The Minutemen of ’61

Last month I wrote a bit about the Massachusetts Militia before the war.  That led me to think about the response of Massachusetts at the start of the war 152 years ago this week. Years later chroniclers of the Massachusetts militia boasted of their impact:  “To the fact that Massachusetts for years had maintained a military force known as the Volunteer Militia, the members of which were somewhat accustomed to the use of arms, and inured to some degree to the discomforts of the tented field, may be accredited the salvation of the nation in the early spring of the year 1861.”1  That is over the top, yet in a war characterized by hesitant generals, transportation delays and communication confusion, it is impressive the speed at which Massachusetts put units into action.

Nathaniel Banks term in office ended in January 1861 and John Andrew succeeded him as  Governor. Though both were Republicans, the two did not like each other. However, they did share a belief that the Massachusetts militia should be maintained in a high state of efficiency and preparedness. Banks efforts had helped, but Andrew took it to the next level. One of his first executive actions was to order militia commanders to update their rosters and fill vacancies. He also requested the legislature appropriate funds for the militia and he wrote to General Scott and to Governors of neighboring states to encourage  coordination. His preparations paid off.

On Monday April 15th President Lincoln issued the proclamation calling for States to furnish militia.  The initial request to Massachusetts was for 2 regiments however the Massachusetts congressional delegation lobbied Lincoln and got the state quota doubled to 4 regiments. Andrew received the message that same day and promptly directed the 3rd, 4th, 6th and 8th regiments to assemble in Boston.

By the afternoon of April 16th, all four regiments had gathered in Boston and were being equipped to depart.

On April 17th, the day the Virginia Convention voted to secede, the 3rd and 6th regiments departed Massachusetts, one by rail for Washington and the other by boat for Fort Monroe.

On April 18th,  the day the Virginia militia seized the US arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, the 6th Massachusetts passed through New York and reached Philadelphia; the 4th Massachusetts left Massachusetts by boat;  and the 8th left Massachusetts by rail, reaching New York that night.

On April 19th, the 6th arrived in Baltimore to find that a street mob was obstructing the way through the city.  Able to fight its way through, the 6th continued to Washington where it joined the 26th Pennsylvania, the first state regiment to come to the defense of Washington.  The resistance in Baltimore prompted a change of plan for the 8th Massachusetts. A ferry boat was requisitioned north of Baltimore and the 8th steamed down Chesapeake Bay to Annapolis where it was joined by the 7th New York, the first regiment from that state.

On Saturday April 20th, the 3rd and the 4th Massachusetts disembarked at Fort Monroe in Virginia, which had previously been held by just 350 men of the US Artillery.

Thus within five days of Lincoln’s proclamation, Massachusetts had mobilized four regiments and moved them over 400 miles — one to Washington, one to Annapolis and two to Fort Monroe.  Other states were also mobilizing, but only the 7th New York and 26th Pennsylvania had made it to the front by April 20th.

The arrival of these regiments, dashed Confederate hopes in Virginia and Maryland.  On April 20 the superintendent of Virginia’s South Side railroad had written L.P. Walker, Confederate Secretary of War, that trains and boats were ready to put thousands of Confederate troops into Baltimore within 24 hours: “An hour now is worth years of common fighting…One dash and Lincoln is taken.” But the men were not ready and the moment passed. A few months later, Jefferson Davis would complain to his brother that  if only Virginia had been more prepared “we might now have been contending for the bank of the Susquehanna”.  While the Confederates had been bellicose in bombarding Fort Sumter, Massachusetts had been even more energized for war.


Personal disclosure: My interest in this topic was partially inspired by learning that my great great grandfather served in the Lynn Light Infantry, which formed Company D of the 8th Massachusetts.




One response to “The Minutemen of ’61”

  1. Bill Lyon Avatar
    Bill Lyon

    Great Blog!! My Great Great Grandfather (Charles Phillips Lyon) Served as a 2nd LT. in Company A of the 3rd Infantry. Lore in the family was that in the middle of the night on April 15th he rode “Paul Revere Style” through the town of Halifax collecting the militia for the call to Boston (and eventually Fort Monroe). Reading your account I can see how this was certainly possible. I am fortunate to possess his officers sword, minutemen of 61′ medal, and a minutemen reunion medal from 1902.

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