Cambridge Sketches
by Frank Preston Stearns

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The Colored Regiments

The first colored regiment in the Civil War was organized by General Hunter at Beaufort, S. C., in May, 1862, without permission from the Government; and some said, perhaps unjustly, that he was removed from his command on that account. It was reorganized by General Saxton the following August, and accepted by the Secretary of War a short time afterwards. Rev. T. W. Higginson, who had led the attack on Boston Court House in the attempt to rescue Anthony Burns, was commissioned as its Colonel.

In August also George L. Stearns, being aware that Senator Sumner was preparing a speech to be delivered at the Republican State convention, went to his house on Hancock Street and urged that he should advocate in it the general enlistment of colored troops; but Sumner said decisively, “No, I do not consider it advisable to agitate that question until the Proclamation of Emancipation has become a fact. Then we will take another step in advance.” At a town meeting held in Medford, in December, Mr. Stearns made a speech on the same subject, and was hissed for his pains by the same men who were afterwards saved from the conscription of 1863 by the negroes whom he recruited.

Lewis Hayden, the colored janitor of the State House, always claimed the credit of having suggested to Governor Andrew to organize a colored regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers. William S. Robinson, who was then Clerk of the State Senate, supported Hayden in this; but he also remarked that Representative Durfee, of New Bedford, proposed a bill in May, 1861, for the organization of a colored regiment, and that it was only defeated by six votes.

As soon as the Proclamation of Emancipation had been issued the Governor went to Washington for a personal interview with the Secretary of War, and returned with the desired permission. Mr. Stearns went with him and obtained a commission for James Montgomery, who had defended the Kansas border during Buchanan’s administration, to be Colonel of another colored regiment in South Carolina. Colonel Montgomery arrived at Beaufort about the first of February.

Governor Andrew formed the skeleton of a regiment with Robert G. Shaw as Colonel, but was able to obtain few recruits. There were plenty of sturdy negroes about Boston, but they were earning higher wages than ever before, and were equally afraid of what might happen to them if they were captured by the Confederate forces. Colonel Hallowell says: “The Governor counselled with certain leading colored men of Boston. He put the question, Will your people enlist in my regiments? ’They will not,’ was the reply of all but Hayden. ’We have no objection to white officers, but our self-respect demands that competent colored men shall be at least eligible to promotion.’” By the last of February less than two companies had been recruited, and the prospects of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts did not look hopeful.

When Governor Andrew was in doubt he usually sent for Frank W. Bird and George L. Stearns, but this time Mr. Stearns was before him. To the Governor’s question, “What is to done?” he replied, “If you will obtain funds from the Legislature for their transportation, I will recruit you a regiment among the black men of Ohio and Canada West. There are a great many runaways in Canada, and those are the ones who will go back and fight.” “Very good,” said the Governor; “go as soon as you can, and our friend Bird will take care of the appropriation bill.” A handsome recruiting fund for incidental expenses had already been raised, to which Mr. Stearns was, as usual, one of the largest subscribers.

He arrived at Buffalo, New York, the next day at noon, and went to a colored barber to have his hair cut. He disclosed the object of his mission, and the barber promised to bring some of his friends together to discuss the matter that evening. The following evening Mr. Steams called a meeting of the colored residents of Buffalo, and made an address to them, urging the importance of the occasion, and the advantage it would be to their brethren in slavery and to the future of the negro race, if they were to become well-drilled and practiced soldiers. “When you have rifles in your hands,” he said, “your freedom will be secure.” To the objection that only white officers were being commissioned for the colored regiments he replied: “See how public opinion changes; how rapidly we move forward! Only three months ago I was hissed in a town meeting for proposing the enlistment of colored troops; and now here we are! I have no doubt that before six months a number of colored officers will be commissioned.” His speech was received with applause; but when he asked, “Now who will volunteer?” there was a prolonged silence. At length a sturdy-looking fellow arose and said: “I would enlist if I felt sure that my wife and children would not suffer for it.” “I will look after your family,” said Mr. Stearns, “and see that they want for nothing; but it is a favor I cannot promise again.” After this ten or twelve more enrolled themselves, and having provided for their maintenance until they could be transported to the camp at Readville, he went over to Niagara, on the Canada side, to see what might be effected in that vicinity.

