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The Northern Front

June 2024
19min read

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.

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.

A good place to begin searching, I discovered, is the city’s Black Heritage Trail, which ends at the African Meeting House, a tiny brick building approachable by an alley grandly named Smith Court. Built in 1806, the Meeting House is the oldest standing black church building in the United States. It also served its congregants as far more than a place of worship. The building’s cramped basement housed Boston’s and perhaps America’s first public school for black children, and when Massachusetts became the first Northern state to allow black soldiers to fight, the U.S. Army began recruiting soldiers for its first black combat regiment in that same basement room. It was a meeting place for Boston’s black community, and the main sanctuary was among Frederick Douglass’s most cherished public-speaking stops. And it was here that William Lloyd Garrison, perhaps the most effective of all abolitionists, created his New England Anti-Slavery Society.

In 1898 community migration led to the building’s sale to a Jewish congregation, and it was used as a synagogue until it became a museum in 1972. Today it has been remodeled inside to resemble what it looked like as a church in 1855, which is to say very plain. The sanctuary is completely bare, with white-painted walls and unfinished wooden floors. But stand there in a moment when a school group isn’t tramping through and read Garrison’s words framed on the wall: “We have met tonight in this obscure schoolhouse, our numbers are few and our influence limited, but mark my prediction, Faneuil Hall shall long echo with the principles we have set forth. We shall shake the nation by their mighty power.”

No real marks of the war scar the city, but you can feel its presence in buildings that once shook with passionate voices.

When I visited the African Meeting House, I read those words and felt the wooden room tremble, the first rumblings of Boston’s great Civil War machine, the machine that would plow through eleven Rebel states and turn towns into smoldering ash and leave dead men in people’s back yards, not to mention a dead President in its wake, the machine that would cause a nightmare of battle that Boston would be fortunate enough to see only through the eyes of its surviving sons. But those words would also tear into the hearts of thousands and give them strength, making people remember, as words do every now and then, that no one is doomed to anything, that right does, every few centuries or so, make might.

And Garrison was right. Faneuil Hall, Boston’s and America’s oldest standing meeting-house, which he claimed would one day “echo with the principles we have here set forth,” now houses a sculpture of Frederick Douglass. More important, Boston really did “shake the nation” toward war, through the concerted efforts of its citizens to protect fugitive slaves. In the African Meeting House are all sorts of posters and pamphlets issued after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 put escaped bondsmen at risk of capture and return to slavery in the South. One poster permanently on display in the Meeting House urges people in the city to exercise what Henry David Thoreau had recently labeled “Civil Disobedience.” “ CAUTION !!” it screams in giant letters. “Colored People of Boston, One & All, You are hereby respectfully CAUTIONED and advised, to avoid conversing with the Watchmen and Police Officers of Boston, For since the recent ORDER OF THE MAYOR & AEDERMEN , they are empowered to act as KIDNAPPERS and Slave Catchers, And they have already been actually employed in KIDNAPPING, CATCHING, AND KEEPING SLAVES .” As one of the more northern of Northern cities, Boston represented for many fugitives the gateway to freedom in Canada, the final stop on the Underground Railroad. Scattered around Beacon Hill are the safe houses where escaped slaves once hid from kidnappers, and these sites are now marked on the Black Heritage Trail.

The Black Heritage Trail would be worth the walk even without its history, because it takes you on a wonderful tour of Beacon Hill, perhaps Boston’s most rarefied and beautiful neighborhood. The tiny streets are almost always silent; the townhouses, while not large, are in impeccable condition; and the little brick sidewalks look almost as though they’d been polished to a shine. Today Beacon Hill represents Boston’s new young professional class, but in the 186Os the neighborhood was a strange mix of elite white literati, business tycoons, free blacks, and former slaves. The trail leads you past the Phillips School, which in 1855 became the first school in Boston for both white and black children, as well as the Abiel Smith School, a home that was used as a school until the one in the African Meeting House was set up. You pass by three churches, each a center of abolitionist activity; one, the Park Street Church (a little bit off the trail but hard to miss), was the site of Garrison’s first antislavery sermon ever. But the most memorable buildings are the homes of abolitionists, tidy little row houses where fugitives were welcomed and defended.

