Massachusetts in the Civil War

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Much like the War of 1812, the American Civil War was yet another war that did not take place in Massachusetts yet it still greatly affected Massachusetts during the 19th century.

Although no Civil War battles occurred in Massachusetts, many Massachusetts soldiers and military leaders fought and died in the war and many Massachusetts residents helped in the war effort.

What Side Was Massachusetts on in the Civil War?

When the election took place in November of 1860,  Abraham Lincoln won Massachusetts when he received 106,533 votes (about 63 percent of the ballots cast). Douglas received 34,370 votes and John Bell received only 22,232 votes (13 percent).

Massachusetts was a free state in the Civil War era and supported the Union cause. Furthermore, Massachusetts political leaders were not in favor of secession and felt the union must be preserved.

Civil War soldiers from Massachusetts: Association of Massachusetts Minute Men of 61, photo published in History and Complete Roster of the Massachusetts Regiments

Massachusetts political leaders quickly got to work preparing for war. Immediately after taking office in January of 1861, the Governor of Massachusetts John Albion Andrew, began efforts to raise funds and gather troops to make sure Massachusetts was prepared to help in the war.

When war was officially declared in April of 1861, not everyone in Massachusetts was thrilled. One such person was Charles Francis Adams,  grandson of John Adams and the recently appointed U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, who said “Mr. Lincoln has plunged us into war. We, the children of the third and fourth generations are doomed to pay the penalties of the compromises of the first.” Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner wrote to his friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow stating his distaste for the war: “Alas! That I, loving peace, should be called to take such a great responsibility in a dreadfully ghastly civil war.”

Massachusetts Civil War Soldiers and Regiments:

A total of 159,165 Massachusetts soldiers and sailors fought in the Civil War. Of these men, 133,002 served in the Union army and 26,163 served in the navy.

A total of 13,942 of these Massachusetts soldiers and sailors died in the Civil War. Approximately 6,115 were killed in battle, 5,530 died of disease, 1,483 died as prisoners, 257 died in accidents and 557 died from other causes besides battles.

Many of these Civil War soldiers were descendants of Revolutionary War soldiers and patriots. Some such descendants were Paul Revere’s grandsons, Paul Joseph Revere and Edward Hutchinson Revere, who served in the 20th Massachusetts regiment, and Joseph Warren Revere, who served in the New Jersey Volunteer Infantry.

Revere’s grandsons fought in some of the most famous battles of the Civil War but only one of them survived the war. Edward was the first to die when he was killed during the Battle of Antietam. Paul was wounded at Antietam and survived but was killed almost a year later during the Battle of Gettysburg. Joseph was the only one of Revere’s grandsons to survive the war but he was court-martialed for disobeying orders during a battle, much like his famous grandfather was for disobeying orders during the failed Penobscot Expedition in the Revolutionary War.

The Massachusetts army units who fought in the Civil War consisted of 62 regiments of infantry (which were the 1st through the 62nd Massachusetts Regiments), six regiments of cavalry, four regiments of heavy artillery, 16 batteries of light artillery, two companies of sharpshooters, a handful of unattached battalions and 26 unattached companies.

These regiments included the first African-American regiment in the Civil War: the 54th Massachusetts Regiment led by Robert Gould Shaw as well as the first Irish regiment in the state: the 9th Massachusetts Regiment.

Massachusetts was the first state to send troops to join the war effort after the Battle of Fort Sumter occurred on April 12, 1861.

On April 15, 1861, Governor Andrew received a telegraph from Washington D.C. calling for 1,500 men from Massachusetts to serve for 90 days. According to the West Brookfield Historical Commission, the following day, several companies of the 8th Massachusetts Volunteer Militia of Marblehead, Mass were the first to report in Boston.

