Boston During the Civil War

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The role of Massachusetts in the Civil War, and its support of the Union cause, was significant. The state supplied crucial financial, military and political support.

Much of this support came from the state’s capital city of Boston. The city was home to many politicians, philanthropists and citizens eager to support the Union cause.

Boston Before the Civil War:

The effects of the Civil War were felt in Boston since the very beginning, starting with abolitionist John Brown’s failed raid on Harper’s Ferry in October of 1859.

This event, which was Brown’s attempt to cause a slave uprising in the south in order to bring an end to slavery, is considered by many historians to have greatly escalated the conflicts that led up to the Civil War.

When John Brown was executed for his failed raid on Harper’s Ferry, Boston citizens were visibly upset and decided to show their support to Brown and his cause, according to the book Civil War Boston: Home Front and Battlefield:

“On December 2, 1859, the day of Brown’s execution, Boston witnessed a tremendous outpouring of emotion. Church bells tolled, minute guns fired solemn salutes; ministers preached sermons of commemoration; thousands bowed in silent reverence for the martyr of liberty. ‘I have seen nothing like it,’ recalled Charles Eliot Norton of Harvard, who was not easily impressed….On the day of Brown’s execution, black businessmen closed their doors and draped their shops in mourning; individuals wore black crepe armbands – the antiabolitionist Boston Post reporting snidely that it was impossible to get a haircut or to have one’s shoes blacked all day long. Religious groups organized two-day vigils at the Twelfth Baptist Church and at integrated meetings in Tremont Temple, where prominent black speakers addressed the assemblages, and where both ‘the eloquent and the unlettered’ offered heartfelt prayers for the soul of John Brown. Those in attendance at both locations sang antislavery anthems and protest songs well into the night.”

Not every Boston resident sympathized with Brown though. The Boston Irish community refused to take part in the tributes and memorials to Brown because they saw his raid as an act of terrorism and they opposed abolitionism out of fear that freeing the slaves would cause economic instability and an increase in job competition.

Furthermore, Brown was a protestant who descended from 17th century English Puritans. As a result, many Irish residents, including Patrick Donahoe, publisher of the official newspaper of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, The Pilot, theorized that Brown was a part of a British plot designed to undermine the political power of the United States.

To make matters more complicated, a number of prominent Boston businessmen were implicated in Brown’s failed raid because they had sent Brown money and supplies for his cause. Amos A. Lawrence, William Appleton, and Edward Atkinson, investors of the Boston Manufacturing Company that founded the Lowell Mills and kick started the Industrial Revolution in Massachusetts, had sent Brown guns and money during his earlier abolitionist activities in Kansas.

In fact, five men in the “Secret Six,” which was a group of wealthy men who financed Brown’s activities, were prominent Massachusetts citizens. These men were: Boston businessman George Luther Sterns, Concord schoolmaster Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, preacher Theodore Parker, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe and preacher Thomas Wentworth Higgins. The men were all a part of the Massachusetts Kansas Committee which supported the efforts to make Kansas a free state.

Due to their connection to Brown, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe and George Luther Stearns and several other Boston residents suddenly left town after Brown’s execution and temporarily fled to Canada to avoid arrest.

Sanborn was later handcuffed and detained in Concord, Mass, on the night of April 3, 1860, by federal marshals who planned to take him to Washington to question him about his connection to Brown. Sanborn was quickly released though when over 150 Concord residents, including local judge Ebenezer Hoar, demanded the marshals free him.

Frank Sanborn of Concord, Ma, resists arrest by Federal Marshals in regard to his support of abolitionist John Brown, illustration published in Harper's Weekly, circa 1860

Frank Sanborn of Concord, Ma, resists arrest by Federal Marshals in regard to his support of abolitionist John Brown, illustration published in Harper’s Weekly, circa 1860

Stearns later returned from Canada and testified that he supported Brown’s abolitionist efforts but had no prior knowledge of the raid. Neither he nor the rest of the Secret Six were charged.

On December 8, 1859, conservative groups and anti-abolitionists gathered at Faneuil Hall for a meeting about the Union during which they denounced Brown’s raid stating:

“We look with indignation and abhorrence upon the recent armed invasion of the Commonwealth of Virginia; that however narrow, or however comprehensive was the clandestine and iniquitous scheme, in its instrument or its execution, it was an undisguised assault on the peace and welfare of the whole country.”

