The 1864 Baltimore Sanitary Fair (April 18-April 30) provided the large-scale vehicle for Maryland’s Unionist women to bring together both of their benevolent and patriotic impulses. Other cities across the Union, such as Chicago and Boston, previously coordinated such events. Proceeds from these affairs swelled the coffers of the U.S. Christian and the U.S. Sanitary Commissions, the two major national relief organizations for the Union armed forces. The prospect of holding a fair to raise funds for these entities first arose in Baltimore during the fall of 1863 and a series of female-led meetings soon followed. The women chose the 18th of April as the official opening date and invited a special guest to inaugurate the event.
April 18th witnessed general public celebration, transforming the drab thoroughfares of the war-time city. Acting upon a resolution of the City Council, Mayor John Lee Chapman issued a proclamation asking businesses to close at noon on April 18. Most tradesmen, with the exception of a few ardent secessionists, complied. Likewise, city school pupils enjoyed a half-day. The frenetic pace of city-life came to a complete stand-still as a grand military parade featuring over three thousand soldiers commenced at two o’clock. Starting at Monument Square, the nearly mile long column wended its way through the heart of the business district as the Eighth New York Artillery band serenaded the estimated 30,000 people lining the streets. Over four hundred of the original members of the First Maryland Cavalry, which had included four companies of Baltimoreans, veterans of Stoneman’s Raid, Brandy Station, and Gettysburg, proudly rode in formation. The throngs of spectators “not only repeatedly cheered . . . but from the windows of many of the residences ladies crowded all the available space, waving their handkerchiefs and display[ing] the National banner.” A second parade featured three thousand African-American soldiers in new blue uniforms, their gold buttons reflecting the brilliant sunshine of the temperate day. Constituting a portion of Maryland’s volunteer “Colored” regiments, the new enlistees were “huzzahed on their way to the front by the white population.”
Acting upon the invitation of the women organizers, President Abraham Lincoln agreed to preside over the fair opening ceremonies. Lincoln’s appearance in Baltimore held symbolic importance for city Unionists, and perhaps, to himself. For loyal citizens it offered both a chance to display their devotion to the man who embodied the Union and cast off doubts about Baltimore’s predominant political sympathy. For the President, coming to Baltimore presented an opportunity to make amends for a past indiscretion. In March 1861, en route to his inauguration, Lincoln secreted himself through Baltimore’s darkened streets in response to the rumor of an alleged assassination plot. Already held in low regard by his affiliation with the perceived anti-Southern Republican Party, many residents regarded the President-elect’s distrustful action as an affront to their city’s honor; even Unionists expressed bewilderment. Later, the President “was convinced that he had committed a great mistake.” By opening the Maryland Fair, Lincoln could both mitigate his wrong and express his confidence in the city’s national loyalty.
Despite the apparent solidarity of the state’s loyal population, the Maryland Fair could only be termed a modest financial success when compared with similar 1864 events. The final tally exceeded just over eighty-three thousand dollars. In contrast, both the New York and Philadelphia fairs each cleared over one million dollars. Yet, when compared to all similar soldier relief fairs, the Maryland total stands respectable. Chicago’s, of December 1863, “netted between $86,000 and $100,000″; Boston’s, held in the state whose militia first answered Lincoln’s Call to put down the Rebellion, garnered but $146,000. Both Illinois and Massachusetts possessed vastly larger and much less philosophically divided populations. While competition for donations from other cities most likely affected Maryland’s net amount, both economic realities and the state’s political division did factor largely.
Maryland Unionists, nonetheless, regarded their fair efforts to be fruitful. Governor Augustus Bradford at the May 2 closing ceremonies remarked, “success is not to be estimated merely by its financial results, but by the wholesome moral influences it exerted . . . it has brought together loyal women . . . and served to show that American patriotism is confined to no climate, nor indigenous to any particular soil.” The press singled out the organizer’s and participants for their devotion. The Baltimore American newspaper lauded “the noble women of Maryland who have labored so long and so well . . . [they] deserve all praise and honor.”