The Black Heritage Trail would be worth the walk even without its history, because it takes you on a wonderful tour.

At 66 Phillips Street, for example, the brick townhouse, indistinguishable from the neighborhood’s countless other townhouses, was well known to Boston’s fugitives as an Underground Railroad station. Lewis Hayden, himself an escaped slave, turned his home into a safe house for runaways after the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. While hiding runaways in their basement, Hayden and his wife, Harriet, kept two gunpowder kegs under their front stoop. Once, when bounty hunters arrived at their house, the Haydens came out holding lit candles, threatening to drop the flames and detonate their house, themselves—and their visitors—rather than turn over their hidden guests. A few blocks down on Pinckney Street lived George Middleton, a black Revolutionary War veteran who appeared with a loaded musket and shouted down white children who were throwing rocks and clubs at black women and children outside his house. Farther down Pinckney is the home of John J. Smith, a local barber whose shop at the corner of Howard and Bulfinch served as a secret rendezvous place for abolitionists and fugitives.

The strange thing about all these houses, however, is that you can’t actually go inside any of them. Each one of these beautiful townhouses is marked with a plaque on its side, but none has even so much as a gift shop, let alone an exhibit, inside. Instead, the houses remain just as they were in the nineteenth century; they are private homes. As I walked down the streets of Beacon Hill, I saw people going in and out of those Underground Railroad stations, not with candles but with groceries and briefcases. Occasionally I wished I could slip into one of them and find the secret compartments where people once hid, just to see what they looked like inside, as if I were a bounty hunter routing out fugitive slaves or a fugitive who knew that even living free in a broom closet would be better than living outdoors in bondage. Most of the time, though, the decision to keep these houses as homes seems a good one to me. It is as if the city were implying that the people bringing home their groceries today would make the same sacrifices that the earlier tenants did, should history call upon them.

Or would they? You have to be careful with Boston, because as a city obsessed with its own history, it tends to peddle only the most beautiful and morally blameless aspects of its past. You will hear about the generosity and virtue of the Puritans long before you hear about their penchant for executing innocent men and women. You will hear about the prominence of immigrants in local politics long before you hear about the once-prevalent signs reading NO IRISH NEED APPLY . Likewise, if you ever do hear about Boston’s Civil War past, you will hear only of the city’s passion for freedom and never of the distinct possibility that some of the city’s most prominent citizens might have actually opposed abolition. How honest is Boston in portraying itself as the engine of liberation?

As I walked through Beacon Hill, I heard that question murmuring at me around each of the neighborhood’s silent corners, but the only reason I could hear it was that I already knew the answer. I passed a house where an abolitionist published an underground newspaper, and another house where a family of fugitive slaves took refuge, and the half-dozen or so other sites like it on the specially marked trail, but while the neighborhood might have been teeming with hidden refugees, there are still all the houses in between, houses without any sort of plaque attached to an outer wall proudly proclaiming them to be the homes of abolitionists. Who lived in those? Lesser-known freedom fighters? Perhaps, although many of the abolitionists mentioned on the Black Heritage Trail are already rather obscure. Free blacks who went to church right around the corner? Yes, in some cases, although Boston’s free black community, while it was one of the largest of its kind, still comprised only 2,261 people in 1860.


As the neighborhood climbs its way up the hill, the houses become gradually grander, and eventually the dynamic of the neighborhood becomes clear. Those living near the bottom of the hill were the servants of those who lived at its top, the Boston Brahmins, the first families of the city, who had lived there for as long as eight generations or more, the oldest and wealthiest families in town. Some of these Brahmins participated in the abolitionist movement, sometimes even with enough passion to lay down their lives. In fact, Boston’s elite families were often the only ones with the capital and leisure time necessary to engage in activism. But by the middle of the nineteenth century, when the abolitionist movement emerged in full force, Boston’s wealthiest class was making its money primarily through the city’s largest industry, textiles. The Boston area had become famous for its textile mills in Lowell and other nearby towns, where young women were sent to work in the factories by day and to learn from church instructors about how to maintain Christian virtue in the evenings, a pleasant arrangement including room, board, wages, and morality enough to ensure a young woman’s situation until she found a man to marry. But while these mills played the typical Bostonian role of cities on the hill, they made their profits by churning out cotton fabric, made with raw material harvested on the cheap by slave labor in the South.