In December of 1860, on the one year anniversary of Brown’s execution, mob violence broke out in Boston. On December 3, a fistfight broke out at a memorial for John Brown at Tremont Temple when Irish laborers disrupted the memorial, declared their sympathy for the South and threatened to lynch the black residents in attendance.

Frederick Douglass was present at the memorial and when he pushed his way to the podium to speak, a counting-house clerk in the front row called him a “nigger” to which Douglass responded:

“If I were a slave-driver and got a hold of that man for five minutes, I would let more light through his skin than ever got there before.”

At that moment, fights broke out in the hall and Douglass was pulled off stage, attacked and thrown down the main staircase.

Wendell Phillips was also in attendance at the meeting and had to be escorted home by 40 volunteers to protect him from the angry mob.

The abolitionists who had planned the memorial organized a second memorial later that day at a black Baptist Church on Joy Street. Douglass, Phillips, John Brown, Jr., were again in attendance.

Once again, a mob of about one thousand anti-abolitionists gather outside the church and began throwing bricks, harassing and assaulting black people outside the church and threatened to burn the church to the ground. Fortunately, the Boston police stepped in and prevented the mob from harming the church or disrupting the memorial.

Two weeks later, Phillips summoned the police again after another angry mob interrupted his speech to an abolitionist audience at Boston’s Music Hall. The mob followed Phillips all the way home. In response to the mobs and rioting in Boston, Phillip’s stated:

“Governments exist to protect the rights of minorities. The loved and the rich need no protection: they have many friends and few enemies. We have praised our Union for seventy years. This is the first time it is tested. Has it educated men who know their rights and dare to maintain them? Can it bear the discussion of a great national sin, anchored deep in prejudices and interest of millions? If so, it deserves to live. If not, the sooner it vanishes out of the way the better. The time to assert rights is when they are denied; the men to assert them are those to whom they are denied. The community which dares not protect its humblest and most hated member in the free utterance of his opinions, no matter how false or hateful, is only a gang of slaves.”

On December 20, 1860, South Carolina voted to secede from the Union. The vote of secession and the possibility of Civil War threw Boston into a state of panic, fear and chaos during the winter of 1860-61.

Winter Street in Boston, Mass, photographed by John B. Heywood, circa winter of 1860

When the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society tried to hold their annual meeting at Tremont Temple on January 24, 1861, it was once again overrun by a mob of Boston Irish and was eventually shut down by Boston Mayor Wrightmen when an anonymous death threat was made against Wendell Phillips.

In addition to violence, Boston also began to suffer from economic problems after Lincoln’s election, according to the book Civil War Boston: Home Front and Battlefield:

“Along with disorder in the streets, Boston experienced a general business depression after Lincoln’s election and the subsequent news about Southern secession. Charles Eliot Norton commented on the ‘universal alarm, general financial pressure, and great commercial embarrassment’ that resulted from numerous business failures and factory shutdowns. ‘Men with plenty of money held onto the money bags,’ reported the Boston Herald, ‘as if no more was ever coming in.’ Some factories had already cut back on their production, one Boston citizen told a friend in South Carolina, ‘either by dismissing a part of their hands or working them on short time.’ During January alone, sixty firms in Massachusetts had failed, and the state’s unemployment spiraled upward accordingly, causing the Boston Courier to report that the “Boston streets are full of discharged workmen.’ According to the Herald, the Overseers of the Poor received more applications for relief ‘than they could possibly provide for.’ As associate of Governor Andrew informed him late in that month about about ‘a terrific rush of manufacturers, merchants, business men and politicians…urging and insisting upon some sort of compromise to save the Union!’ John Murray Forbes confirmed this panic atmosphere when he told Charles Sumner two days after South Carolina seceded that “our money people here have been badly frightened,” predicting that conservatives were ready to support any kind of compromise that would “patch up our difficulties and their pockets.”

Boston During the Civil War:

When the Battle of Fort Sumter occurred in April of 1861, Boston citizens, businessmen and politicians rallied together in support of the Union cause. Black citizens gathered at a Baptist church and pledge to fight for the Union if the ban on black soldiers was lifted.

Boston’s local banks loaned $3.5 million dollars to the state treasury and as well as another substantial sum to help mobilize Massachusetts troops. Railroad and steamship companies offered to transport troops and over 100 Boston businessmen organized a Massachusetts Soldier’s Fund to help support families of men recruited into the army.

