Lasting lessons in an 1862 Boston Thanksgiving

An abolitionist and a Mass. governor’s Thanksgiving dinner led to the creation of a storied black Civil War regiment

The 54th Massachusetts Regiment owes much of its existence to Lewis Hayden and Governor John Andrew.
The 54th Massachusetts Regiment owes much of its existence to Lewis Hayden and Governor John Andrew.

On Thursday, when you sit down for your meal and give thanks, take a few minutes to share with the table the story about one of the most important Thanksgiving dinners in history. It took place 150 years ago in Boston on Nov. 27, 1862.

On that day, Governor John Albion Andrew of Massachusetts joined Lewis Hayden for dinner at Hayden’s Beacon Hill home on what was then Southac Street (today it’s Phillips Street). Hayden was a self-emancipated black man who had escaped from a life of slavery in Kentucky, settled in Boston where he ran a used clothing store, and became an abolitionist leader. His Beacon Hill residence was also used as a safe house on the Underground Railroad.

Hayden and Andrew shared a meal and talked about how to persuade President Lincoln to allow black men fight in the Union Army. Lincoln had not yet signed the Emancipation Proclamation; he would do so on Jan. 1 of the next year.


“Despite the friendship between the two men, the debate at the Thanksgiving table must have been lively,” Joel Strangis wrote in his 1999 book, “Lewis Hayden and the War Against Slavery.” “Hayden knew the importance of former slaves fighting for their own freedom and he knew his friends were willing to fight. The Emancipation Proclamation would soon be effective and the time to enlist black men had come.”

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
Forget yesterday's news. Get what you need today in this early-morning email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

The rest is history. Andrew promised Hayden he would seek permission to form a regiment of black soldiers. And once Lincoln signed the proclamation, it happened. In May 1863, the 54th Massachusetts Regiment (the first black soldiers from the North in the Civil War) paraded through Boston, made up of 1,364 enlisted men and 78 officers.

So why does all this matter today?

It is important context if you see Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” which tells the story of Lincoln’s aggressive efforts to pass the 13th Amendment , which abolished slavery.

And next year, the Museum of African American History will present the exhibit “Freedom Rising” to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Exhibit themes will include the antislavery movement, in which Boston played an outsized role; the campaign for black troops; Massachusetts’s black regiments; and women and the Civil War.


If you want to see Hayden’s house, it is at 66 Phillips St. on the Black Heritage Trail.

June Wulff can be reached at