In one of the war’s few moments of true racial equality, Shaw’s body was thrown into a ditch along with his soldiers.

The people living down the street from where Garrison first spoke, while their city may have been the strongest pro-Union contingent in the country, still owed their fortunes to Southern slavery. In fact, Boston’s abolitionists had such strong opponents that Garrison, who had publicly burned the Constitution, was later beaten in the streets of Beacon Hill, most likely by thugs sent out by the textile mafia.

At the beginning of the Black Heritage Trail is Boston’s standing song to its greatest Civil War martyr, the monument to Col. Robert Gould Shaw and his 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Shaw, a Boston Brahmin and Harvard student, was a promising young soldier in the Army of the Potomac who could have ascended the ranks of the esteemed 2d Massachusetts Regiment. Instead he chose to serve as colonel of the 54th Massachusetts, one of the first black regiments to fight for the North. In one of his many letters home, Shaw told his family how happy he was with his decision: “I feel convinced I shall never regret having taken this step, as far as I myself am concerned; for while I was undecided I felt ashamed of myself, as if I were cowardly.” In 1863, when Shaw was twenty-five, his regiment fought a brutal battle at Fort Wagner, on the South Carolina coast. One quarter of the regiment died, including Shaw. In one of the few moments of true racial equality the Civil War ever saw, Shaw’s body was thrown into a ditch with those of his soldiers, many of whom had escaped from slavery.

News of his death, and of the fate of the regiment, shocked the Boston Brahmins and also inspired them. As a friend wrote in a letter shortly after the regiment’s defeat, “I have accepted it as a natural consequence when other good fellows have been killed, but Bob’s death I can’t get over. I don’t think I ever knew any one who had everything so in his favor for a happy life.” It was true. “Bob,” brilliant, handsome, from a wealthy family, and most of all popular and well liked, had a shining career and had just gotten married. His death was a personal tragedy for many, but as time passed, Shaw became less a person than a symbol of the city. When the sculpture, by the artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens, was first unveiled in 1897, the orators at the dedication included Booker T. Washington and William James. Last year, at the memorial’s hundredth anniversary, Gen. Colin Powell spoke in honor of Shaw and his soldiers.

When you look out at Boston Common from the street right below the gold-domed statehouse, the Saint-Gaudens memorial alters your view like a misplaced window in a Magritte painting, a rectangular window that looks out on a century-old moment in time. In high relief, surround- ed by his soldiers, Colonel Shaw sits astride his horse, his back straighter than the rifles his troops are carrying. But while the rest of the sculpture’s bronze men stare stoically ahead, Shaw’s eyebrows strain at the corners of his face like those of a child trying not to cry. It must have been one of those anticipatory instants, this moment that the sculptor has framed in this marble window, a moment right before a tremendous change. In the monument he sits in bronze on his horse below an archaic angel as if uncomfortably trapped, frozen in the instant right before both he and the nation changed forever. The sculpture is a memorial to soldiers who died for the freedom of relatives and friends whom they had left behind in slavery, but it is also a memorial to Bob, the college boy who made a strange choice and ended up in a ditch, the twenty-five-year-old kid who proved to the entire nation what Boston had been trying to prove for the previous two hundred years: that some things are right and some things are wrong.


I guess that’s why I couldn’t stop staring at that window on Boston Common. He was just a guy, just Bob, a college kid like me, but somehow he had succeeded in doing what everyone my age dreams of doing. He had proved to the world that he wasn’t a kid anymore. When William James spoke at the monument’s dedication, he described one of Shaw’s final moments: “Walking up and down in front of his regiment, he briefly exhorted them to prove that they were men.” Somehow they proved it, and I think that if they had lived, they would have proved it too. Bob has gone from being Bob to being Robert Gould Shaw, the man, not the boy, who despite his hesitations and personal prejudices still managed to shake the nation.