In less than a week he was again in Buffalo arranging a recruiting bureau, with agencies in Canada and the Western States as far as St. Louis—where there were a large number of refugees who had lately been liberated by Grant’s campaign at Vicksburg. Mr. Lucian B. Eaton, an old lawyer and prominent politician of the city, accepted the agency there as a work of patriotic devotion. Among Mr. Stearns’s most successful agents were the Langston brothers, colored scions of a noble Virginia family,— both excellent men and influential among their people. All his agents were required to write a letter to him every evening, giving an account of their day’s work, and every week to send him an account of their expenses. Thus Mr. Stearns sat at his desk and directed their movements by telegraph as easily as pieces on a chess-board. The appropriation for transportation had already passed the Massachusetts Legislature, but where this did not suffice to meet an emergency he drew freely on his own resources.

By the last of April recruits were coming in at the rate of thirty or forty a day, and Mr. Stearns telegraphed to the Governor: “I can fill up another regiment for you in less than six weeks,"—a hint which resulted in the Massachusetts Fifty-fifth, with Norwood P. Hallowell, a gallant officer who had been wounded at Antietam, for its commander.

The Governor, however, appears to have suddenly changed his mind, for on May 7th Mr. Stearns wrote to his wife:

“Yesterday at noon I learned from Governor Andrew by telegram that he did not intend to raise another regiment. I was thunderstruck. My work for three weeks would nearly, or quite, fall to the ground. I telegraphed in reply: ’You told me to take all the men I could get without regard to regiments. Have two hundred men on the way; what shall I do with them?’ The reply came simultaneously with your letter: ’Considering your telegraph and Wild’s advice, another regiment may proceed, expecting it full in four weeks. Present want of troops will probably prevent my being opposed.’ I replied: ’I thank God for your telegram received this morning. You shall have the men in four weeks.’ Now all is right.”

The Surgeon-General had detailed one Dr. Browne for duty at Buffalo to examine Mr. Stearns’s recruits, and if found fit for service by him there was presumably no need of a second examination. This, however, did not suit the medical examiner at Readville, who either from ill will or from some unknown motive, insisted on rejecting every sixth man sent there from the West. Thus there was entailed on Mr. Stearns an immense expense which he had no funds to meet, and he was obliged to make a private loan of ten thousand dollars without knowing in the least how or where he was to be reimbursed.

Finally, on May 8, Mr. Stearns made a remonstrance against this abuse to Governor Andrew in a letter in which he also gave this account of himself:

    “I have worked every day, Sunday included, for more than two months
    and from fourteen to sixteen hours a day; I have filled the West with
    my agents; I have compelled the railroads to accept lower terms of
    transportation than the Government rates; I have filled a letter-book
    of five hundred pages, most of it closely written.”

This letter is now in the archives of the State House at Boston, and on the back of it Governor Andrew has written:

    “This letter is respy. referred to Surgeon-General Dole with the
    request that he would confer with Surgeon Stone and Lieutenant-Colonel
    Hallowell. It is surprising, and not fair nor fit, that a man trying
    as Mr. Stearns is, to serve the country at a risk, should suffer thus
    by such disagreement of opinion.


Shortly after this Mr. Stearns returned to Boston for a brief visit, and was met in the street by a philanthropic lady, Mrs. E. D. Cheney, who asked: “Where have you been all this time, Mr. Stearns? I supposed you were going to help us organize the colored regiment? You will be glad to know that it is doing well. We have nearly a thousand men.” Mr. Stearns made no reply, but bowed and passed on. This is the more surprising, as Mrs. Cheney was president of a society of ladies who had presented the Fifty-fourth Regiment with a flag; but the fault would seem to have been more that of others than her own. At the celebration which took place on the departure of the regiment for South Carolina, however, Wendell Phillips said: “We owe it chiefly to a private citizen, to George L. Stearns, of Medford, that these heroic men are mustered into the service,"—a statement which astonished a good many. [Footnote: The statement made by Governor Andrew’s private secretary concerning the colored regiments in his memoir of the Governor would seem to have been intentionally misleading.]

The Governors of the Western States had never considered their colored population as of any importance, but now, when it was being drained off to fill up the quota of Massachusetts troops they began to think differently. The Governor of Ohio advised Governor Andrew that no more recruiting could be permitted in his State unless the recruits were assigned to the Ohio quota. Andrew replied that the Governor of Ohio was at liberty to recruit colored regiments of his own; but the Massachusetts Fifty-fifth, having now a complement, it was decided not to continue the business any further, and Mr. Stearns’s labors at Buffalo were thus brought to an end about the middle of June. He had recruited fully one- half of the Fifty-fourth, and nearly the whole of the Fifty-fifth regiments.

He now conceived the idea of making his recruiting bureau serviceable by placing it in the hands of the Government. He therefore went to Washington and meeting his friend, Mr. Fred Law Olmstead, at Willard’s Hotel, the latter offered to go with him to the War Department and introduce him to Secretary Stanton. They found Stanton fully alive to the occasion, and in reply to Mr. Stearns’s offer he said:

“I have heard of your recruiting bureau, and I think you would be the best man to run the machine you have constructed. I will make you an Assistant Adjutant-General with the rank of Major, and I will give you authority to recruit colored regiments all over the country.”

