station on the northern edge of the city. Nearly 1,000 more Pennsylvania and Massachusetts volunteers were waiting there. When the mob attacked, the soldiers moved into the streets. Pro-Union Baltimoreans joined the fight, and some offered to shelter the northern men. In the confusion, a number of soldiers gave up on getting to Washington and walked all the way back to Pennsylvania.
Twelve civilians lost their lives at what was later referred to as the Baltimore Riot.Four members of the Massachusetts Sixth, all from Lowell or Lawrence, were killed, including the apprehensive corporal.
When the train finally arrived in Washington, two young women from Massachusetts who had been working in the nation's capital came to the station to nurse the injured — Clara Barton and her sister Sally Vassal. They took many of the wounded men to their home. Thus began the legendary nursing career of Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross.
Back in Massachusetts, newspapers printed soldiers' accounts of the riot. "At Baltimore we heard no cheers, saw no waving of handkerchiefs," one man wrote, " and not a smile greeted us. They gave out word that we could not pass through the city, that we should sacrifice our lives if we attempted it. But we received the order 'Forward,' and we did forward, in silence, carrying our flag unfurled. We were fired upon from all parts of the street. I heard the bullets whistle about my ears smartly. At last a stone took me in the head and knocked me down. But I got up immediately and discharged my musket at the rebels, and then kept on the march to the depot. I am here in the hospital with the rest of the wounded. My courage is still good."
In 1865, the City of Lowell erected a monument to the three local men who lost their lives in Baltimore that day.