Even the Boston Irish community finally got on board. Although they had previously denounced abolition and sympathized with the South, now that the Union was under attack, they felt a patriotic duty to protect their newly adopted country.

When a southern ship flying the Confederate’s “rattlesnake flag” pulled into Boston harbor on April 12, 1861, several hundred Boston citizens, most of them Irish, gathered at the docks and demanded the captain lower the flag and replace it with the Stars and Stripes. After the captain did so, the group then demanded custody of the flag and, upon receiving it, tore it to pieces.

On April 15, 1861 President Lincoln called for 75,000 troops to suppress the rebellion and the secretary of War, Simon Cameron, asked Governor Andrew to send 1,500 troops to Washington. Massachusetts had a long history of militia training and, as a result, it was the first state to respond to the call to arms.

About 3,000 men immediately reported for active duty the following day. These men were later dubbed the “Minute Men of 61” because they responded so quickly to the call to arms.

Minute Men of 61, illustration published in the History and Complete Roster of the Massachusetts Regiments, circa 1910

These men were a part of three companies of the Massachusetts 8th Regiment that arrived in Boston on April 16 and marched to Faneuil Hall in the middle of a storm. There they were given gray overcoats and new rifles. The following day, the Massachusetts 6th Regiment also arrived in Boston and were also given new equipment.

Around noon that day, the two regiments marched on Beacon Street until they reached the steps of the State House and stood at attention while Governor Andrew presented their regimental colors to Colonel Edward F. Jones. Then the regiments marched off to war while onlookers cheered.

Around this time, Governor Andrew also began preparing the state’s coastal defenses. He examined the state of the harbor islands in Boston harbor and found they were greatly understaffed.

In response, Andrew sent the 4th Battalion of the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia to defend and make repairs to Fort Independence on Castle Island. These troops were eventually joined by the 11th Infantry of the U.S. Army.

Fort Warren was determined to be ineffective as a defense against naval attack so officials instead decided to use it as a prison for Confederate POWs.

Many Irish immigrants in Boston also took part in the war effort and joined an all-Irish brigade: the 9th Massachusetts Regiment. After receiving training at the fort on Long Island in Boston Harbor, the regiment marched to the State House in Boston on June 25, 1861.

There, Governor Andrew awarded them their regimental flag and as well as an Irish flag of green silk and gave the following speech praising the regiment and its commander for their patriotism:

“Mr. Commander: I thank you, and through you, this splendid regiment, which you, sir, have the honor to command, and which the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is proud to register among the first six regiments of its volunteer contingent; for the happy opportunity of a few moments’ interview, and for the parting congratulations between us on the eve of your departure for the seat of war.

The progress of the enlistment of your men and the appointment of the time of your departure, have been the subject of the deepest solicitude. I understand, sir, that, like yourself, a majority, if not nearly all of your command, derive their origin, either by birth or directly by descent, from another country than this.

As religion makes no distinction in the human family, so the United States of America knows no distinction between its native born citizens and those born in other countries. In one common tide flows the blood of a common humanity inherited by us all, and into our hearts, by the inspiration of the Almighty, has been breathed a common understanding.

To you and all your soldiers, from all the inhabitants of this land today begins an indebtedness which it will take long to discharge, and by future generations will you be remembered. Inspired, sir, by the purposes of patriotism, you, as adopted citizens, will know no other allegiance than that due to the United States of America, now the mother of us all.

I now put into your hands, as I have in the hands of regiments that preceded you, the State ensign of this Commonwealth. You already bear with you the Stars and Stripes, but I would have you recognized wherever you go as coming from this State, where you have your homes. When you look on the Stars and Stripes you can remember that you are American citizens ; when you look on this venerable ensign you can remember your wives and families in Massachusetts.

Take this as a pledge of affectionate care from the State of your kindred and homes, and of the sincere and undying interest which its people feel and will ever feel for you. In the utmost confidence in your patriotism and valor we send you forth as citizens of Massachusetts, assured that her honor will never be disgraced by the countrymen of Emmet and O’Connell.”

A few weeks after the regiment left for war, for the first time in history, city officials honored the Irish flag by raising it on the 4th of July on Boston Common, among the flags of all nations, and also ordered the Irish national anthem to be played.

At the end of 1861, another all-Irish unit was created: the 28th Massachusetts Regiment and it was officially mustered into service in December of 1861.

