- Historic Sites
The Northern Front
Boston is so bright a beacon of Revolutionary history that it is easy to forget the city played an equally significant role in another civil war. Dara Horn, a Harvard junior, seeks out the moral engine of the Union cause.
April 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 2
Time is a viscous fluid, and occasionally it sticks to places, leaving the residue of certain centuries attached to the edges of buildings, or to markers on the streets, or to the insides of tourists’ heads. In Boston that clinging moment is the colonial period and the American Revolution. When tourists think of Boston, they think of Puritans and patriots, of minutemen and Paul Revere.
Time is a viscous fluid, and occasionally it sticks to places, leaving the residue of certain centuries attached to the edges of buildings, or to markers on the streets, or to the insides of tourists’ heads. In Boston that clinging moment is the colonial period and the American Revolution. When tourists think of Boston, they think of Puritans and patriots, of minutemen and Paul Revere. The Freedom Trail, Boston’s most famous historical tour route, takes visitors to pre-1776 spots: the site of the Boston Massacre, the Old North Church (of “one if by land, two if by sea” fame), and a half-dozen cemeteries filled with dead Mathers. The tourist business booms in the spring and summer, when visitors throng Faneuil Hall, a colonial city hall turned shopping center; Plimoth Plantation, where a “living museum” re-creates life in 1627; and Boston Harbor, where costumed interpreters re-enact the Tea Party several times a week. You don’t even need to be a tourist to trip over the seventeenth-century milestones that poke out of the city’s brick sidewalks.
This single-mindedness is unfortunate, however, because it obliterates the memory of the time when Boston last took the nation by storm, which was not the American Revolution but the Civil War. When I arrived in the city as a college student three years ago and took a few American history courses, I began to notice this omission in the way Boston bills its history. The more I read about the Civil War, the more of it seemed, contrary to what I had learned in high school history classes, to have taken place in Boston. No battle was fought near the city, but Boston was the center of some of the most vocal protests against slavery and of the most enthusiastic support for the Union cause. Massachusetts freed its slaves in 1783, and it wasn’t long before a large (and literate) free black community began to grow in Boston, offering support and lodging to fugitives headed for Canada.
The vast majority of abolitionists made their homes in Boston. Frederick Douglass lived here, as did the Secret Six, a cabal of businessmen and reformers who surreptitiously planned and financed John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, which gave the abolitionist cause its d»finitive martyr. Boston had long been America’s “churchiest” city, and it was a Boston activist and reformer, Julia Ward Howe, who turned the soldiers’ chant “John Brown’s Body” into “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a stirring and religiously inspired call to arms that proved to be the most influential song in American history. (Her husband, the reformer Samuel Gridley Howe, also had no small connection to “John Brown’s Body” he was one of the Secret Six.) Charles Sumner, the U.S. senator and hometown kid, got savagely beaten by a Southern representative when he dared to speak for abolition on the Senate floor. It was here in Boston that the first antislavery societies were formed; it was here that the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison proclaimed “no union with slaveholders” it was here that the Union Army recruited its first regiment of Northern blacks; it was here, more than anywhere else in America, where support of the Northern cause refused to be silenced. To call Boston the intellectual capital of the North, or even the moral engine of the Union, would not be an exaggeration.
So why is Boston so little associated with the Civil War? Maybe because its role in the conflict was one of mind rather than body, but that hardly seems an adequate excuse; there were plenty of actual fugitive slaves hiding out in Boston’s basements. Maybe it’s because only one moment can really cling to a place, and Boston’s moment beat the Civil War to the punch. As a result, looking for traces of the Civil War past here is sort of like peeking into the little cracks in the city to find out where that extra century might have slipped through. But despite Boston’s tendency to boast of itself only as the “cradle of the Revolution,” you can still find traces of the cradle of the Union cause.
Boston is a town that carefully curates its memories. At the city’s centennial celebration Boston’s mayor writes a letter to be delivered to his yet unborn successor on the following centennial; it is stored in city hall for the next hundred years. There is a statue of some famous person you’ve never heard of approximately every sixteen feet. And since no real marks of the Civil War itself scar the city, Boston has built monument after monument in honor of its heroes, so many statues that after a while you stop looking at them, just as you eventually stop tripping on the colonial milestones. The Civil War appears in Boston in the form of statues and stone tablets, and in buildings that once shook with passionate voices. You just have to know what you’re looking for.