Stearns thanked him, and replied that there was nothing which he had so much at heart as enlisting the black men on a large scale; for no people could be said to be secure in their freedom unless they were also soldiers; but his wife was unwell, and had suffered much from his absence already, and he did not feel that he ought to accept the offer without her consent. In answer to the question how funds for recruiting were to be obtained without any appropriation by Congress, Mr. Stanton said they could be supplied from the Secret Service fund.

When Mr. Stearns and Mr. Olmstead were alone on the street again, the latter said: “Mr. Stearns, go to your room and sleep if you can.”

Having returned to Boston, to arrange his affairs for a prolonged absence, and having obtained his wife’s consent, Mr. Stearns ordered his recruiting bureau to report at Philadelphia, where he soon after followed it.

The battle of Gettysburg had stirred Philadelphia to its foundations, and its citizens were prepared to welcome anything that promised a vigorous prosecution of the war. Major Stearns was at once enrolled among the members of the Union League Club, the parent of all the union leagues in the country, and was invited to the meetings of various other clubs and fashionable entertainments. A recruiting committee was formed from among the most prominent men in the city. Camp William Penn, while the colored regiment was being drilled, became a fashionable resort, and fine equipages filled the road thither every after-noon. By the middle of July the first regiment was nearly full.

Fine weather does not often last more than a few weeks at a time, and in the midst of these festivities suddenly came Secretary Stanton’s order reducing the pay of colored soldiers from thirteen to eight dollars a month. This was a breach of contract and the men had a right to their discharge if they wished it; but that, of course, was not permitted them. Such an action could only be excused on the ground of extreme necessity. The Massachusetts Legislature promptly voted to pay the deficiency to the Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth regiments; but the one at Philadelphia was in organization, and Mr. Stearns found himself in the position of a man who has made promises which he is unable to fulfil.

Hon. William D. Kelley and two other gentlemen of the committee went with Major Stearns to Washington to see Stanton, and endeavored to persuade him to revoke the order. Kelley was one of the most persistent debaters who ever sat in Congress, and he argued the question with the Secretary of War for more than an hour,—to the great disgust of the latter,—but Stanton was as firm as Napoleon ever was. Major Stearns never had another pleasant interview with him.

The Secretary’s argument was that some white regiments had complained of being placed on an equality with negroes, and that it interfered with recruiting white soldiers. There was doubtless some reason in this; but the same result might have been obtained by a smaller reduction.

The next morning some one remarked to Major Stearns that it was exceedingly hot weather, even for Washington, and his reply was: “Yes, but the fever within is worse than the heat without.” He talked of resigning; but finally said, decisively, “I will go and consult with Olmstead.”

He found Mr. Olmstead friendly and sympathetic. He spoke of Secretary Stanton in no complimentary terms, but he advised Mr. Stearns to continue with his work, and endure all that he could for the good of the cause,— not to be worried by evils for which he was in no way responsible. Mr. Stearns returned to Willard’s with a more cheerful countenance.

In the afternoon Judge Kelley came in with the news of the repulse of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts regiment at Fort Wagner and the death of Colonel Shaw.

There was a colored regiment in process of formation at Baltimore, and another was supposed to be organizing at Fortress Monroe.

Both were nominally under Mr. Stearns’s supervision, and he inspected the former on his return trip to Philadelphia, and sent his son to investigate and report on the latter. Not the trace of a colored regiment could be discovered at Fortress Monroe, but there were scores of Union officers lounging and smoking on the piazza of the Hygeia Hotel. Mr. Stearns thought that business economy had better begin by reducing the number of officers rather than the pay of the soldiers. On July 28 Major Stearns wrote from Baltimore:

    “I am still perplexed as to the mode in which I can best carry out the
    work intrusted to me. It is so difficult to adjust my mode of rapid
    working to the slow routine of the Department that I sometimes almost
    despair of the task and want to abandon it.”

No private business could succeed if carried on after the manner of the National Government at that time, and this was not the fault of Lincoln’s administration at all, but of the whole course of Jackson democracy from 1829 to 1861. The clerks in the various departments did not hold their positions from the heads of those departments, but from outside politicians who had no connection with the Government business, and as a consequence they were saucy and insubordinate. They found it to their interest to delay and obstruct the procedure of business in order to give the impression that they were overworked, and in that way make their positions more secure and if possible of greater importance.

