Part 1 — B. F. Butler & the Creation of the Western Bay State Regiment

By Larry Lowenthal

In the Fall of 1861 Benjamin Franklin Butler, having not yet acquired his memorable and indelible nickname “The Beast,” was busy recruiting New England men to serve in the Union army. This was the gestation period of the 31st Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, a time of troubles and portents that shaped the character of the regiment throughout its service. True, numerical inevitability dictated that there would be a 31st Regiment, if only to fill the space between 30 and 32; but the character the regiment  displayed during its existence was largely determined by Benjamin F. Butler. He was its sire, and although his direct involvement with it lasted not much more than a year, its history cannot be understood without examining this remarkable man.

We often find that the controversies that surround a person during his lifetime are carried forward by historians–one hopes in a more thoughtful form. Benjamin Franklin Butler attracted controversy as a warm body draws mosquitoes, so it is not surprising that scholarly disputes about his career continue to rage. In an age of outsize, wildly individualistic personalities for whom pride was by no means a sin, Butler still stands out. He was born in the rustic New Hampshire village of Deerfield November 5, 1818 of distant Irish ancestry, presumably a descendant of the powerful Norman-Irish Butler family. His father John was obviously a hero-worshipper, as he named his first son Andrew Jackson. Both of these names were oddly predictive for Ben Butler. When Andrew Jackson Butler was born in 1815, his namesake was famous primarily for his victory at the battle of New Orleans in that year, and his terms as a president who profoundly remade the political system could hardly be predicted. Ben Butler, however, like Jackson, turned out to be both a democrat in his public philosophy and a partisan Democrat, and he craved the military glory Jackson had obtained.

Like his distinguished namesake, Benjamin Franklin Butler had to climb a steep uphill path in order to advance in life. His deficiencies in wealth and family background were not compensated by a commanding physical presence, as he stood five feet four inches tall, though his shortness was mostly in the legs. In addition, he had unusual red hair, a squeaky voice and a lazy eye, which made it difficult where he was looking or what he was seeing. John Butler had served courageously in the War of 1812, which is why he considered Andrew Jackson an exemplary model, but he perished under obscure circumstances as captain of a privateer in the West Indies when Ben was only a few months old. Probably with some assistance from relatives, Ben’s mother supported the family. Her struggle undoubtedly gave Ben a lasting appreciation of the difficulties confronting women in that society.

Pitted against his massive disadvantages, Ben Butler arrayed a powerful intellect driven by irrepressible ambition. Whether or not that was one of her reasons for making the move, when his mother went to Lowell, MA, to operate a boarding house, it opened up limitless opportunities for young Ben. Lowell, on the Merrimack River, had been created as a planned city only a few years before by some of the wealthiest men in Massachusetts, who proposed to manufacture cloth using the most advanced concepts of technology, management, and capitalization. When she sent Ben off to school, his mother hoped that he would become a minister, but it soon became apparent that he was unsuited by intellect and temperament for that profession. His dearest goal was to enter the military academy at West Point, but his family lacked the necessary influence, so he was not nominated, a rejection that left enduring resentment. [Although in his late-life autobiography, Butler provides a different explanation, saying that his mother was advised that West Point was irreligious (Butler’s Book, 57)] However, when he saw lawyers at work he instantly recognized the calling that would make the fullest use of his wide-ranging abilities.

After passing his bar exam in 1840, Butler rapidly built up one of the most successful practices in Massachusetts, specializing in the combative field of criminal law. This new-found prosperity enabled him to court, and after some delays, marry Sarah Hildreth. Based on their extensive correspondence, they were a devoted, deeply caring couple. Sarah was a well-traveled actress, intelligent and self-confident; and she didn’t hesitate to express her opinions. It was an intensely emotional relationship, and their complaints about missing each other when they were apart seem to reach much beyond conventional politeness. The marriage sustained Ben Butler through his incessant struggles, and, although he was accused of many failings, infidelity was never one of them.

It was to be expected that a lawyer as conspicuous as Ben Butler would enter politics, and he appears as a delegate to the Democratic national convention in 1844, the year of his marriage. It was probably the last fluid period in American political life, and the deepening sectional discord created an overwrought atmosphere, inflamed by fiery stump speeches. It was not a setting that was designed to restrain Butler’s passionate nature. In his political orientation, he gravitated naturally to the Democrats, true to his working-class, Jacksonian origins, although the party was generally a minority in his home state.

At the same time, Butler was actively pursuing his military ambitions, which his failure to enter West Point had only strengthened. Once the Civil War began, Butler was classified as a “political” general, indeed, almost a prototype of that disdained species. But this is a serious misreading of his character. While still studying for the bar exam, he had already marched the first steps on a military career, enlisting in a militia company formed in Lowell in 1839. He joined as a private, hoping to learn the profession from the ground up. In the years that followed, Butler worked his way up the ranks, “never attempting to pass a grade without fully filling a position in due order of promotion,” until finally he was elected colonel of his regiment. [Butler’s Book, 124]

Brig. Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler  (Image Library of Congress)

Brig. Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler
(Image Library of Congress)

