VIENNA, Va ., April 23, 2013 — The news has been full of little more than Boston, Mass. and last week’s bombings. But Boston has often been at the center of our nation’s history and so it seemed like a good time to look back at the role of Boston in the Civil War. For an old reliable city in the United States, it figured that the coming conflict between the North and the South would affect this area, and it did.
Although Fort Sumter, S.C. was a considerable distance from Boston, the city and state sent several regiments to join the burgeoning Union forces, which were determined to breach the Confederate states’ borders and subdue the radical upstarts.
First, however, they had to overcome similar upstarts within their own borders. Massachusetts, and particularly “Boston, dear Boston, the land of the bean and the cod, Where the Cabots speak only to the Lodges, and the Lodges speak only to God,” suddenly was facing an influx of immigrants, mostly Irish Catholic. This did not set well with native-born Bostonians. A political party, known as the Know-Nothings, had taken over the state government, intent upon rescuing their state from the so-called “insidious wiles of foreigners.”
This went so far as attempting to end any further immigration and in so doing, stamped all Catholics with the seal of untrustworthiness, as Boston saw it. The desire to once and for all end “Rome, rum, and robbery” was seen as a way to keep the city pristine.
That would have been fine if a boatload of Irish immigrants, the folks they wanted to keep out, had not also rushed to join the Army on behalf of the Union. The very people Bostonians could not abide, religiously or otherwise, would suddenly be fighting alongside the hometown boys, and that did not set well.
It would take some time, and in particular the intense fighting at battles such as Gettysburg, for a small modicum of respect to be attached to the once-despised Irish. Their fighting units were unstoppable and their bravery and fortitude set the bar forever.
And the Irish were in every aspect of military life: four battalions of Heavy Artillery and 16 of Light Artillery; six of Cavalry; and 62 of Infantry, including the famed 54th Infantry of “Glory” fame, raised and led by Robert Gould Shaw; and two companies of Sharpshooters and 26 Unattached companies.
Even today, there are some thirteen separate Boston reenactment groups named for various Civil War units, who participated in various programs and presentations, keeping alive the name and fame of their ancestors.
This all reached a pinnacle when President Lincoln presented his Emancipation Proclamation and the governor authorized the forming of three all-black regiments, which were part of the fighting forces until the war’s conclusion. No doubt it was an upsetting sight to the people of defeated Richmond, Va. when the much-despised General William Sherman made his entrance into Richmond, leading the black cavalrymen of the 5th Cavalry, as part of the first units to enter.
Thomas H. O’Connor of Boston College, and the author of “Civil War Boston: Home Front and Battlefield,” is quick to point out that for all the heroic participation of the black troops, when the smoky haze of cannon had gone away, things did not change appreciably at home for the African-Americans who had fought, even in liberal Boston.
Just as the Irish had been prohibited from many professions and occupations, the blacks were now prevented from many of the apprentice positions, which would have aided their upward steps toward economic freedom. They were good enough to be cut hair, to give shoe shines and, of course, to wait tables, but there was little advancement there.
And deep within the political subdivisions in Boston, there would be no black candidates, no blacks even encouraged to run for office, and for the most part they remained a segregated enclave on the back side of Beacon Hill. The freedom they had fought for might have come, but any hope of actual equality was a long way off.
If any group did emerge, benefitting from the war, it was the distaff side. Where women in the South were staying at home to try and tend the fields, run farms and plantations and hope to retain some semblance of life as it had been, in the North, the women went out and cared for the sick and wounded on the battle fields. Clara Barton was a nurse in the field, as well as in hospitals, and it was author Louisa May Alcott who volunteered as a nurse working for the early U.S. Sanitary Commission.
For that reason, as O’Connor points out, it was “the women who set budgets, consulted with members of Congress, and argued with bureaucrats,” quite a change from the lives and occupations of the southern women.
Massachusetts and Boston itself played an important role in the Civil War and should be remembered appropriately for the good and bad parts of their history.
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