On January 1, 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, church bells rang out in Boston throughout the day and a celebration was held at Boston’s Music Hall with attendees such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

When the proclamation was made official and was received via telegram, it was read out loud at the celebration and cheers and applause broke out in the hall.

On May 28, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, which was the first black regiment in the Civil War, arrived in Boston after completing its training at Camp Meigs and marched to the State House, with its commander Robert Gould Shaw, for the formal presentation of the regiment’s colors.

In attendance at the presentation were William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass, whose two sons were members of the regiment.

Boston Draft Riots of 1863:

In July of 1863, a violent riot occurred in Boston. When draft notices were delivered to many Irish immigrants in Boston during the summer of 1863, it sparked the riot which resulted in many deaths and injuries.

The riot occurred on July 14, 1863 on Prince Street in the North End, which was then a working-class Irish immigrant neighborhood, after two draft agents, David Howe and Wesley Hill, delivered draft notices to the local residents. These were the first ever draft notices in U.S. history and they were not well received by the locals.

On Prince Street, two angry Irish women began screaming at the draft agents which drew the attention of local men coming home from the nearby gas works. The men crowded around the agents. Hill fled but Howe was beaten before being rescued by a police officer who brought him to a nearby store for safety. When Howe later tried to leave the store, he was beaten again.

By late afternoon, the crowd had grown and the local police barricaded themselves in the police station to protect themselves. Governor Andrew called on the troops in the forts and military camps in Boston harbor while Mayor Frederic Lincoln called in the state militia to protect the local armories, the Marshall armory and the Copper Street armory.

A mob of 500 to 1,000 people began attacking the Copper Street armory, according to one eyewitness, a young girl named Emma Sellew Adams, who watched the riot unfold. Her account was later published in The Magazine of History:

“They dug up bricks from the sidewalks, broke the windows of the Armory and called the soldiers cowards. To repel the attack the troops fired blank cartridges but they had no effect, and, in fact, added fuel to the flame. The women came out in large numbers, some of them holding their babies up in their arms and daring the soldiers to fire at them. Finally gaining courage, the rioters crowded up against the doors of the Armory and tried to break them open. Then and not until then did Major Cabot make a determined stand. He ordered the cannon drawn up to the doors and gave the order to fire right through them. The shot was a telling one. Dead and wounded lay on every side and the havoc was appalling, but this act quelled the riot. The crowd sorrowfully gathered up their dead and dying, immediately dispersing and going their way.”

Other sources say the rioters instead headed for the gun shops on Dock Square but the police arrived ahead of them and held them off until more troops arrived and finally restored order.

Groups of angry citizens still lingered around the city during the night but state and city officials worked to calm them down and local Catholic priests walked through the immigrant neighborhoods to help calm people. By the next day, the situation had been diffused and there were no more outbreaks of violence.

Civil War Slowly Draws to a Close:

On July 26, 1864, popular actor John Wilkes Booth, who performed regularly in the city and owned land on Commonwealth Ave, met with several men at the Parker House Hotel in Boston.

The men Booth met at the hotel were reportedly either Confederate secret agents or Confederate sympathizers who were working with Booth on plans to kidnap President Lincoln and exchange him for Confederate POWs.

Booth later put this plan into action and attempted to kidnap Lincoln on March 17, 1865, when he was returning from an event in the outskirts of Washington D.C. but failed when the president changed his plans last second.

After the 13th amendment, which officially abolished slavery in the United States, was passed on January 31, 1865, Boston celebrated.

Governor Andrew ordered a one-hundred gun salute on February 2 at Boston Common, church bells rang and the national colors were displayed on many public and private buildings.

On February 4, a Grand Jubilee Meeting at the Boston Music Hall celebrated with speeches by William Lloyd Garrison and General Benjamin Butler.

That same month, after Charleston, South Carolina was captured by the Union army, the two companies of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment were some of the first Federal troops to enter the city.

A few days later, the 55th Massachusetts Regiment, the second regiment of African-American soldiers, marched into the city singing “John Brown’s Body.” Wendell Phillips remarked on the occasion: “Can you conceive a bitterer drop that God’s chemistry could mix for a son of the Palemetto State than that a Massachusetts flag and a colored regiment should take possession of Charleston?”

In early April of 1865, when the news arrived that the Confederate capital of Richmond had been taken by the Union army, Boston rejoiced again. Flags and decorations were raised all over the city, live musical performances entertained the large celebratory crowds gathered in the streets, church bells rang across the city and Governor Andrew ordered a one-hundred gun salute on Boston Common and fireworks lit up the sky that night.

