Protecting the Capitol: 1861 & 2021

April 19, 1861 – Soldiers from Lowell fighting the Baltimore mob

Protecting the Capitol: 1861 & 2021

On April 19, 1861, about 200 soldiers from Lowell were attacked in Baltimore while en route to Washington, D.C., to protect the U.S. government from those who sought to overthrow it. The Lowell men were part of the Sixth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment that had rapidly mobilized and moved out in response to President Abraham Lincoln’s desperate call for militia troops – the National Guard of the 19th century – to hurry to Washington to help safeguard the government. The members of the mob in Baltimore that attacked the troops were sympathetic to those in the south who  had revolted against the established government and sought to prevent the northern troops from getting to Washington to assist in its defense.

As a contingent of the soldiers marched down Baltimore’s Pratt Street in transit from the city’s northern train station to its southern one, the mob attacked the troops with sticks, stones, bricks, and then guns, killing four of the soldiers and injuring several dozen more. The soldiers fired back at their attackers, killing twelve of them.

The events in Baltimore of that April 19 are memorialized in paintings, woodcuts, etchings and drawings but there are no photographs. Had there been, they would have looked much like the scenes we witnessed on Wednesday, January 6, 2021, when a violent mob attacked, overwhelmed, and injured members of the Capitol police force in an attempt to overthrow the government of the United States.

The similarities between the two deadly events are many: in both cases, a riotous mob sought to reverse the outcome of an election. In both cases, racism was the foundation of the grievances of the mob. In both cases, some government officials and some members of the police and military provided support and encouragement to the mob. In both cases, the mob was incited by demagogues who sought the overthrow of the duly elected government. And when the surviving members of the Sixth Mass finally made it to Washington, DC, they were quartered in the US Capitol, just as thousands of National Guard troops are today.

There were differences: The mob of 1861 was clad in wool and cotton while the mob of 2021 wore kevlar and ripstop nylon. The mob of 1861 lacked the audacity to directly attack the U.S. Capitol (although they had the capability to attack and seize it) while the mob of 2021 violently assaulted the seat of our democracy and our representatives within it.

But the biggest difference was that in 1861, the president of the United States stood firmly against the mob, called them out for their traitorous behavior, and mobilized the nation to put down the insurrection even though that effort took four years and cost 725,000 lives. In 1861, Abraham Lincoln persevered and succeeded in defeating the mob, safeguarding the country, and reinventing it by forcing the abolition of slavery.

In 2021, the president of the United States helped organize, incite, lead and assist the mob. The election of 2021 was not stolen. There was no widespread voter fraud that changed the result. More than 60 court cases were brought to challenge the results and all were dismissed because there was no evidence. Yet the president of 2021 persisted with this Big Lie, repeating it over and over again until many came to believe it. “Everyone is saying it so it must be true” is the objective of the Big Lie. Next, he invited his supporters to come to Washington on January 6, saying, “It will be wild.” Then on January 6, he gave a speech to those supporters that was riddled with violent imagery and calls to fight harder and to show strength. Even before the president finished speaking, the mob commenced its short march to the Capitol and immediately assaulted the police guarding the building and forced their way inside.

American law has a concept called “proximate cause” which means that an action is considered a cause of harm if it was reasonably foreseeable that harm would result from the action. A legal textbook could use the preceding paragraph as a classic example of this concept: the president and his actions were the proximate cause of the attack on the Capitol.

Even more insidious yet rarely acknowledged was the president’s role in suppressing the government’s response to the attack on the Capitol. Besides the Capitol Police and the D.C. Metro Police, every agency of the government that could lend support beforehand and reinforcements during the attack were under the command of the president as commander in chief. How many agency leaders, intimidated by the president, undercut the estimate of the threat and the preparations for it? Hardening the defenses of the Capitol in the face of a rally of the president’s supporters, led by the president himself would have been “bad optics” and would have incurred his ire. These government officials were more afraid of him than they were of the mob that sought the violent overthrow of the government. Once the attack began, the same agency leaders were slow to respond, again because they were intimidated by this president. If this seems farfetched, ask yourself, who stood to gain the most by disrupting the counting of the electoral college votes if not the man in power who was destined to lose power as a result of that vote?

A final difference between 1861 and 2021: Back then, the conflict resulted in a deadly conventional war between the United States and the 5 million (non-enslaved) residents that revolted against it. That same kind of war will not occur now but that is because the conflict in 2021 will more closely resemble an insurgency with a violent and deadly minority using terrorism to try to seize control of the government from the majority.

It’s getting crazier and there is no end in sight.

12 Responses to Protecting the Capitol: 1861 & 2021

  1. Frank Wagner says:

    This incredible article states clearly what the problem was. There was no ‘security failure’ no ‘failure of the imagination. The supposed commander in chief, instead of protecting the citizens, the congress and the constitution, was opening and willing leading a rebellion against them all. We were attacked from the top. Great article.

  2. Michaelene O’Neill McCann says:

    Excellent article. The legal concept of “ proximate cause” is important to note for those who do not hold the president responsible for this attack.

  3. Thomas Malone says:

    Thank you for sharing this well-written article, Richard! Have always believed we can often learn from history. The comparisons you draw between 1861 and 2021 make today’s reality that we are facing even more alarming. Sadly white supremacy that was prevalent before, during and after the “Civil War” has reared it’s ugly head and has clearly shown America’s original sin has not been eradicated. It has found renewed comfort with the present President’s and his enablers actions and through their “dog whistles”. The January 6th insurrection should serve as a wake up call for anyone who is still supporting the “big lie” and the “big liar” that they are aligned on the side of hate and will be shown down the road to be on the wrong side of history. The sooner they recognize this, the sooner our country can finally begin to heal and come closer to living the ideals for which our country should stand.

  4. Moe D'Amour says:

    Your article is spot on. It makes me think of a song from one of my favorite musicals, One day more, another day, another destiny, from Les Miserables.

  5. John Lamond says:

    So well done, Richard – the defense of the Capitol is no minor objective, then or now – God help us, those of us in our 60’s and historically aware have now experienced as adults 4 of the 5 presidential impeachment crises, and now a re-run of the Civil War, not only with an assault on the font of American democracy but also with nearly all of the democracy-denying Senators that same night from Dixie – it’ll take years to absorb the magnitude of what we just witnessed

  6. Dave Daniel says:

    Good piece. As ever, you bring the balance of the historian’s perspective when weaving together events then & now. Here in a textile town, it’s good to be reminded that history is “story”, that nothing is every really all this or all that, but rather the warp and woof of memory and time.

  7. Henri says:

    Great analysis, Dick. History, current events and legal concept wrapped in objective observations.