Major Stearns had found himself continually embarrassed in his Government service from lack of sufficient funds, and the continual delay in having his accounts audited. The auditors of the War Department repeatedly took exception to expenditures that were absolutely necessary, and he was obliged to advance large sums from his own capital in order to provide the current expenses of his agents. In this emergency he returned to Boston and held a conference with Mr. John M. Forbes and other friends; and they all agreed that he ought to be better supported in the work of recruiting than he had been. A subscription was immediately set on foot, and in a few days a recruiting fund of about thirty thousand dollars was raised and placed in charge of Mr. R. P. Hallowell.

On September 1, Secretary Stanton transferred Major Stearns to Nashville, where he could obtain recruits in large numbers, not only from Tennessee but from the adjoining States. Fugitives flocked to his standard from Alabama, Mississippi, and Kentucky. For the succeeding five months he organized colored regiments so rapidly that it was with difficulty the General commanding at Nashville could supply the necessary quota of officers for them. His letter-writing alone rarely came to less than twenty pages a day, and besides this he was obliged to attend personally to innumerable details which were constantly interfering with more important affairs. Serious questions concerning the rights and legal position of the freedmen were continually arising, and these required a cool head and a clear understanding for their solution.

Edward J. Bartlett, of Concord, who was one of his staff in Nashville, stated afterwards that he never saw a man who could despatch so much business in a day as George L. Stearns. He says:

“I shall never forget the fine appearance of the first regiment we sent off. They were all picked men, and felt a just pride in wearing the blue. As fast as we obtained enough recruits they were formed into regiments, officered and sent to the front. When men became scarce in the city we made trips into the country, often going beyond the Union picket line, and generally reaping a harvest of slaves. These expeditions brought an element of danger into our lives, for our forage parties were fired into by the enemy more than once, but we always succeeded in bringing back our men with us. The black regiments did valuable service for the Union, leaving their dead on many a southern battle-field. Mr. Stearns was a noble man, courteous, with great executive ability, and grandly fitted for the work he was engaged in.”

At this time Major Stearns’s friend, General Wilde, was recruiting a colored brigade in North Carolina, and General Ullman was organizing colored regiments in Louisiana.

Major Stearns’s labors were brought to a close in February, 1864, by the eccentric conduct of Secretary Stanton,—the reason for which has never been explained. He obtained leave of absence to return to Boston at Christmas time, and after a brief visit to his family went to Washington and called upon the Secretary of War, who declined to see him three days in succession. On the evening of the fourth day he met Mr. Stanton at an evening party and Stanton said to him in his roughest manner: “Major Stearns, why are you not in Tennessee?” This was a breach of official etiquette on the part of the Secretary of War and Major Stearns sent in his resignation at once. His reason for doing so, however, was not so much on account of this personal slight as from the conclusion that he had accomplished all that was essential to be done in this line. His chief assistant at Nashville, Capt. R. D. Muzzey, was an able man and perfectly competent to run the machine which Mr. Stearns had constructed.

The importance of his work cannot readily be measured. It was no longer easy to obtain white volunteers. With a population ten millions less than that of France, the Northern States were maintaining an army much larger than the one which accompanied Napoleon to Moscow. General Thomas’s right wing, at the battle of Nashville, was formed almost entirely of colored regiments. They were ordered to make a feint attack on the enemy, so as to withdraw attention from the flanking movement of his veterans on the left; but when the charge had once begun their officers were unable to keep them in check—the feint was changed into a real attack and contributed largely to the most decisive victory of the whole war.

In his last annual Message President Lincoln congratulated Congress on the success of the Government’s policy in raising negro regiments, and on the efficiency of the troops organized in this way. It seems very doubtful if the war could have been brought to a successful termination without them.

In 1898 the Legislature of Massachusetts, at the instance of the veterans of the Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth regiments, voted to have a memorial tablet for the public services of George Luther Stearns set up in the Doric Hall of Boston State House, and the act was approved by Governor Walcott, who sent the quill with which he signed it to Major Stearns’s widow.


Preface  •  The Close of the War  •  Francis J. Child  •  Longfellow  •  Lowell  •  Cranch  •  T. G. Appleton  •  The Whip of the Sky  •  Pompeii  •  Doctor Holmes  •  Frank W. Bird, and the Bird Club  •  Sumner  •  Chevalier Howe  •  The War Governor  •  The Colored Regiments  •  Emerson’s Tribute to George L. Stearns  •  Elizur Wright  •  Dr. W. T. G. Morton  •  William T. G. Morton  •  Leaves From a Roman Diary  •  My Last Visit to the Longfellows  •  Centennial Contributions  •  The Emerson Centennial  •  The Hawthorne Centennial  •  Hawthorne and Hamlet

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