The Saint-Gaudens memorial is not the only shrine to Shaw in the city. Across the Charles River in Cambridge, around the corner from the statue of Charles Sumner in Harvard Square, is Memorial Hall, an imposing brick edifice that comes very close to being a secular cathedral, built both to honor knowledge and to remember the Union dead. If you enter Memorial Hall through its giant oaken portals, as most visitors do, you will find yourself inside Harvard’s holiest site and its own private shrine for its Union soldiers, the sanctified Memorial Transept. Except for a few minutes on the hour each day when students come trooping out of Sanders Theatre, the lecture hall to the right, or out of Annenberg, the sprawling and stunning freshman dining hall to the left (take a peek inside to see the superb stained-glass restoration), the Memorial Transept stands empty and silent, and voices in this hallway, like voices in a cathedral, tend to evaporate into whispers toward the vaulted ceiling. The only light during the day comes from two stained-glass rose windows casting burgundy and blue shapes onto the marble floor. But the walls, lined with black walnut paneling and towering Latin inscriptions, are marked off at eye level by slabs of white marble, each of which is carved and painted with the name of a Harvard graduate who died to preserve the Union.

The Memorial Transept was the center of a policy fight two years ago as Harvard tried to decide whether to add the names of those students who had fought and died for the Confederacy or to maintain the dark vessel of a room as a shrine to the Union dead. While Harvard’s Civil War legacy is hardly impeccable by modern standards—a fair number of professors fought vehemently against the abolitionist line—the university has since chosen to leave the Memorial Transept alone, and I think rightly so. For many Bostonians the Civil War was less a senseless tragedy than an apocalyptic battle, a fight between the sinners and the saints. To record the names of the enemy, even if they were alumni, would mean compromising the idea that the war had been a matter of right versus wrong. And Boston has rarely been a place for moral ambiguity.

If you look in the middle of the names on the wall to the right, you’ll find a plaque for Robert Could Shaw, identical in size and shape to those of his classmates. All it gives is his name and the place and date of death (Fort Wagner, S.C., 1863), but this isn’t the only mention of Shaw that was ever made here. Immediately to the right of the Memorial Transept is Sanders Theatre, Cambridge’s largest auditorium, whose hard oaken pews can accommodate almost twelve hundred people. When the Saint-Gaudens memorial was dedicated, Henry Lee Higginson, a respected Boston public figure and philanthropist who was the first patron of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, gave an address to an entire class of Harvard students in this theater to honor his old friend and classmate Bob Shaw. But Higginson was less interested in mourning Shaw’s death than he was in inspiring the students before him, and if you sit in the old Sanders Theatre seats, in front of the stern statue of Josiah Quincy and the giant Veritas seal, it is not hard to imagine Higginson’s words resonating from the wooden stage: “Boys, your generation also in turn has its own fresh ideals, and its message to the world. . . . We know that under stress of war you would prove yourselves brave and loyal soldiers, but your trial comes in the days of peace, and you as citizens are quite as much needed at the front as we were in ’61. ... In yonder cloister, on the tablet with his classmates of 1860, is engraved the name of Robert Gould Shaw. He will always be a heroic figure to you, while to us—his comrades—he will be all this, and furthermore the dear friend, respected and beloved. Harvard students! whenever you hear of Colonel Shaw, or of any officer or of any man of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment, salute him in the name of Harvard University and Harvard men.”

Mount Auburn is more like a park than a traditional cemetery; from its highest point you can look out and see the whole city.

Harvard men (and women) are still easy to find in Sanders Theatre, where students flock by the hundreds to Harvard’s largest undergraduate lecture courses, two of which seem mystically linked to the city’s past. Every other spring students crowd into Sanders for a course called “The Bible and Its Interpreters,” and in the fall hundreds of them gather again for a course called, simply, “Justice.” As one of those students, I pass through the Memorial Transept and into Sanders Theatre several times a week. Too often, as I stumble to and from class, thinking about what the professor in Justice just said or how I’ll never finish that Bible paper due the next day, I am oblivious of the beauty of the cavernous theater and vestibule. But occasionally, when I am less pre-occupied than usual, on my way out of the lecture, I pause in the hallway, look for Shaw’s name on the wall, and silently salute him.

