Governor John Albion Andrew and “the Smell of Gunpowder”

John Albion Andrew, from frontispiece of "A History of Massachusetts in the Civil War" by William Schouler, 1868

John Albion Andrew, from frontispiece of “A History of Massachusetts in the Civil War” by William Schouler, 1868

On January 8, 1861 at noon, a battery of cannons on Boston Common commenced fire. The reports reverberated through the narrow streets of Beacon Hill, rattling the houses of the city’s elite. They echoed across Dock Square and the merchant district. They could be heard, no doubt, in the old North End, inside tenements inhabited by Irish immigrants. The cannons continued until 100 rounds had been fired. There must have been many in the city that day who wondered what was happening.

The previous day, just 18 days after South Carolina voted to secede from the Union, new Governor John Albion Andrew, only two days in office, ordered that an artillery salute should be given, “In commemoration of the brave defense of New Orleans, January 8, 1815, by the deceased patriot, General Jackson, and in honor of the gallant conduct and wise foresight of Major Anderson, now in command of Fort Sumter, in the state of South Carolina.”

Many cities across the country annually observed the Battle of New Orleans with such salutes. But Boston had ceased marking the occasion many years prior.[1] When Governor Andrew issued the order, many questioned whether such a salute would not surprise and alarm the inhabitants of the city. Governor Andrew responded to them that it was time that Bostonians “get accustomed to the smell of gunpowder.”[2]

Just over four months later, President Lincoln issued the call for 75,000 volunteers to put down the southern insurrection. On April 18, 1861, the 6th Massachusetts Militia was passing through Trenton, New Jersey by train. They would be the first troops to arrive in Washington in response to the call. Governor Charles Olden of New Jersey stood on the platform staring in frustration at the cars filled with Bay State soldiers. When asked what was wrong, Governor Olden answered, “I am thinking about that damned little state of Massachusetts. Here she is two days after the call for troops, with seven states between her and Washington, half way to that city with a full regiment armed and equipped, bearing the first relief to our beleaguered capital. How could she do it?”[3]

The answer is John Albion Andrew.

Born in Windham, Maine (then Massachusetts) in 1818, Andrew developed a skill for oratory at an early age, holding impromptu speeches and sermons which were attended by his schoolmates at Gorham Academy. When the Liberator was first published in 1831, the twelve year-old boy became fascinated with the antislavery movement.[4] He attended Bowdoin College from 1834 to 1837 and there was further electrified by an address of the famed British abolitionist, George Thompson. Unlike abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who would burn a copy of the Constitution and insisted on “no Union with slaveholders,” Andrew believed that the nation had to embrace both freedom and unity. He wrote in the album of a classmate, “One Constitution, one country, one destiny.”[5]

A month after his graduation, Andrew moved to Boston and became a student of law under the instruction of Henry Holton Fuller (1790-1852), brother of journalist and women’s rights advocate Margaret Fuller.  In 1840, Andrew was admitted to the Suffolk County Bar, for a time worked as a junior partner in Fuller’s firm, then formed a new partnership in 1847 with Theophilus Chandler. Their firm lasted fourteen years.

As an attorney, Andrew had a reputation for representing the poor, disadvantaged, or even those presumed to be guilty on the principle that all should have a fair trial. He refused to turn away a potential client simply because they had no money to pay for legal assistance.[6] Andrew felt strongly that there was need for reform in divorce law and regularly represented women in such cases.

In 1846, Andrew met Eliza Jane Hersey (1826-1910) after he saw her in a tableau vivant at an antislavery fair in her home town of Hingham, Massachusetts. Writing later a lengthy letter to his sister about his courtship, he wrote that Eliza was, “warm-hearted, generous, affectionate, hopeful and mirthful; but at the same time strong in her purposes…a lover of reality and a hater of seemings…She evidently likes in me my solemn and more earnest side…”[7] They were married on Christmas, 1848.

Andrew first became engaged in politics as secretary of an informal committee of “Young Whigs,” formed in Boston in 1847 who were angered over their party’s tacit support of the Mexican War. This splinter group, a year later, became the core of the Free Soil Party in Massachusetts. Andrew threw himself into the work of the party, organizing rallies and meetings.

Anthony Burns (1834-1862)

Anthony Burns (1834-1862)

During the 1850s, Andrew worked with Boston’s abolitionist leaders on numerous fronts. He was active with the Boston Vigilance Committee, supporting Underground Railroad activities…perhaps in a number of ways, but most publicly, he provided legal assistance for captured fugitive slaves. Andrew spent many years helping Seth Botts, a fugitive slave living in Boston, purchase the freedom of his widow, three children and brother-in-law and secure their passage northward. Andrew defended abolitionist leaders who were indicted for their alleged role in inciting the mobs that formed on May 26, 1854 in an unsuccessful attempt to free capture fugitive slave Anthony Burns.[8] And in 1859, when John Brown carried out his infamous raid on Harpers Ferry, Andrew raised funds for his defense and personally arranged the attorney, not because he felt Brown was justified in what he had done but because he felt strongly that all deserved a fair trial.[9]

Andrew assumed his first elected office in 1857 as a representative to the Massachusetts General Court on the ticket of the new Republican Party. He served a single term. He distinguished himself in leading the successful effort to have Judge Edward Greely Loring, who had ordered the return of fugitive slaves Thomas Sims in 1851 and Anthony Burns in 1854, removed as a judge of probate. Given opposition in Boston to the Fugitive Slave Law, the effort was popular, however in hindsight the removal could be regarded as vindictive as Loring was, in a strict sense, simply upholding the letter of the law.

