Massachusetts Dropping the Ball on Civil War 150th?

Pre-Civil War Massachusetts Militia muster on Boston Common, c. 1850, State House in background. Image via WikimediaCommons.

[Note: Even as I was writing this post, the wheels were apparently in motion on Beacon Hill. Just a few days after I wrote this, a Massachusetts Sesquicentennial Commission was established…for more on that topic, see the next post.]

In two weeks the company of Civil War reenactors to which I belong will be attending a reenactment in New Britain, Connecticut organized by the Connecticut Civil War Commemoration Commission. It looks like it will be an excellent event and we’ll be proud to be a part of the state of Connecticut’s official commemoration of the beginning of the American Civil War.

Our group, however, is from Massachusetts and we represent soldiers of a Massachusetts regiment. And so we have been looking eagerly for some word from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as to the formation of a state commission on the Civil War sesquicentennial or any plans for an official, state-wide commemoration of the Civil War.

Thus far, nothing.

Civil War reenactors, especially those who have been doing this for a while, have had high expectations for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. We have here an opportunity to raise awareness of this defining episode in our nation’s history, to better understand and evaluate the pivotal role that Massachusetts played during the Civil War era, and to properly honor the men and women who made countless sacrifices during the conflict.

Other states are embracing this opportunity. And I know of numerous municipalities and historical societies in the Commonwealth that are organizing small sesquicentennial events and exhibits.  My unit will be participating in several of them. All of this activity on the local level is exciting and appropriate.

But there really ought to be something on a state-wide level. There may not have been any battles fought in Massachusetts, but the Commonwealth played a tremendous role in the politics leading up to the Civil War and in supporting the war itself through supplies and personnel. Massachusetts sent almost 160,000 men to serve in the war. It was a leading supplier of war materiel through operations such as the Springfield Armory, the Ames Foundry in Chicopee and the Watertown Arsenal. Massachusetts furnished the leaders of relief organizations such as Dorothea Dix who founded the U.S. Army’s Women’s Nursing Bureau, Henry Whitney Bellows who helped established the United States Sanitary Commission, and the one-woman relief agency that was Clara Barton. The war touched every town in every corner of this Commonwealth. How can we fail to properly observe that?

It wouldn’t take much. I understand that these are challenging times and that the folks on Beacon Hill have plenty on their minds. With the economy stalled, tragedy in Japan, and our present-day military actively engaged in various conflicts around the world, it may seem awfully trivial to stop and observe a war that took place 150 years ago. But, on the other hand, I think anyone who pauses to learn a bit about the incredible hardships experienced by those who lived and fought the Civil War will understand just how much we owe to that generation and that it would be a true shame to let this year pass without some sort of an observance.

Not too long ago, this topic was discussed during a regional meeting of New England reenactor groups and some good ideas were raised regarding how the reenacting community might help to generate some movement on this. I know that Civil War Roundtables, historical societies and other organizations have been discussing it as well. It could be the beginning of a grassroots movement.

Hopefully it is not too late to honor the Boys of 1861 from Massachusetts.

About Patrick Browne

I am a PhD candidate in History, former historical society and museum director of roughly 20 years, an author, sometimes Civil War reenactor. I specialize in early American History, particularly the Civil War era. View all posts by Patrick Browne

6 responses to “Massachusetts Dropping the Ball on Civil War 150th?

  • Carole

    Should we be contacting our state senators? I know Tom Kennedy and wouldn’t mind giving his office a call if you think it will help.

  • Martha

    Plus, Carole just sent John Kerry a hand knit hat, so he owes her!

    But in all seriousness, there has been a serious lack of press about the 150th. Wouldn’t hurt to mention it to the Globe.

  • Paul Morceau

    The Charlestown Civil War Remembrance Committee in conjunction with the National Park Service sponsored a day long event to observe the outbreak of the Civil War. The event took place on Sunday April 10, 2011 at the Charlestown Navy Yard Historical Park adjacent to Old Ironsides.The program included a memorial service for the 171 Civil War dead of Charlestown and was followed by a wreath laying at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial in the nearby Training Field located on the Freedom Trail.

    • Historical Digression

      Paul, I know some reenactors who took part in the Charlestown commemoration and understand it was a great event. That puts Charlestown among the numerous Bay State municipalities that are on the ball and organizing observances. Above and beyond that, what we need, IMHO, is a commemoration sponsored by the Commonwealth. And it appears that it will now happen with the appointment of the Governor’s commission on the sesquicentennial. I’m looking forward to seeing what develops.

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