Butler’s unfailing common touch earned him the loyalty of the men he commanded. On one memorable occasion, this brought him into sharp conflict with a newly-elected governor, a member of the anti-immigrant “Know Nothing” Party. Butler refused the governor’s order to disband a company made up of Irish Catholic Democrats. The governor seemingly won this confrontation by reorganizing the entire state militia, but Butler, in a characteristically adroit flanking maneuver, waited until he could be elected by the officers to fill a vacant brigadier-general position. As a result of his skill and persistence over 20 years, Butler was one of the highest-ranking officers in the Massachusetts militia when the crisis of 1860 exploded. Compared to officers in the regular army, his probing intellect had probably led him to read at least as much military theory as them, and he was thoroughly familiar with military organization. Because the U.S. Army was small and scattered, most of its officers had not had the opportunity to command large bodies of men in maneuver. As Butler later wrote, by encamping with his brigade in the years 1857 through 1860, he “had commanded a larger body of troops, duly uniformed and equipped, than any general of the United States army then living except General [Winfield] Scott.” [Butler’s Book, 127] However, since the militias were voluntary, largely social, organizations, their drills and training were often farcical. The important advantage that regular officers had over men like Butler, and which they never tired of holding aloft, was that most had experienced combat during the 1846-49 Mexican War, even if only at the company or regimental level.

As the country spun down the vortex of disintegration in 1860, Butler was swept along. Outside of the formal structure of the federal government, the Democratic Party was nearly the last institution holding the country together, and Butler went to the national convention in Charleston, SC, in April as a delegate pledged to support Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois for the presidency. As it became apparent that Douglas could not prevail, Butler switched his vote to former Secretary of War Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, supposedly on the grounds that Davis was a moderate who could hold the sections together. As the voting dragged on without resolution, Butler cast 57 futile ballots for the Mississippian. [West: Lincoln’s Scapegoat General, 45. On many of these ballots, Butler’s individualistic vote was the only one Davis, who had not declared himself a candidate, received. Butler professed to believe that Davis was not an “original disunionist,” though he was prepared to follow his state if it seceded. (Butler’s Book, 139)] Butler then ran for Massachusetts governor as a Democrat on a ticket backing Kentucky aristocrat John C. Breckinridge, the sitting vice-president. Having antagonized most segments of his party, he received less than 4% of the vote. In normal times such a humiliating repudiation might have spelled the end of Butler’s political aspirations, but by then his attention was focused elsewhere. According to one of his modern biographers, Butler foresaw that the Republican candidate Lincoln would win against divided opposition, after which some southern states would try to secede from the union. This would inevitably create the opportunity for the military glory he had always craved. [Nolan, 51]

Early in 1861, as the country faced its greatest crisis, Butler stood on the threshold of fame. Previously little known outside his home state, he was about to become a national figure, which meant that the controversy that had always surrounded him would expand greatly in scope. Butler was one of those people who are best defined by examining the enemies they accumulated—in his case a diverse aggregation. What accounted for this assembly of animosity? Among his law colleagues there was the usual resentment of success, but, beyond that, many felt that he used sharp and unscrupulous tactics to win release for defendants who seemed obviously guilty. Moreover, he often did nothing to preserve the dignity of those he had outwitted. Once he achieved financial success, he purchased a mill in Lowell, but his continued public expressions of support for the workers offended his wealthy fellows. Nativists, still numerous despite the fading of the “Know Nothings,” objected to his ties to Irish Catholics. His opportunistic shifts at the 1860 convention had alienated most of the state Democrats, while the rising Republicans had no use for him. Once the war began, Butler created a whole new legion of enemies among the regular army officers, who despised him for pretending to know their esoteric profession and for his obvious scorn of the forms and regulations that governed their existence. In battle, where someone like Grant or Bragg’s first response was usually a frontal assault, Butler was always looking for a clever flanking approach, much as he had in his law practice. Butler displayed his emotions like a badge, was often immoderate in his opinions, did not try to conceal his intelligence, and wore out associates with his abundant energy. Everything about him made it difficult for others to view him dispassionately. At the start of 1861, probably no one imagined that Massachusetts would ever have need for volunteer regiments numbered as high as 31, but when that eventuality came to pass those volunteers, often unsuspecting, acquired the long baggage train that Benjamin Butler had accumulated in his lifetime.

Butler’s experience at the national conventions had probably given him a clearer sense of where the country was heading than his more provincial colleagues. The Massachusetts militia had a reputation of being better prepared than their counterparts in other northern states, but they were essentially parade-ground soldiers, by no means ready for battle. Butler understood the urgency of weeding out those who were physically or politically unfit for service and equipping the remainder for serious duty. In the first days of 1861, he called on the newly-elected Republican Governor John Albion Andrew to advocate his case. The tortured relationship of these two men colored the wartime history of Massachusetts and left an indelible imprint on the 31st Mass.

Superficially, Andrew and Butler had much in common. They were the same age and had both been admitted to the bar in 1840. Both came from the periphery: Butler from rural New Hampshire and Andrew from a small town in Maine (when he was born Maine was still part of Massachusetts). With the exception of John Butler’s military reputation, neither family was distinguished or prosperous. As members of the relatively small legal fraternity, the two men were acquainted; but with their oversize egos and opposing political viewpoints, the outlook for harmony was unpromising. Andrew agreed with the need to prepare the militia for sterner duties; he was less sure about how much of this effort to entrust to Ben Butler. Meanwhile, Butler secured a contract for his mill to manufacture overcoats for the soldiers. He maintained that soldiers on active duty would require sturdier uniforms than what they used for militia drills, but his critics saw it as taking advantage of the crisis for his own financial gain. Probably both statements were correct, but it furnished another example of the discord that swirled around Butler’s every move and aroused strong reactions whenever his name was mentioned.

