On this date 159 years ago, a well-to-do Harvard graduate named John Worthington Ames explained in a letter to his mother why he had volunteered for the Union Army. "Slavery has brought death into our own households already in its wicked rebellion," he wrote. "There is but one way, and that is Emancipation."
"I want to sing ‘John Brown' in the streets of Charleston," added this 27-year-old U.S. Army captain, "and ram red-hot abolitionism down their unwilling throats at the point of a bayonet." Violent imagery for a young infantry officer to put in a letter to his mom, yes, as I noted when writing about this man once before. But it's illustrative of the fighting spirit of the New England men who answered the call in 1861-- and their feelings about the issue that caused the war.
In his seminal Civil War trilogy, historian Bruce Catton related how the politics of the men in Mr. Lincoln's Army -- their very motivations for fighting -- tended to vary by geography.
"In general, the Western troops were less disturbed [by slavery] than the New Englanders," Catton wrote. (By "Western troops," he was referring to soldiers from places we now call the Midwest -- Ohio, Iowa, and other heartland states, including Catton's native state of Michigan.)
"To the Westerners this war was being fought to restore the Union," he explained. "[T]o the New Englanders, the abolition of human slavery was mixed up in it, too, and freedom was an all-embracing idea that included black men as well as white."
One can paint with too broad a brush here. After reading and cataloguing more than 1,000 letters home from Union soldiers, Princeton University professor James McPherson discovered that anti-slavery passions burned in the hearts of Northern soldiers from every state. An Iowa volunteer named Jacob Ritner wrote to his wife in July 1864 that although he hated being away from her, fighting this "most horrible war" was something that had to be done.
"[I]f only through this baptism of blood our nation, freed and purified from the blighting curse of slavery, shall lift her radiant forehead from the dust, and crowned with the wisdom of freedom go on her glorious way rejoicing," Ritner wrote.
An Ohioan named George Tully, who'd roomed with George Armstrong Custer at West Point, told his betrothed that the Civil War "will not be ended until the subject of slavery is finally and forever settled. It has been a great curse to this country."
Still, it was undeniable that there was something different about the New Englanders.
It was no coincidence that Robert Gould Shaw, a Harvard man and Boston society scion like John Worthington Ames, led the first all-black regiment to fight against the Confederacy. Within a week of Fort Sumter, Shaw had gone to Washington to personally tell President Lincoln he wanted to fight for the Union. Four months before Ames fanaticized about humming "John Brown" in South Carolina, Shaw had done that very thing -- at the Harpers Ferry armory, no less. In a July 1861 letter to his mother, Lt. Shaw related how when his unit toured the site of the famous abolitionist's raid they sang the John Brown song.
He also sang along on May 28, 1863, while riding in front of an impressive regiment of newly trained black soldiers, 1,000 strong, who strode through the streets of Boston on their way to their destiny -- and, in many cases, including Shaw's -- to their deaths.
In "Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune," an evocative assemblage of Shaw's letters, historian Russell Duncan vividly sets the scene: "The drummer boys tapped out the beat and the men's lusty voices sang out their vow that while John Brown's body might be a-mouldering in the grave, they would carry forward his vision of black men redeeming themselves from 250 years of slavery. In their right hands and on their right shoulders gleamed a thousand Enfield rifles that had been supplied them from an armory they had not had to break open to obtain."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.