Not everyone in the city around that time was rejoicing though. John Wilkes Booth was seen at the Parker House Hotel again during a short trip to the city on April 5 and 6. The reason for Booth’s trip is unknown but it is believed he was visiting his brother Edwin Booth, who was performing in Hamlet at the Boston Theater.

In a chilling foreshadowing of what was to come, it was later reported in the Boston Evening Transcript that while in Boston, John Wilkes Booth visited a local firing range to practice shooting his pistol:

“[A man named] Borland…stated that he saw Booth after he came to Boston, and was in company with him at Edwards’ shooting gallery [presumably Roland Edwards’ Pistol Gallery at 4 Green Street], where Booth practiced pistol firing in various difficult ways such as between his legs, over his shoulder and under his arms.”

Booth left the city on April 6th and returned to Washington D.C.

When the Confederate army surrendered on April 10, 1865, the celebrations in Boston continued. Schools, banks and offices were closed, buildings were decorated with flags, live musical performances and speeches were held, and another fireworks display was held that night. The Boston Daily Advertiser reported:

“It was one of the greatest days Boston ever saw and was like a dozen ‘Fourths or July’ concentrated into one.”

Boston Mourns President Lincoln:

The celebrations were cut short on the morning of April 15, 1865 when the city received the news that Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. Flags across the city were flown at half mast and somber church bells rang out across the city.

Edwin Booth, was set to perform that night at the Boston Theater but the manager promptly canceled the performance, closed the theater and sent a message to Edwin Booth informing him of what had happened.

Federal marshals promptly detained and questioned Edwin in Boston. He was forbidden from leaving the city for several days until Governor Andrew, among other prominent Boston citizens, personally vouched for him. On April 17, Booth was allowed to return home to New York to join his family.

On April 19, 1865, Governor Andrew attended the funeral services for President Lincoln in the East Room of the White House. On that day in Boston, houses displayed public symbols of mourning, transportation was suspended for the day or curtailed between the hours of noon and 2pm, churches held special noontime services, bells tolled across the city at 2pm and guns were fired as a salute. Later the day, several thousand people gathered on Boston Common for an impromptu ceremony.

Meanwhile, a manhunt for John Wilkes Booth ensued in the days following the assassination. When Booth was finally tracked down on April 26, 1865 on a farm in Virginia, it was a British-born Boston resident, Thomas P. “Boston” Corbett, who shot and killed Booth, despite orders to take him alive, claiming “it was only when it was actually necessary that I shot him” but then elaborated that “when I saw where the ball had struck him — in the neck, near the ear — it seemed to me that God had directed it, for apparently it was just where he had shot the President.”

Boston Civil War Memorials:

Robert Gould Shaw Memorial:
Address: 24 Beacon Street, at the edge of the Boston Common, Boston, Mass

Soldiers and Sailors Memorial:
Address: 139 Tremont Street, Boston, Mass

Civil War Nurses Memorial:
Address: Massachusetts State House, Nurses Hall, 24 Beacon Street, Boston, Mass

For more information about Boston’s history, check out the following article: The History of Boston.

Boston Courier Report of the Union Meeting in Faneuil Hall Dec. 28th, 1859. Clark, Fellows & Company, 1859.
Berenson, Barbara F. Boston and the Civil War: Hub of the Second Revolution. The History Press, 2014.
O’Connor, Thomas H. Civil War Boston: Home Front and Battlefield. Northeastern University Press, 1997.
“A Remembrance of the Boston Draft Riot.” The Magazine of History: With Notes and Queries, Vol. 10. William Abbatt, 1909.
Klien, Christopher. “How Boston Embraced the Booth Brothers.” Boston Globe, 12 April. 2015,
Wilson, Susan. “Boston, the Booth Brother and the Parker House.” Boston Hospitality Review, Boston University, 11 May. 2015,
Macnamara, Daniel George. The History of the Ninth Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Second Brigade, First Division, Fifth Army Corps, Army of the Potomac, June, 1861-June, 1864. E.B. Stillings & Co, 1899.
O’Connor, Thomas H. “How the Civil War Changed Boston.”, 14 Aug. 2011,

Boston During the Civil War

About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is the author and publisher of the History of Massachusetts Blog. Rebecca is a freelance journalist and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in journalism. Visit this site's About page to find out more about Rebecca.