The foresight displayed by Andrew, a Republican, and Butler, a Democrat, and their temporary willingness to patch over feelings of innate distrust paid dividends in a grave hour. After joyous Confederate forces, in one of the most unwise decisions ever recorded, fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, the Lincoln administration called for troops to defend Washington, D.C., surrounded as it was by slave states. Secretary of War Simon Cameron contacted Governor Andrew, knowing that the Massachusetts militia had a reputation for being in an advanced state of readiness and that the railroad system could bring them to the capital fairly promptly. Andrew called first on the 6th Massachusetts Regiment, which Butler had purged of unreliable elements. Meanwhile, Butler had pulled strings in Washington to persuade the administration that a brigadier-general was needed to command the troops that were coming to defend the city. Despite looming misgivings he must have felt, Andrew apparently concluded that he had no choice but to name Butler to the general’s post. He thereby risked placing Butler in a position to proclaim himself the savior of the Union and also set in motion an enduring animosity that soured Massachusetts and national politics and hindered the war effort.

On the way to the capital, the 6th Mass. had to pass through the streets of Baltimore between railroad stations. There it was attacked by a secessionist mob, and in the resulting battle men on both sides were killed. It was the first bloodshed of the Civil War, though actual soldiers were engaged on only one side. At this time, Butler was moving toward Washington at the head of the 8th Mass. Unsure whether rail links through Baltimore were intact and unwilling to risk another bloody passage through the city, Butler cunningly diverted his forces to Annapolis. There he suppressed Maryland’s tendencies to secede, protected the naval academy, rescued the revered ship Constitution and, more importantly, preserved a rail line to Washington. In May, with Washington reasonably safe, Butler secured the rail line to Baltimore and then, in a surprise maneuver, seized the city in a bloodless stroke. In less than two months, he had achieved brilliant successes of the sort that appealed to journalists, especially in those innocent days when they still believed that the war would be won by individual deeds of valor and genius and could not imagine what a grinding, debilitating struggle it would become. Unfortunately, in the process Butler had antagonized two men who could derail his march to destiny. In promising to help the governor of Maryland suppress any slave uprising that might occur, he angered abolitionist Governor Andrew, or at least gave the governor justification for the hostility he had always felt. Butler might have thought his slick capture of Baltimore would win praise, but instead it brought criticism from the ancient, imperious army commander Winfield Scott. What irritated the venerable warrior was probably that Butler had accomplished by cleverness what Scott had planned to achieve by means of a multi-pronged land and naval assault, as prescribed in the textbooks.

Perplexed by the tempestuous but now idolized Butler, the Lincoln administration responded by promoting him to major-general. Winfield Scott remained unimpressed. After reprimanding Butler for his conduct in seizing Baltimore, he sent him off to take command of Fortress Monroe, a strategic post at the lower end of Chesapeake Bay. Butler had, on request, dispatched two of the Massachusetts volunteer regiments to that place. Earlier in his career, General Scott had reorganized the army, creating a small but professional force officered almost entirely by West Point graduates, who were generally acquainted with one another in what resembled a large but contentious family. The thought of military amateurs being elevated to ranks to which few regular officers could aspire in the peacetime army must have caused severe dyspepsia in the old warrior. True, the volunteer generals were not yet commanding regular troops, but with the vast disruption taking place anything was possible. Scott must have thus drawn some perverse satisfaction from a military fiasco in Butler’s department in June, when Butler sent a force inland against Confederate defenses at Big Bethel. The attack was botched in almost every respect by the inexperienced soldiers, and although Butler was not personally in command (for which he was also criticized), his reputation was tarnished. In those days it seemed like a major engagement, and southern newspapers played it into a great victory.

One of Butler’s rather offhand decisions at Fortress Monroe was to have far-reaching implications. Apparently to the surprise of both sides, once Yankee soldiers appeared on the scene, slaves in the vicinity fled into their lines and asked for protection. This was a profound shock to southerners, who in justifying slavery had persuaded themselves that the slaves were content with their lot. It was the first of many upheavals in the complacent worldview that plantation owners had cultivated. The Lincoln administration, seemingly caught by surprise, offered no guidance. Desperate to avoid antagonizing the four border slave states that had not seceded, and perhaps hoping that other seceding states might yet reconsider, the administration had no interest at that time in promoting abolition. The sensitive situation was left to commanders on the scene to resolve, and Butler came up with an ingenious solution. In his political career he had never been outspoken on the subject of slavery—remarkable in view of his temperament and the passion with which the issue was debated. He seemed more interested in preserving the unity of the Democratic Party than in dealing with slavery. Nevertheless, he argued that, if Virginia and the other Confederate states had declared themselves independent, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 no longer applied and Butler was under no obligation to return escaped slaves. Instead, using the mental processes that had prevailed in many trials at law, he coined the term “contraband of war” to describe the self-liberated slaves. This was a brilliant stroke, as it turned Southern arguments on their head: if slaves were merely property, there was no more reason to return them to their owners than there was for crops, livestock, munitions, buildings, or any other form of property with military value.

