Ghosts of the Civil War
Boston’s role in the abolitionist movement is barely visible
WALKING AROUND Boston, we see high-profile sites reminding us that Boston basically started the American Revolution: the Boston Massacre site, the Old State House, Faneuil Hall. But we rarely recognize the places once famous in this city’s equally important role in the abolitionist movement that led to the Civil War. We should commemorate the 150th anniversary of that war by erecting interpretive signs at neglected Civil War sites and monuments.
Twelve Post Office Square fronts busy Congress Street. Few drivers and pedestrians likely notice the virtually invisible sign on the building marking the spot where, in 1831, William Lloyd Garrison began publishing his radically abolitionist and nationally influential weekly newspaper, The Liberator. Garrison’s relentless and uncompromising calls for immediate emancipation were eventually heard: He played an essential role in propelling the nation to Civil War. But few Bostonians are aware of it.
Does anyone who walks by 26 Court Street, steps from Boston’s City Hall and currently the headquarters of the Boston Public Schools, know that it was the site of a cruel courthouse where runaway slaves were returned to slavery? In 1854, a federal commissioner ordered fugitive slave Anthony Burns back to slavery. While thousands of Bostonians lined the streets in furious protest, federal troops marched Burns from the downtown courthouse - mocked as a “slave pen’’ by abolitionists - to Boston Harbor, where a ship waited to transport him to the South. Amos A. Lawrence, whose family had made its fortune converting slave-picked cotton to cloth, said of that day: “We went to bed one night old fashioned conservative compromise Union Whigs and waked up stark mad Abolitionists!’’
Today’s newer building bears a strong resemblance to the courthouse it replaced, but the only interpretive plaque on the building says the former courthouse was “the site of the labors of John Augustus’’; a second plaque identifies him as the founder of probation. There is no mention of Anthony Burns’s “mock trial’’ - nor of the unsuccessful attempted mob rescue of Burns which resulted in the indictments of several leading abolitionists. The Burns case was not an obscure moment; it forcefully demonstrated that the North’s vision of liberty could no longer accommodate the slave-holding South.
Nor is there a marker at the Orpheum Theater, formerly known as the Boston Music Hall, on Hamilton Place. On Jan. 1, 1863, Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, and Ralph Waldo Emerson were among thousands who gathered at the Music Hall or the nearby Tremont Temple Baptist Church (also underappreciated) to await word that President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
The statue of Charles Sumner in the Public Garden is particularly lonely. It has one word, “SUMNER,’’ on its base. When it was erected in 1878, no further explanation was necessary: US Senator Sumner was an unrelenting abolitionist, an advocate for equal rights, a national (or at least Northern) hero, and it was inconceivable he would be largely forgotten by future generations. After Sumner gave a stridently anti-slavery speech in 1856, South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks caned Sumner nearly to death on the floor of the Senate. This event hastened war. Massachusetts reelected the severely injured Sumner; his Senate seat sat empty during the three years he spent recovering. When he returned to the Senate, Sumner’s first speech was “The Barbarism of Slavery.’’
Even the magnificent Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in the heart of Boston Common is neglected. The 1877 inscription tells us that “the grateful city has built this monument that their example may speak to coming generations.’’ Sadly, few members of the current generation know of this monument to the brave men who fought for the Union and against slavery.
On a recent visit to Philadelphia, I was struck by the number of attractive, free-standing (and yet unobtrusive) sidewalk signs interpreting buildings, sites, and monuments, including that city’s Civil War Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial. The great storytelling that turned Pennsylvania’s cracked statehouse bell into the Liberty Bell, a national icon for freedom, continues in Philadelphia today.
It is time Bostonians took pride in and responsibility for telling our Civil War story. State leaders could start, literally, at their own front door by erecting a sign telling visitors about Civil War Major General “Fighting Joe’’ Hooker whose statue, created by the famous Daniel Chester French, guards the visitor entrance. Attractive and informative signs should mark other key sites, so our children will learn that Boston was the hub of abolitionism, and that the American Revolution was a beginning, not an end, to Boston’s leading role in our quest for freedom.
Barbara F. Berenson is coauthor of “Walking Tours of Civil War Boston: Hub of Abolitionism.’’