Unique Accounts of Boston and `Behind the Lines'

By Nolan, Alan T. | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 31, 1998 | Go to article overview

Unique Accounts of Boston and `Behind the Lines'


Nolan, Alan T., The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


If Columbia, S.C., was to the North the hellhole of secession, Boston to the Confederates was surely the hellhole of the Yankees.

In this exceptional study, Civil War Boston: Home Front & Battlefield (Northeastern University Press. Illus. 352 pages. $26.95), Professor Thomas H. O'Connor tells of the war's impact on and the wartime activities of four identifiable groups in Boston: the business community, the newcomer Irish Catholics, blacks and women.

The author initially asserts what was surely true: "New England's social and cultural traditions of course clashed with those of the South in many ways." Southerners were repelled by the North's growing idealism and "the remarkable wave of liberal social reforms," such as the promotion of public education, aid to the disabled and mentally ill, prison reform, and, of course, abolition.

Boston's upwardly mobile black community was surely unusual in the North. The city's business community, although conservative, was essentially nationalistic in its attitudes. The Irish, themselves the "objects of bigotry, discrimination and outright violence," were unsympathetic to the plight of blacks, slave or free. Further, they perceived abolition as inspired by the English, a fatal defect to the Irish mind. Boston women, especially those of prominent social background and wealth, left their homes to become active and effective in liberal reform movements.

How this Boston culture met and coped with Kansas-Nebraska, John Brown's raid, Sumter, the Emancipation Proclamation, the ghastly news of warfare and Northern politics are intimately reported. Of special interest is the account of Massachusetts abolitionist Gov. John A. Andrew's raising of the fighting blacks of the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteers.

The comings and goings of Frederick Douglass weave through the text. Massachusetts' soldiers are not neglected. The state's distinguished regiments include the Irish units that gained fame on several bloody fields, despite prewar attitudes of the Irish people.

Boston was not a typical Northern urban center. But the circumstances of its people are interesting and useful to an understanding of the Civil War. Mr. O'Connor's book is highly recommended.

Alan T. Nolan, an Indianapolis lawyer, is the author of the classic history,"The Iron Brigade," recently republished by the Indiana University Press.

* * *

John Summerfield Staples is not a familiar name in the literature of the Civil War. But forgotten as he is, the young man from Stroudsburg, Pa., had his moment, as John M. Taylor recounts in While Cannons Roared: The Civil War Behind the Lines (Brassey's. $22.95. 192 pages. Illus.). Staples was President Abraham Lincoln's paid substitute - the system by which a draftee could pay someone else to soldier in his place.

Enlistments in mid-1864 were a trickle, and conscripts were being relied on to fill the ranks. The president decided that if he were to hire a substitute, it might take the stigma off the practice and encourage others to make sure someone was answering the call.

As Mr. Taylor, author of a fine biography of William Seward, among his books, recounts, the man designated to find the Lincoln surrogate turned up Staples. He had enlisted in November 1862 in a Pennsylvania regiment, but was discharged in 1863 after contracting typhoid fever.

He was working as a carpenter in Washington when selected. Staples was agreeable, met the president, was presented with a certificate suitable for framing, left the White House $500 richer and again donned the blue. He was mustered out in September 1865, worked as a wheelwright and died in 1888 at age 43 - at best an asterisk in the war.

In 20 vignettes, the balance previously published here and there, Mr. Taylor concisely and flavorfully offers these fragments of the great war. There's the travail of Gen. …

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