Butler’s improvised policy had consequences far beyond anything he realized in the small-scale combat of that period. In the early years of the war, the Confederacy was able to mobilize a higher proportion of its white males because slaves were left behind to continue agricultural work. As Northern forces gained footholds in various parts of the South and slaves flocked into their lines, it chipped away at one of the few material advantages the Confederacy enjoyed. Of course, the situation was a mixed blessing for commanders such as Butler. There was not enough room inside Fortress Monroe to house the troops under his command, much less thousands of “contrabands of war.” Male former slaves could work on fortifications and other construction, while women could serve as laundresses and similar tasks, but that left large numbers of children and old people who had little value as workers but who had to be cared for. This developed into a major headache for the administration and its field commanders. Butler himself, while basking in his creative solution to the problem, called the influx of escaped Negroes a “disaster”. [West, 84]

The first major clash of the war, at Manassas, or Bull Run, Virginia, on a steamy July 21, 1861, provided a foretaste of what lay ahead. It reinforced the unrealistic expectations of the South and panicked the North. With Washington seemingly threatened, General Scott had an excuse to take away most of the regiments Butler commanded. Scott then compounded the insult by pulling a happily retired regular general back into service to take charge of Butler’s department. This left Butler as a highly visible major-general with almost no troops to command, hardly a satisfactory position for a man with his limitless ambition. After trying to make the best of the situation at Fort Monroe and capturing a Confederate fort in North Carolina, Butler again exerted the political influence he retained in Washington.

As Butler understood completely, he wielded enormous leverage on the Lincoln administration merely by existing. The administration, aware that a purely partisan war would have little chance of ultimate success, desperately needed to retain the support of northern Democrats who, however indifferent to slavery, were willing to fight for the Union. Butler was a prime specimen of this genus, but the administration still dithered for several months before figuring out how to use his services. There was no hope of giving Butler an active command as long as Winfield Scott remained commanding general of the army, and the administration was not sure enough of itself to push the aged, corpulent general into a well-deserved retirement. Moreover, despite his numerous infirmities, he still had probably the clearest strategic mind in the army.

In the end, accepting his proposition that he would have “four-fifths of every regiment good, true Democrats, who believe in sustaining the country and in loyalty to the flag of the Union, and who will fight for the country under command of officers I shall choose,” the administration put Butler in charge of the specially created “Department of New England,” not because there was any danger of secession or Confederate invasion, but to recruit up to six regiments for the Union Army. [Butler’s Book, 298] This would give Butler scope for his abundant energy, though it would not satisfy his craving for military glory. It represented an awkward compromise between the conflicting impulses to hold Butler’s goodwill while keeping him away from a field command, despite the initiative and imagination he had displayed. No one could guess at that time what a rare commodity initiative would prove to be among Northern generals, while imagination was always suspect to the military establishment. By this action, the Lincoln administration planted the seeds of what became the 31st Mass. What it did not realize was that these seeds were sown on cold ground. Although five of the six New England governors were responsive and helpful, Governor Andrew opposed Butler with every tactic he could employ.

Butler’s pressure had won a commitment from Lincoln that would authorize him to recruit in New England, but until this was put in writing and the respective governors notified, he could do little. For approximately a month he fretted at Fortress Monroe, pleading with his contacts in Washington to expedite his case. It is easy to suspect that the delay reflected the conflicting attitudes within the administration. On September 10, 1861, the critical authorization appeared:

Major General B. F. Butler is hereby authorized to raise, organize, arm, uniform, and equip a volunteer force for the War in the New England States, not exceeding six (6) Regiments of the Maximum Standard, of such arms and in such proportions, and in such manner as he may judge expedient; and for this purpose his order and requisitions on the Quartermaster, Ordnance and other staff Departments of the Army are to be obeyed and answered, provided the cost of such recruitment, armament, and equipment does not exceed in the aggregate that of like troops now, or hereafter raised for the service of the United States. [War Dept General Order No. 2 in Marshall, 1:239]

At the same time, Lincoln sent a message to the New England governors “respectfully” requesting them to aid Butler. [Marshall, I:239] This was all he could realistically do, as he knew better than to thrust the federal government into recruiting for the state volunteer regiments. This placed Butler into the impossible situation of having to depend on the goodwill of the governors. Butler certainly understood this and felt qualms about accepting this commission, but it probably seemed that he had little choice: the administration had made it clear that it was not offering an active command, whereas if he recruited troops he would be able to command them in the field.

Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew

Mass. Governor John A. Andrew (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Lincoln and Butler were undoubtedly correct in assuming that there were several thousand men in New England who would respond to Butler’s call, but might be reluctant to serve under a Republican with abolitionist tendencies. The problem lay in getting these men on the rolls and organized. Butler decided not to recruit in Rhode Island, where he would be competing with a well-regarded favorite son, Ambrose Burnside. Four of the other New England governors proved helpful; New Hampshire was somewhat tardy, but that was mainly because it wanted to complete its own quota, not due to any fundamental opposition. In Massachusetts, Gov. Andrew initially seemed accommodating. In a telegram to Lincoln, he promised “to help General Butler to the utmost,” though he added a phrase that proved to be ominous: that he had to fulfill other obligations first. [Sep. 11, 1861, Marshall, I:240] From there, things went steadily downhill. Less than two weeks later, the Andrew administration issued General Order No. 23, stating that no recruiting “is authorized or can be encouraged” except to fill the two Massachusetts regiments then being formed, the 28th and 29th. In this it was encouraged by an order from the U.S. Adjutant General to the effect that “All persons having received authority from the War Department to raise Volunteer Regiments, Batteries, or Companies in the loyal States, are, with their commands, hereby placed under the order of the Governors of those States.” [Sep. 23, 1861, ibid., 243]