In 1860, as soon as Governor Nathaniel P. Banks announced that he did not plan to run again, Bostonians immediately began to speculate on John Albion Andrew’s possible candidacy. One of his strongest supporters was Senator Charles Sumner who, when he heard that Banks would not run, immediately got up from his armchair to take action, saying, “Give me my boots…John A. Andrew must be the next governor of Massachusetts.”[10]

Andrew was popular, but he had his detractors—an Old-Guard minority who painted him as a radical abolitionist, a John Brown proponent, and a danger to the Commonwealth. Despite this, on November 6, 1860, Andrew won the election against his opponent, Amos Adams Lawrence (a member of the Constitutional Union Party, also an antislavery man but slightly more conservative).

On December 20, 1860, just sixteen days before Andrew was to be inaugurated, South Carolina voted to secede from the Union. Over the next two weeks, the South Carolina militia seized federal munitions and fortifications, including the U.S. arsenal in Charleston, and guns were soon trained on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

In the midst of these monumental events, the transition between two very different gubernatorial administrations took place in Massachusetts. The contrast between the two men and their politics is evident in Governor Nathaniel Banks’s valedictory address, delivered on January 3, 1861 and Governor Andrew’s inaugural address two days later.

Banks, a moderate Republican, firmly maintained that the Union must be preserved but did not acknowledge the likelihood of conflict. As one observer wrote, “Throughout the entire address, a hopeful feeling prevailed.”[11]

When Governor Andrew took the rostrum on January 5, he left nothing vague regarding the need to prepare for conflict. Early in his speech, he addressed the issue of the Commonwealth’s preparedness. The state, he observed, had 155,000 men enrolled in the militia, but of this, only 5,592 were ready for service. And his definition of “ready” was likely somewhat generous. He continued, casually, avoiding the demeanor of a warmonger but making clear his argument for preparedness:

…I venture the inquiry whether…the dormant militia, or some considerable portion of it, (now simply enrolled and not organized nor subject to drill,) ought not…to be placed on a footing of activity. For how otherwise, in the possible contingencies of the future, can we be sure that Massachusetts has taken care to preserve the manly self-reliance of the citizens…and the State also be ready, without inconvenient delay, to contribute her share of force in any exigency of public danger…[12]

The core of his address dealt head on with the national crisis at hand—the issues slavery and secession. He recounted a long list of tremendous wrongs perpetrated by proponents of slavery including,

…the prostitution of all the powers of the government and the bending of all its energy to propagate a certain interest for the benefit of a few speculators in lands, negroes, and politics, and to discourage the free labor of the toiling masses of the people ; the menaces of violence and war against the Constitution and the Union with which our arguments and our constitutional resistance have been met.[13]

Unlike Banks, he did not shy from discussing the impending war,

…This Union, through whatever throes or crises it may pass, cannot expire except with the annihilation of the People. Come what may, I believe that Massachusetts will do her duty….

Until we complete the work of rolling back this wave of rebellion which threatens to engulf the government, overthrow democratic institutions, subject the people to the rule of a minority, if not of mere military despotism, and in some communities to endanger the very existence of civilized society, we cannot turn aside, and we will not turn back…[14]

The very day on his inauguration, Andrew sent high ranking militia officers to deliver confidential messages to the various New England governors urging that they too place their militias, “in condition for prompt movement to the defense of Washington.” On January 12, he wrote Winfield Scott, the General-in-Chief of the U.S. Army for instructions and advice on how best to prepare his militia. And on January 16, he instructed Massachusetts Adjutant General William Schouler to issue General Order No. 4 instructing captains of militia to weed out men not fit for duty, elect new officers, to fill out their ranks with able bodied men and to drill regularly.[15]

The 6th Massachusetts on their way to Washington, April 1861.

The 6th Massachusetts on their way to Washington, April 1861.

These and other preparations are what made it possible for Massachusetts to respond immediately to President Lincoln’s call for troops. Andrew’s foresight set him apart from most of his fellow governors and politicians throughout the nation still in denial about the coming Civil War. The welcome arrival of the 6th Massachusetts in a virtually undefended Washington City on April 19, 1861 would prompt Lincoln to say to the Bay Staters a few days later, “I don’t believe there is any North…You are the only northern realities.”

[1] William Schouler, A History of Massachusetts in the Civil War, (1868), p. 18
[2] Henry Greenleaf Pearson, The Life of John A. Andrew: Governor of Massachusetts, 1861-1865, Volume 1, (1904), p. 143
[3] William Thomas Davis, Plymouth Memories of an Octogenarian, (1906), p. 389
[4] Pearson, p. 14
[5] Pearson, p. 22
[6] Peleg Whitman Chandler, Memoir of Governor Andrew, with Personal Reminiscences, (1880), p. 79
[7] Pearson, p. 53-55
[8] Kathryn Grover and Janine V. Da Silva, Historic Resource Study: Boston African American National Historic Site, (2002), www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/bost/hrs.pdf, p. 152
[9] Pearson, p. 97
[10] Pearson, p. 120
[11] Schouler, p. 8
[12] John Albion Andrew, Address of His Excellency John A. Andrew, to the two branches of the legislature of Massachusetts, January 5, 1861, (1861), p. 9
[13] Andrew, p. 40
[14] Andrew, pp. 42 and 46
[15] Richard F. Miller, States at War, Volume 1: A Reference Guide for Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont in the Civil War, (2013), p. 254

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

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