A lot of glory tends to go to the first Massachusetts regiments that went off to war in April 1861 just after the Battle of Fort Sumter. And far be it from me to detract in any way from the fame of the “Minutemen of ’61.” They were brave, patriotic and quick to answer their country’s call. Most famous among them, as many a Civil War buff knows, was the 6th Massachusetts who became the first Federal unit to suffer casualties during the war (in the Baltimore Riot) and the first volunteer unit to reach Washington in answer to Lincoln’s call for troops. Quite a distinction.
Much has been written about these Minutemen of ’61 and the tumultuous days just after the commencement of the war. Seldom discussed and lesser known is the fact that late August 1861 (15o years ago this week) was perhaps the Commonwealth’s brightest moment in terms of filling up the ranks. In the two and a half weeks between August 17 and September 4, six regiments left Massachusetts for the front. Three of them departed on August 23. Now, by the standards of New York or Pennsylvania, that may not sound like a lot. But never again during the Civil War would so many soldiers depart Massachusetts in such a compact span of time. One can only imagine the scenes in Boston. The crowds, the fanfare, and the emotion. And, unlike the “Minutemen of ’61,” these regiments were not leaving for 90 days, but for a term of three years.
Witness to all this was Lt. John F. Dunning, a housewright from Maine who had moved to Boston in 1860. Before the war, he was commissioned a lieutenant in the 6th Massachusetts Volunteer Militia. He went with the 6th Massachusetts to Baltimore and Washington and on August 8, having finished out his 90 day term, he returned home to Boston. He arrived right in the midst of this frenzy of recruiting activity. I don’t know for certain, but I can imagine him watching these new regiments forming on Boston Common in August, being presented with their flags, being lauded by Governor Andrew and sent off to the train stations or to steamships amidst the wild cheers of Boston citizens. I imagine him watching these scenes and gritting his teeth, eager to get back into the fight.
At this stage, Massachusetts (like most states) was putting together regiments faster than the Federal government would accept them. In April the five 90 day regiments went off (the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 8th Massachusetts). The Commonwealth was only supposed to send four regiments, but Gov. Andrew somehow managed to slip the 5th Massachusetts in there for good measure. In May, Massachusetts was authorized to send six regiments to serve for a term of three years. And off went the 1st, 2nd, 7th, 9th, 10th and 11th Massachusetts over the course of June and July.
On June 17, 1861, came the third wave when Congress authorized another call for troops, and this time Massachusetts was called upon to send ten regiments for a term of three years. These regiments started recruiting in June and July, more or less taking their time. But things really kicked into high gear with the staggering defeat at Bull Run on July 21, 1861. Now all states were urged to send their regiments as quickly as possible.
The regiments then forming at various camps across the Commonwealth struggled to fill out their rosters. Officers vigorously recruited, with varying degrees of success. They attempted to train their raw recruits as best they could, knowing that they only had two or three weeks until these men might be thrown into battle.
The first of these ten new regiments, the 12th Massachusetts, departed just two days after Bull Run on July 23, 1861 (they had actually been recruiting since the spring and had a head start). In late July and early August the 13th, 14th and 15th Massachusetts left the state. The remaining six regiments were still fighting to fill up the ranks.
And meanwhile, Lt. Dunning was watching all this activity and considering raising a new company. Time was growing short, however. As August drew on, regiments began filling up and departing quickly. It must have weighed heavily on Dunning’s mind…if his company was to be attached to one of these ten new regiments, he would have to act quickly. After all, once these ten left, who knew how long it would be until the next call for troops?
First he would need a sponsor. Dunning apparently admired former Governor, Secretary of State and U.S. Senator Edward Everett. So, he wrote Everett asking if he might call his yet-to-be-formed company the “Everett Guard.” I have no doubt that Dunning genuinely respected Everett, but his choice was still a savvy one…Everett had the wherewithal to make a considerable donation to jump-start his company. On August 22, Everett responded, “I consider it a great compliment to have my name given to a company of patriotic citizens enlisting at this important moment…especially when it is done under the auspices of an officer of that noble Sixth Massachusetts Regiment, Capt. John F. Dunning.” With the letter, he made a donation of $100. Dunning now had the seed money to begin recruiting.
But the regiments were leaving fast. On August 17, the 16th Massachusetts left Boston. On August 23, the 17th, 19th and 21st Massachusetts regiments departed. On August 26, the 18th Massachusetts departed. Nine out of ten regiments had been supplied. And it appeared that the tenth would be the 20th Massachusetts, encamped at Readville. The 20th Mass had had some trouble in recruiting and needed additional companies to fill out its roster. Might it have occurred to Dunning that, if he moved fast enough, he could get his company in with the 20th Massachusetts and make it under the wire, so to speak?
On August 28, Dunning opened a recruiting office in the first floor of the Boston Museum at 28 Tremont Street. A good choice. The Boston Museum was a tremendously popular place. It exhibited everything from Copley paintings to P.T. Barnum’s bunk specimens, and had a theatre on the top floor. Proper Bostonians, however, would never attend something so base as a “theatre” and so preferred to say that they were going to the “museum.” It was Boston’s biggest theatre for most of the 19th century. John Wilkes Booth performed there.
In a matter of days Dunning had recruited half a company. But the second half came rather slowly. And on September 4, 1861, the 20th Massachusetts (the last of the regiment needed to fill the quota of ten) departed Boston. Dunning had missed the boat.
Fortunately, however, Capt. Dunning and the still undermanned Everett Guard were ordered to report to Camp Schouler in Lynnfield two days later on September 6. They would not have to wait for a new call for troops. Senator Henry Wilson had pulled some strings and secured special permission to recruit a new regiment…the 22nd Massachusetts.