Insofar as there were genuine issues beyond rampant personal animosity, they involved what to do about partially-formed volunteer regiments, whether they would apply toward the state quota, and who had the right to name and commission officers for the regiments Butler assembled. Andrew’s hostility toward Butler was inflamed by two subordinates, Adjutant General William Schouler and Military Secretary A.G. Browne. Schouler, a former newspaper editor, had clashed with Butler early in his career and nurtured  intense animosity. It is impossible to sort out the individual contributions of each, but collectively they generated overpowering rancor toward Butler.

Occasionally the protagonists seemed to want to escape the current that was sweeping them toward a smash-up. Fairly early in the controversy Andrew wrote “I cannot conclude this note without an expression of keen regret that my plain and clearly-defined official duty has brought me into any collision with a gentleman whom in other spheres I have known so long, whose capacity and zeal for the public service is unquestioned by me, and between whom & myself there ought to be nothing inconsistent with cordial, patriotic and kindly cooperation in the support and defence of a cause grand as the proportions of the heritage of our fathers & blessed as their own immortality of fame.” [Oct. 26, 1861, ibid., 265] In an odd but perceptive note to Andrew on December 29, 1861, Butler, perhaps mellow at the turn of the year, wrote to his adversary “May I call your attention to the facts that the rules in regard to set-off used in the profession which we both practice, and which perhaps it had been better for both and the Country if we had never left, do not apply to the courtesies of life.” [ibid., 307]

Despite occasional flickers of apparent remorse, the conflict plunged ahead on its seemingly relentless course of intensification. Andrew seemed averse to meeting Butler face-to-face, and their frequent exchanges of messages did nothing to resolve the dispute. At a heated meeting with Adjutant-General Schouler, Butler compared Gov. Andrew’s emphasis on states’ rights to that of the secessionist governor of Kentucky. [ibid., 324, Jan. 24, 1862] This was Butler’s genuine feeling on the matter, as he wrote to a friend that Jeff Davis “seems to have a singular coincidence of opinion with some Massachusetts Governors upon the Doctrine of State Rights.” [to Daniel Richardson, Feb. 3, 1862; ibid., 340] The governor showed signs of becoming obsessed with the controversy. An ally of Butler in Washington informed him that Andrew had sent Senator Charles Sumner a package of 60 to 80 “copies of all his petulant and vindictive complaints and charges against you,” with the request that the senator would read them to Lincoln. [John Ryan to Butler, Dec. 30, 1861; ibid., 308] Sumner, though no admirer of Butler, was a man of principle and refused to serve as an errand boy on such a demeaning assignment, so it is not clear whether this packet of vituperation was ever presented to the administration. It is deplorable to think that, in the midst of a terrible war, with men being asked to shed blood for a cause, the governor of an important state found no better use of his time than to assemble such a tawdry parcel.

*

Meanwhile, on another level, recruiting went forward. Arguments continued over which, if any, of the partially-filled Massachusetts regiments would be assigned to Butler, but at the same time he was actively recruiting two entirely new regiments. He referred to these as the Eastern and Western Bay State Regiments and set up camps to accommodate the troops in Lowell (Camp Chase) and Camp Seward in Pittsfield. Butler’s sensitive political antennae had discerned the wisdom of naming the camps after influential cabinet officials.

Charles M. Whelden Residence Pittsfield MA; a 41 year-old Druggist. Enlisted on 11/25/1861 as a Lieut Colonel. On 11/25/1861 he was commissioned into Field & Staff MA 31st Infantry  He Resigned on 12/23/1862

Charles M. Whelden
Residence: Pittsfield MA

Butler’s home base was Lowell, and he traveled frequently around New England and to Washington; so, especially in western Massachusetts, he did not personally do the recruiting. Instead, he entrusted it to associates in whom he had confidence. Probably the most important of these was Charles M. Whelden of Pittsfield. Whelden was born in Boston in 1821, the son of Quakers. He developed an early interest in becoming a druggist, and at the age of 30 he purchased a drug store in Pittsfield, beginning his association with the Berkshire city. Whelden must have had a strong element of independence in his makeup, as he turned away not only from his family’s metal fabricating business, but also from its Quaker pacifism. Like Butler, if to a lesser degree, he was fascinated by things military. When only 20 he joined the Washington Light Guard in Boston, and in 1850 became a member of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery. This was a famed social, as much as military, organization, and while the Wheldens were not among Boston’s elite, Charles’s acceptance showed they were respectable. Taking his avocation with him, Whelden joined the Pittsfield Guard and by 1860 had risen to the rank of captain. He volunteered as a staff officer in the 8th Mass. when it was dispatched to Washington, and in this way, if not earlier, came to Butler’s attention.

