Massachusetts Goes to War

Massachusetts State House c. 1861

In Boston, on the evening of April 13, 1861, writer and journalist Mary Livermore received the dreadful news.

Livermore, 40 years old at the time, had been a schoolteacher in Duxbury from 1842 to 1845 where she was involved in the abolition and temperance movements. She married a Universalist minister, Rev. Daniel P. Livermore and they eventually relocated to Chicago. She would, during the war to come, become a prominent leader in the United States Sanitary Commission.

She had arrived in Boston, her native city, just the previous day to help care for her dying father. The news reached her when she was tending to him. Recollecting that night, Livermore later wrote that the South’s “high-sounding talk of war was obstinately regarded as empty gasconade, and its military preparations, as the idle bluster of angry disappointment.” Therefore, the news that shots had actually been fired struck her “like a thunderbolt.” When they informed her father he turned his face to the wall and cried, “My God, now let me die! For I cannot survive the ruin of my country.”

Fort Sumter had fallen. Confederate forces in Charleston, South Carolina, after bombarding the fort for a day and a half, had forced the evacuation of Federal troops.  The Civil War had begun.

Charles Francis Adams, grandson of John Adams and Congressman from Massachusetts, also reacted to the news with dread, “Mr. Lincoln has plunged us into war,” he wrote, “…We, the children of the third and forth generations are doomed to pay the penalties of the compromises made by the first.”

While some in Massachusetts received the news with disbelief and despair, others had been anticipating this moment for months.  Governor John Albion Andrew had, since he took office in January 1861, been bolstering the state militia, preparing them for war. By his orders, the militia regiments were re-organized and began to actively drill. When startled Bostonians were awakened that January by the sound of cannons on Boston Common, Gov. Andrew stated it was time for Boston, “to get accustomed to the smell of gunpowder.”

Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, whose radical views had literally caused riots in the streets of Boston, greeted the outbreak of Civil War with satisfaction and a sense of pragmatism. He believed the war would ultimately bring about the demise of slavery, and so he advised his fellow antislavery activists to stand back and allow events to play out.  “Now that Civil War has begun,” he wrote, “and a whirlwind of violence and excitement is to sweep through the country, every day increasing in intensity until its bloodiest culmination, it is for the abolitionist to stand still and see the salvation of God.”

Just days after the firing on Fort Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln, on April 15, 1861, called up 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion. Their term of enlistment would be 90 days, the maximum term allowed for state troops at that time.

There were celebrations throughout the Commonwealth as the militiamen gathered to answer the call. On the morning of April 16, three companies of the 8th Massachusetts Volunteer Militia from Marblehead marched into Boston, earning the distinction of being the first Massachusetts men to report for duty. By the end of the day, the various companies belonging to the 3rd, 4th and 6th Regiments had gathered in Boston and were prepared to start for Washington.

William Schouler, Adjutant-General of Massachusetts, had the challenging task of supplying these troops as they arrived in Boston and moving them along to Washington as quickly as possible.  He wrote of the wild atmosphere in Boston and throughout the Commonwealth, “It is impossible to overstate the excitement which pervaded the entire community through this eventful week. The railroad depots were surrounded with crowds of people; and the companies, as they arrived, were received with cheers of grateful welcome.”

Prior to the war, display of the American flag had been quite limited. Now the national banner seemed to be everywhere. As Schouler described, “Banners were suspended, as if by preconcerted arrangement. The American flag spread its folds to the breeze acroes streets, from the masts of vessels in the harbor, from the cupola of the State House, the City Hall, in front of private dwellings; and men and boys carried miniature flags in their hands or on their hats. The horse-cars and express-wagons were decked with similar devices; and young misses adorned their persons with rosettes and ribbons, in which were blended the national red, white, and blue.”

It was, then, in this frenzied atmosphere that Duxbury boys went off to war. There was, throughout Massachusetts, a great spectrum of emotions from dismay to jubilation. But overriding all was an almost frantic urgency to fill up the ranks.

And who from Duxbury answered that first call?  That will be the subject of a future entry.

[Sources: Mary Livermore, My Story of the War, (1889), p. 86; Thomas H. O’Connor, Civil War Boston, (1997), p. 48, 50; Stephen Oates, The Approaching Fury, (1998), p. 423; William Schouler, A History of Massachusetts in the Civil War, (1868), p. 50]