The first Massachusetts regiment to reach Washington D.C. though was the 6th Massachusetts Regiment. While en route to D.C. the 6th Massachusetts regiment was attacked by a pro-secession mob in Baltimore, MD, and became the first volunteer troops to suffer casualties in the war when Corporal Sumner Henry Needham, and several others, were killed in the attack. The 6th Massachusetts regiment finally arrived in Washington D.C. on April 19, 1861.

These Massachusetts regiments, who reported for duty in Boston on April 15, were some of the first troops to respond to the call to arms and later reached Washington on the anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord. As a result, these Massachusetts regiments were dubbed the “Minutemen of 61.”

The Minutemen of 61 regiments were:

Third Massachusetts Regiment
Fourth Massachusetts Regiment
Fifth Massachusetts Regiment
Sixth Massachusetts Regiment
Eight Massachusetts Regiment
Third Battalion Massachusetts Riflemen
First Battery of Light Artillery

The generals and officers handpicked by the Governor of Massachusetts to lead these regiments were:
Brigadier General Benjamin Butler
Brigade Major William H. Clemence
Engineer Pater Haggerty
Brigadier General Ebenezer W. Pierce
Engineer William C. Lovering
Aid Silas P. Richmond

Group photo of the Minute Men of 1861, photographed in 1897

Group photo of the Minute Men of 1861, photographed in 1897

While some historians give Governor Andrew the credit for Massachusetts quick response to the war effort, other sources say it wasn’t so much Andrew but the state’s long military tradition that prepared them for the big moment, according to an article titled Minutemen of ’61: The Pre-Civil War Massachusetts Militia in the Civil War History journal:

“When in April 1861 the soldiers of the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment fought their way past the “plug-uglies” of Baltimore to reach Washington, they not only furnished the beleaguered national capital with its first significant armed force but their timely arrival also had momentous consequences back in Massachusetts. The reputation of Governor John A. Andrew as the famous “War Governor” received its initial boost. Henceforth he would be regarded by many as a man of prescience and capacity, one who foresaw the coming of the war, who labored mightily during his few weeks in office to prepare the Massachusetts militia for the call he knew would soon come, and who was vindicated when the well armed and trained Massachusetts troops were the first to answer Lincoln’s call. While it is quite true that Massachusetts was indeed the first state to respond effectively, one may reasonably question the assumption that the efficient mustering and rapid dispatch of such a task force without undue confusion and delay could be attributed solely, or even in large part, to the efforts of a state executive who had been in office for only thirteen weeks. This is not to deny the enormous contributions made by Governor Andrew; indeed his exertions to prepare the militia in the short time available were simply astonishing. However, a century of military experience garnered by this nation since 1861 indicates that effective military forces are not created overnight—or in thirteen weeks. That the Massachusetts militia was effectively prepared in April, 1861, was due not so much to last minute individual efforts as to a long military tradition in that state, a tradition fostered over the years by a group of militia enthusiasts who were willing to devote an inordinate share of their time and energy to its betterment as a military force. And if the flame of this enthusiasm occasionally flickered low under the chilling drafts of public apathy, legislative penury, or pacifist re1 Some Pennsylvania militia had reached Washington earlier, but their numbers were few and, more important, they were unarmed.”

The article goes on to argue that Massachusetts militia had been training for a moment like this for decades starting with state legislation passed in 1781 that better organized the militia so it could respond more quickly and then with a reform movement in the early 19th century that continued its aim at improving the response time of the state militia.

Nonetheless, although these early responders were only required to serve for 90 days, many of them served the entire duration of the war after their regiments were incorporated into the Twenty-Ninth Regiment, and many of their names show up on the rolls for most of the Civil War battles.

Massachusetts soldiers and sailors also helped protect their home state by building, maintaining and defending coastal defenses and forts in Massachusetts. When officials received reports of Confederate privateers in Buzzard’s Bay and the Long Island Sound in 1861, troops were ordered to build a sand battery with three 24-pound guns at Clark’s Point in New Bedford and the coast guard, home guards and artillery companies were ordered to man the guns at Fort Phoenix in Fairhaven and at Fort Taber at Clark’s Point.