Butler was impressed by Whelden and when recruiting for the Western Bay State Regiment began, named him lieutenant-colonel, with the rank to become permanent when the regiment was mustered into federal service. Whelden’s importance in the process may explain why Camp Seward was located in the westernmost county of the state. Although Welden was in overall charge, recruiting was still conducted on a town-by-town or even a man-by-man basis. Much depended on finding respectable, outspoken men to take the lead. A man might try to fill up a company of 100 men in the hope that he would be named captain. Recruiting often took place at a fair or rally to drum up enthusiasm.

The Hampshire County town of Ware presents a typical example. “War fever” had flared at a high level ever since the attack on Fort Sumter, culminating at an agricultural fair on October 10. Some of the leaders of the recruiting drive announced a “war meeting” for that evening. By then Butler’s authorization to recruit in New England was widely known, and it was assumed that the new regiment would be under his command. After several stirring speeches, an enlistment roll was placed out, and within two or three days eager volunteers had filled the company roster. This became Company D of the 31st Mass. The officers were the leaders of the recruitment effort, with W.S.B. Hopkins elected captain. [Chase, 197-99]

Because of the individualistic way the companies were recruited, each one presented a somewhat distinctive character:

  • Company A, originally organized by Capt. Edward P. Hollister, included many men from Berkshire County, as well as from nearby towns in New York State such as Stephentown. Most of them were enlisted October 20 and mustered November 20.
  • Company B was comprised largely of men from the western hill towns between the Connecticut Valley and the Berkshires. Most were mustered under Capt. Elisha A. Edwards on November 20.
  • Company C was recruited under Capt. John W. Lee, mainly from the hill towns on both sides of the Connecticut River and also mostly mustered November 20. [Hewett (20) gives a date of Nov. 29, but that is probably a mistake for Nov. 20.]
  • Company D, as noted, included a large contingent from Ware and the neighboring towns of Belchertown and Hardwick, mostly mustered November 20.
  • Company E was drawn from scattered towns in western Massachusetts, especially the northern Berkshires, with a number from nearby Vermont towns such as Pownal, as well as a sizable contingent from Chicopee, MA. Most of the men were mustered December 10 under Capt. Edward P. Nettleton.
  • Company F included a number of men from Belchertown and some from the Berkshires, with others scattered throughout western Massachusetts. The formal muster took place on the late date of February 19, 1862, under Capt. Eliot Bridgman.
  • Company G was also diverse, but with many residents of Springfield and its neighbors. It was formally mustered February 20, 1862, under Capt. Cardinal H. Conant.
  • Company H also contained many Springfield men, but quite a few from southern Berkshire towns such as Sheffield and Great Barrington. It also included more men from Worcester County than the other companies, many of whom were employed in that county’s thriving shoe industry. With Capt. Edward Page, Jr. in charge, many were mustered January 27, 1862.
  • Company I was drawn from western Massachusetts, with a heavy representation from Berkshire County and quite a few from nearby New York towns such as Berlin. It was quite a break with custom to enlist in the regiment of another state, and this supports the long-standing observation that Berkshire’s ties to Boston were weaker than the other Massachusetts counties, while at the same time it had stronger social and economic links to adjacent portions of New York and Vermont. The muster date for most of this company was January 28, 1862, under command of Capt. William W. Rockwell. At least six men in this company had prior military service in the short-term regiments organized in the first days of the war, notably the 8th Mass.
  • There was no company J because of possible confusion with the letter “I”. Company K was an anomaly, made up of men from the Boston area and added to fill out the total strength of the regiment. Initially under the command of Capt. William Fiske, the company was not mustered until almost the last possible date, February 14, 1862. As many as 20 members of the regiment may have benefited from previous service in the short-term regiments.

Company D included a handful of students from Amherst College, who mostly became officers and left a distinctive stamp on the unit. One was Luther Clark Howell, who came from the Southern Tier of upstate New York. He signed up within a week of the attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861, one of 75 students pledged to be “ready to march at a moment’s notice.” [letter, Apr. 21, 1861] This list, intentionally reminiscent of the Revolutionary-era Minutemen, was compiled by William Smith Clark (1826-1886), a professor of chemistry at the college. He was an enthusiast for the war, who initiated military drill instruction at the college and later helped organize and eventually commanded the 21st Mass. infantry regiment. Apparently it was decided not to enlist the college volunteers until better preparations had been made, so in October Howell was still busy recruiting. He wrote to his sister from Ware “Well, here I am hard at work trying to persuade men that it is their duty to be patriotic at such a time as this, but sometimes I am ashamed at my countrymen.” Overall progress seemed encouraging, however, and he informed her “Our Co. is prospering finely, have about 70 men on the list now & hope to fill it up during the coming weeks” (as they succeeded in doing). [letter, Oct. 17, 1861]

Later a local newspaper printed an informative list of occupations of the Company D recruits. It shows the great diversity of occupations that would be expected in a textile mill town such as Ware, yet farmers from the outlying districts still made up the largest single category: 1 lawyer (Capt. Hopkins), 8 students, 1 printer, 1 bleacher, 6 clerks, 3 smiths, 1 wool sorter, 34 farmers, 1 artist, 9 laborers, 4 carpenters, 2 saddlers, 3 sailors, 5 painters, 1 teamster, 1 landlord, 1 mason, 1 tailor, 4 hostlers, 3 mechanics, 1 weaver, 1 butcher, 1 baker, 1 cabinet maker, 2 shoemakers, and 1 scythe maker. [Tupper letter, Feb. 2, 1862, from the Ware Standard. The list totals a few short of the full complement of officers and men in a company.]

