How the Civil War changed Boston
Why it's the surprises of history that often matter most.
Any time a country declares war, it does so to pursue certain objectives. But time and again history has shown us that the most lasting consequences are often those no one intended. So it was in Boston 150 years ago, after Confederate forces opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor and the nation found itself in a civil war.
Not long after that day in April 1861, Massachusetts regiments marched off to join Union forces gathering on the Confederate borders. The military goal was clear from the beginning – the restoration of the Union at all costs – but it would take years for some of the war’s unexpected consequences to be seen in Boston.
In the long run, for example, the Civil War would do much to mitigate the hostile attitude of native-born Bostonians toward Irish Catholic immigrants. Less than a decade before the outbreak of war, the so-called Know-Nothings had taken over the state government, determined to save Massachusetts from what one politician called the “insidious wiles of foreigners.” The party called for an end to further immigration, denounced Catholics as untrustworthy, and promised an end to “Rome, rum, and robbery.”
Yet, tens of thousands of Irish fought to preserve the Union, and their displays of courage at battles such as Gettysburg won them a measure of respect that would allow them to participate more fully in the social and political life of the city. Before the war, few Bostonians would have ever thought that possible.
The conflict also unexpectedly raised the status of Boston women. Lacking sufficient manpower to deal with the complexities of its greatest war, the North was forced to turn to womanpower. Instead of staying home to darn socks and roll bandages, as they had in past conflicts, women were called upon to care for the wounded on the battlefields and to take on managerial positions behind the lines.
In organizations such as the US Sanitary Commission, for which Louisa May Alcott volunteered as a nurse, it was women who set budgets, consulted with members of Congress, and argued with bureaucrats. After the war, colleges such as Vassar and Smith were founded to provide women with the kind of education previously available only to their fathers, brothers, and husbands.
It is one of history’s great ironies, though, that the Civil War delivered so few substantial results for Boston’s African-Americans after raising such high expectations. During the first two years of war, blacks were not even allowed to join a fight that was, at least in part, for their independence.
Nevertheless, after President Lincoln formally announced the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, black Bostonians responded swiftly. Governor John Andrew authorized the formation of three all-black regiments, and they went on to fight through the end of the war. The soldiers of the 5th Calvary were among the first Union troops to march into Richmond, Virginia, at the head of General Sherman’s victorious armies.
At the end of the war, the 13th Amendment ensured the end of slavery in our nation, while the 14th and 15th amendments appeared to guarantee black Americans full civil and political rights. It was not long, however, before it became clear that neither heroic feats nor inspiring rhetoric would really change the lives of African-Americans – even in liberal Boston.
Unlike the Irish, who were able to move out of the neighborhoods they’d been sequestered in, the black community remained segregated on the back slopes of Beacon Hill. African-Americans were still prevented from apprenticing in many skilled professions, and so continued to cut hair, shine shoes, and wait tables. And they were systematically denied the kind of political opportunities consistent with their new civil and political rights. As the Civil War faded into history, so did the dreams of equality for many black Bostonians.
Perhaps as the nation considers the advantages and disadvantages of involving itself in wars around the world, it might do well to study the Civil War. It’s one example of how the nation entered a conflict with specific objectives in mind, but emerged five bloody years later with positive results no one could have anticipated – and one lingering problem no one knew how to solve.
Thomas H. O’Connor is university historian at Boston College and the author of Civil War Boston: Home Front and Battlefield. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.