On March 30th, 1863, the Massachusetts General Court appropriated $1 million for coastal defenses and construction began on earthworks at Provincetown, Gloucester, Salem, Plymouth and Newburyport in October. The earthworks were finally completed, armed and garrisoned in 1864.

Massachusetts Trade & Commerce in the Civil War:

Massachusetts’ manufacturing industry became a major producer of munitions and supplies for the Union, particularly the Springfield Armory, according to the West Brookfield Historical Commission website:

“The advanced state of industrialization in the North, as compared with the Confederate states, was a major factor in the victory of Union armies. At the start of the war, the Springfield Armory was one of only two federal armories in the country. The armory produced the primary weapon of the Union infantry during the war the Springfield rifled musket. By the end of the war, nearly 1.5 million had been produced by the armory and its numerous contractors across the country.”

Massachusetts textiles mills, which were the staple of the state’s economy at the time, were hit hard by the outbreak of the war though. In late 1861, the Confederate states instituted an embargo on cotton which brought northern trade and the textile mills to a halt. Soon the mill’s raw cotton supplies became more valuable then finished cloth. This forced the mills to sell off their cotton supplies and temporarily shut down all mill operations.

Massachusetts whaling fleets from Salem, Nantucket and New Bedford became vulnerable to Confederate attack during the war. Eight whaling ships from New Bedford were destroyed by one Confederate raider, the Alabama, and New Bedford lost at total of 28 whaling ships and $500,000 worth of sperm oil to Confederate ships during the course of the war. This led to a major decline in New England’s whaling industry and caused Massachusetts to lose its lead in commerce and trade.

According to the book, The Maritime History of Massachusetts by Samuel Eliot Morrison, the Civil War greatly affected Massachusetts commerce and shipping but Morrison argues that maritime shipping had been slowly dying before the war even began:

“Every great war has brought an upheaval in Massachusetts commerce, some for the better, but for the Civil War conspicuously for the worse. Not that the Confederate cruisers were responsible. The American merchant marine had increased and prospered during the earlier wars, in spite of depredations infinitely greater than those of the Alabama and her consorts…The Civil War merely hastened a process that had already begun, the substitution of steam for sail. It was the ostrich-like attitude of maritime Massachusetts towards this process, more than the war, by which she lost her ancient preeminence. Far better had the brains and energy that produced the clipper ships been put into the iron screw steamer…After Appomattox, national expansion and the protective tariff killed or atrophied many lines of commerce in which Massachusetts merchants had specialized; and the transatlantic cable made merchants, in the old sense, anachronism. Several firms continued the carrying trade profitably in sailing vessels for some years; and many remained faithful to blue water for the rest of their lives. But it was Maine rather than Massachusetts that kept the flag afloat at the spanker-gaff of sailing ships.”

Boston in the Civil War:

The Civil War had a profound affect on Boston. Although the majority of Bostonians opposed slavery and supported the Union cause, there was a small faction in the city, mostly Irish immigrants, who were very vocal about their opposition to abolitionism and their sympathy for the South. This sometimes led to rioting and violence prior to and during the war.

Boston citizens who supported the Union did so wholeheartedly. Many prominent Boston businessmen donated money and supplies to the war effort, Boston citizens eagerly responded to the call to arms and Boston politicians rallied the city behind the Union cause.

Boston newspapers reported tirelessly on the war and Boston citizens responded with glee or sadness with each Union victory or defeat. Bostonians took to the streets to celebrate when news reached the city that the Confederate capital, Richmond, fell to the Union army and citywide celebrations were held when the Confederates finally surrendered at Appomattox a few days later in April of 1865.

Civil War Sites in Massachusetts:

Faneuil Hall in the Civil War

Many abolitionist meetings and meetings about the Union were held in Faneuil Hall prior and during the Civil War. In addition, many Massachusetts Regiment reported to Faneuil Hall on April 16, 1861 to receive new equipment before marching off to war the following afternoon.