Most of the men began arriving at the Pittsfield camp, located on the agricultural fair grounds, in early November, with November 9 apparently the day reception and training began. Probably the men were housed in one of the agricultural buildings, but there were no bunks or bedding, so in the beginning the new soldiers had to sleep on the wooden floor. With no effort to soften the transition, it was a rough but indicative introduction to military life. It is uncertain who paid for erecting bunks and other facilities: the dispute between Butler and Andrew made it unlikely that state funds would have been provided. Perhaps Butler used his own money, though he never took credit for that, which would be uncharacteristic if he were responsible.

Whelden was pleased by the initial response at Camp Seward, informing Butler:

Everything is working finely. Men are coming in faster than I can provide for their comfort. I want overcoats very much, as it’s getting somewhat cold in these mountains. The Governor’s friends are trying their utmost to break up all your regiments, but give me the means and time, and this shall be the Banner Regt. of the State. . . .

The class of men are A No. 1,–but two cases of drunkenness in camp as yet. . . . [Whelden to Butler, Nov. 12, 1861; Series II, Box 2, f.16]

Days, of course, were short and cold by then, and the agricultural building had not been intended for year-round use. Many of the recollections of Camp Seward describe cold, snow, and other forms of discomfort. One soldier remembered going down to the river on his first morning in camp and finding it full of floating ice that cut their hands when they washed. [Wheeler Diary, 1] At that moment, it seemed inconceivable that they would spend most of their service in sultry southern swamps.  “The fellows can hardly keep warm in the barracks,” complained Tupper, “and you can see them lying around in their bunks with their overcoats and mittens on covering themselves with blankets when they are not on duty.” [letter, Jan. 3, 1862]  In January, there were frequent snowstorms, and the men had to keep their drill field free of snow. One soldier referred to “a real old fashioned storm” on January 20, 1862, proving that even in distant times, the snows of yesteryear seemed more memorable. [Knight diary, 3]

The companies were by no means filled in November, and recruits continued to be hauled in during the entire time the regiment was in Camp Seward. “I was out in the woods chopping with Charles Nowlton [sic: Knowlton] and was just thinking of going home for the night, when Lieut. Geo. S. Darling came out where we were to work, seeking for recruits, and as I had been wanting to enlist, this was just the opportunity, so I took his pencil and paper upon an oak stump and made myself a soldier for three years in Co. F, 31st Regiment.” [Underwood Diary, Dec. 11, 1861] On the following day, this young man, Richard F. Underwood, traveled from Belchertown to Pittsfield by train. Although the railroad had been in service between Springfield and Pittsfield for 20 years, it was his first train ride, an illustration of the rapid broadening of experience the war brought. “I was homesick enough on my first night in Camp,” Underwood admitted. “I had to sleep on a board and only one blanket for three of us. I caught a cold that night that never went off till I was far down in Dixie.”

One immediate consequence of throwing together under harsh conditions a large number of men who were not acquainted and were often not used to being part of a crowd was the rapid spread of disease. Tupper reported that “The Hospital is full and the rest lie around in their bunks depending on the kindness of their comrades and officers for proper treatment.” [letter, Dec. 24, 1861] Newly-elected Capt. Hopkins was one of those afflicted. Soon after, 43 recruits were sent to a house that had been rented as a hospital. [ibid.] Though few probably realized it at the time, this provided an authentic introduction to army life. Beneath the flag-waving and the noble abstractions of the recruiters festered the reality of dysentery, pneumonia, and a multitude of persistent digestive and lung complaints that brought death, discharge after long debilitating hospital stays, and chronic poor health for many who survived.

There were several instances of brothers enlisting, but nothing to rival the record of the Frink family living in the remote town of Mount Washington, isolated in the extreme southwest corner of Massachusetts. In the 1860 census the population of this town was given as 321. Five Frink brothers, ranging in age from 18 to 28, enlisted together in Company F. They were the sons of Elias Smith Frink (1807-1873) and Harriet Brazee (1812-1871). The family originated in adjacent Litchfield County, CT, and lived in Mount Washington for only about ten years, c.1855-1865. Two of the sons listed their occupation as farmer and the other three as collier, engaged in the ancient and demanding craft of making charcoal for furnaces in the Salisbury iron district. The five men who joined the 31st Mass. were not the end of the Frink story, as two other brothers enlisted in the 8th Conn., and the youngest brother was turned down when he tried to sign up. There were also three Frink daughters, but they died in childhood. [thanks to genealogist Michele (Patterson) Valenzano for providing this information.]

The recruits spent most of their time drilling. These parade-ground maneuvers were not always useful on the battlefield, but they gave the men something to do, got them accustomed to boredom, and suppressed individuality. In time they might think of themselves as nothing more than cells in an invincible blue organism.  It is not certain when their muskets arrived or whether they had any training in live fire. One account relates that the officers went out shooting for the first time only on January 12. [Knight diary, 2] Capt. John W. Cushing, who may have had prior military experience, had been giving Tupper individual rifle instruction. [Tupper letter, Dec. 25, 1861] Yet there were diversions from drudgery: the men were given furloughs to visit home and could go into town for lectures, religious services, and to meet friends. Camp experience thus furnished a valuable transition between the freedom of civilian life and the rigidity of the military.