No matter how elusive a city’s history may seem, every city in the world has a reservoir somewhere where the drops of time collect, and that place is the local cemetery. Boston’s dead lie beneath each square foot of the city, their gravestones breaking through the grass and concrete every few blocks, but Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge is the city’s great open museum of its past heroes.


Most cemeteries force a certain silence on their visitors, but Mount Auburn is more like a park than a traditional cemetery. In fact the place is so parklike that visitors have to be reminded that “bicycling, jogging, picnicking, skating and pets are prohibited since the Cemetery is still an active place of burial and visitation.” Instead of hinting to those who walk through it that they too will someday die, the cemetery’s endless garden of monuments brags about those who are already dead. Anyone searching here for signs and symbols of the Civil War, or of just about any other event in the past century and a half, will have no trouble finding the right address (this is a cemetery with named streets) of a particular grave by consulting one of the cemetery’s many maps. Here rest the great families of nineteenth-century Boston, abolitionists and artists, crusaders and tycoons, poets and prophets, all in large family plots that would make any Cabot or Lowell feel right at home. Longfellow is buried here, as are Winslow Homer, Felix Frankfurter, Buckminster Fuller, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, to name only a few in this American pantheon. But for those in search of the residue of the Civil War, there are a few monuments especially worth seeing. The sphinx-shaped Memorial to the Preservation of the Union, with its wonderfully succinct slogan “American Union Preserved-African Slavery Destroyed,” stands across from the large brownstone-and-marble monument to Robert Gould Shaw’s grandfather, with its bronze plaque erected in honor of Colonel Shaw. The colonel’s real grave is a ditch somewhere in South Carolina, but here he lies symbolically buried in his family’s plot. Someone must have felt the way I felt about him, because there was a fresh flower resting beside the tombstone. Julia Ward Howe is also buried here, beneath a stone so plain and unassuming that you might easily miss it as you pass through Mount Auburn’s sculpture garden oi sepulchers. Set two rows back from the closest path, the grave of the woman whose eightieth-birthday tribute labeled her “Poet, Priestess, and Prophet” is inscribed with nothing but her name, her father’s name, her husband’s name, and the boundary years of her long life of activism, 1819-1910 But in Boston people remember her and the spiritual force that she saw within the great conflict. When I once visited the cemetery in the middle of winter, there were fresh flowers on her grave.

After passing by the graves of more reformers than ] could remember the names of, I found myself climbing up toward the cemetery’s highest point, marked by obelisks at the very top. From there I was able to look out and see the whole city, from my own university to the nine others be yond it, in a town where one out of every five people is i college student—just the sort of person to live in a place with a history of rallying to a cause.

There is far less to inspire us now. No obvious moral imperative looms on the national horizon, and religious passion, no longer associated with intellectual pursuit, now stands for ideas that don’t match the city’s liberal politics. Boston is no longer so much a city of ideas and activists as it is a city of students and of books. But as Higginson told Harvard students a century ago, our trial comes in the days of peace, and we are quite as much needed ; the front as they were in “’61.” The m spirit of Boston comes not from what its cit zens said about slavery or anything else bi from the willingness of those citizens to say what they meant and mean what they said. You don’t need a Civil War to do that.

As I looked down at the city, I notice that my favorite moment in the day had a rived, the moment when the sun stops shii ing and starts glowing instead, when Hn and edges are most pronounced and shadov yawn to their greatest lengths. It’s not qui the moment of transition from day to nigh but rather the moment just before that, tl moment of anticipation of evening, whc everything around you in both space ar time—the trees, the shadows, where you’ve been, where you’re going—becomes increc bly clear. The city has grown quiet in th strange omitted gap in time between day ar night, but on these peaceful evenings, if yc listen carefully, you can hear the minglt footsteps of the free and the freed, the livii and the dead. On the other side of the river, a few miles and more than a century away, Robert Gould Shaw sits trapped on his bronze horse, surveying the future while wondering if anyone will discover that elusive residue of time that the nation, shaken by words’ mighty power, once left behind. In the direction of Shaw’s gaze, the sun is beginning to set behind the skyscrapers.


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