Fort Warren in the Civil War

Fort Warren is a historic fort in Boston Harbor that was built just after the Civil War broke out in 1861. During the war, the fort served as a prison for Confederate POWs. The fort became a national historic site in 1958 and is now open to visitors.

Fort Independence in the Civil War

Fort Independence is a historic fort in Boston harbor that was originally built in the 17th century. During the Civil War, it served as a secondary seacoast defense, a recruiting and training camp for the military, an ordnance-testing site and a prison for federal troops.

Fort Strong in the Civil War

Fort Strong is a historic fort in Boston harbor. During the Civil War, the island served as a training camp for draftees from New England states.

Springfield Armory in the Civil War

The Springfield Armory produced millions of rifles and bayonets for the Union army during the Civil War. The armory became a national historic site in the 1970s and is open to visitors.

USS Constitution in the Civil War

The USS Constitution is a historic Boston-based ship that was first built in 1797. During the Civil War, the ship served as a training ship for cadets at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland in 1861.

When rumors began to spread that Confederates in Maryland and in Virginia planned to attack the Naval Academy and capture the ship, Captain George S. Blake, the superintendent of the academy, asked the Navy Department for protection and asked Welles if he would be allowed to sail the ship to Philadelphia or New York if it came under attack.

Welles response was “defend the Constitution at all hazards. If it cannot be done, destroy her.” After the evacuation and attack on nearby Fort Norfolk on April 20, Blake received intelligence that a Confederate attack on the USS Constitution was imminent and sent a small armed schooner, the Rainbow, to patrol the Severn River and Chesapeake Bay.

On April 20, a vessel carrying General Benjamin Butler and the 8th Massachusetts regiment arrived in Annapolis and when Blake told him of his concerns for the ship, Butler assigned a contingent of troops, the Salem Zuaves from Salem, Mass, to guard the Constitution and ordered a group of Marblehead, Mass sailors to report to the USS Constitutions commander, and also offered to assist if it became necessary to evacuate the ship.

Although this was helpful, Blake knew this was only temporary and securing the academy and the Constitution against attack would require so large a troop presence that it would be nearly impossible.

As a result, according to the book The United States Naval Academy, on April 26, Blake decided to sail the USS Constitution to New York to protect it from attack. The day after the ship’s departure, Blake received a message from the Navy Department to hold the ship in Annapolis for protection. As it was already en route to New York it was too late to do so.

The ship arrived in New York on the 29 and the Navy Department, the Army and the Secretary of War discussed where to relocate the Naval Academy and the USS Constitution.

They settled on Fort Adams in Newport Harbor and, on May 8, 1861, the ship arrived in Newport Harbor where it safely remained for the duration of the war.

Morrison, Samuel Eliot. The Maritime History of Massachusetts, 1783-1860. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1922.
O’Connor, Thomas H. Civil War Boston: Home Front and Battlefield. Northeastern University Press, 1997.
Benjamin, Park. The United States Naval Academy: Being the Yarn of the American Midshipman. The Knickerbocker Press, 1900.
“Boston Harbor Islands During the Civil War.” National Park Service,
The Magazine of History: With Notes and Queries, Volumes 9-10. William Abbatt, 1909.
“Boston Draft Riot of 1863.” New England Historical Society,
Nason. George Warren. History and Complete Roster of the Massachusetts Regiments. Smith & McCance, 1910.
Palfreyman, Brett M. “The Boston Draft Riots.” New York Times, 16 July. 2013,
O’Connor, Thomas H. “How the Civil War Changed Boston.”, 14 Aug. 2011,
“Exploring a New Freedom Trail for the Civil War.”,
“Massachusetts in the Civil War: 1861-1862.” Massachusetts Historical Society,
“The Civil War.” Massvacation,
“USS Constitution History.”, United States Navy,

Massachusetts in 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.

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