With so many young men thrown together in unfamiliar circumstances, life at Camp Seward was not always sedate. After only a week there, one recruit with strong religious sensibilities wrote “There is no evading the simple fact that the camp is a trying place for christian character . . . .” He concluded that “the natural tendency of the heart is to evil and there are times here to everyone when feeling lonely, time hangs heavily on his hands. Then he is tempted to many ways of killing time, not among the least of which is playing cards and trifling talk.”  [Hawkes letters, Dec. 1, 1861; emphasis in original] It is evident that primeval Calvinism had not entirely lapsed in rural Massachusetts.

A shockingly violent incident took place November 23, when a deranged “Irishman from Springfield” named Michael Sullivan stabbed Captain John W. Lee. Initially it was feared the captain would not live, but he survived. [Hawkes letters, Nov. 23, 1861. This was Hawkes’ first night in camp.] Probably the best and most direct explanation of the incident was provided by Howell, who wrote “The man guilty of a deed so dastardly was a hard drinking private, who being deprived of his accustomed dram was taken with the ‘Horrors’.” [letter, Nov. 25, 1861] Sullivan was not after Lee personally; the captain had the ill fortune to be the first person to respond to the pounding on the door to the officers’ room. At first Butler wanted to shoot the culprit, but then reconsidered and decided to employ more regular procedures. Sullivan was put in irons and carried with the regiment until he was drummed out of the service on June 20, 1862. [Hawkes letters, June 20, 1862. The identity of this man is uncertain. Hawkes refers to “Old Sullivan,” and a Michael Sullivan, age 35, was listed on the official roster as discharged for disability June 21, 1862. However, he had not been mustered until Nov. 28 and gave his residence as Willimantic, CT, though he enlisted in Springfield.]

Contrary to Whelden’s glowing report in the first days, Frank Knight had described “A company from Pittsfield, of about 60 men, all Irish, poor, miserable, ragged vagabonds, who are continually getting into a row. We put 10 of them into the Guard House last night . . . .” [letter, Nov. 14, 1861; There was no true “Pittsfield company,” although men from that and surrounding towns were heavily represented in Companies A and I. It is possible that many of the men Knight refers to were dismissed before being formally mustered.] Tupper reported another row when a group tried to release a companion who had been locked up for desertion. [letter, Dec. 24, 1861]  Knight’s opinion was confirmed by Howell, who reported that “We have one company of real roughs, and I have heard that my life had been threatened. Guess I shall have to hurry up about getting my pistol . . . .” His overall assessment was positive, and he concluded “Outside of this one company I think I never saw a lot of men better disposed. Every man of our company will stand by me until the last breath is drawn.” [letter, Nov. 25, 1861; emphasis in original]

At the beginning of December, the men were issued their “Fatigue Suits consisting of cap, short sack coat, pants of blue also drawers, shirt, stockings, overcoat — the cloth is not of the finest texture, but they keep us warm, though the buttons will come off.” [Hawkes letter, Dec. 1, 1861] Food at camp was plain, but usually plentiful. Hash made frequent appearances on the menu, but the men complained that it was often sour. At that point, men could still receive parcels from home, which had both gustatory and sentimental appeal, but those days were drawing to a close.

Heralded by cannon, General Butler came out to inspect the regiment on Tuesday, January 7, 1862. His years in the militia had taught him to conduct a thorough inspection. While the men were at dinner, “he passed around sticking his fingers into the meat pans and going out munching a slice of bread.” [Hawkes letter, Jan. 12, 1862; emphasis in original] That night all went into town to hear him give a speech. The General evidently was pleased by what he saw, as he told Col. Whelden:

I have been much gratified with the appearance, discipline, and proficiency of your regiment, as evidenced by the inspection of to-day. Of the order, quiet, and soldierly conduct of the camp the commanding general cannot speak too much praise. Notwithstanding the difficulties of season, opposition, and misrepresentation the progress made would be creditable if no such obstacles had existed. [to Whelden, Jan 7, 1862, Marshall, 314]

Springfield Republican, 10 January 1862

Springfield Republican, 10 January 1862

Butler’s pointed reference to “obstacles” and “misrepresentation” acknowledged his conflict with the governor, an admission that was necessary because it was intruding directly on the future of the regiment. As early as the beginning of December, a recruiter in the town of Montague had alerted Butler that “I find a great deal of inconvenience in recruiting here from the fact that the Country People do not fully know to their satisfaction that they will receive state aid for their families.” [Gen. J. Bradler to Butler, Dec. 1, 1861, Marshall, 293] The state had passed legislation to aid soldiers with families, since such men could not reasonably be expected to support families on the private’s pay of $13 a month. At first the question was whether this payment was discretionary, so that selectmen in each town would have the right to determine who was eligible. Later, Governor Andrew’s aides used the threat in their controversy with Butler, by dropping hints that Butler’s regiments, raised under federal authority, would not be eligible for the assistance.

Under pressure, Butler informed Whelden that “I will personally, and from my private means, guarantee to the family of each soldier the aid which ought to be furnished to him by his town, to the same extent and amount that the State would be bound to afford to other enlisted men . . . .” [Marshall, 314] If nothing else, this confirms that the general was a man of considerable means before he left Massachusetts. However, as he explained in his autobiography, he did not consider this really risky: “The towns paid the State aid, and as every town wanted every soldier in it to be credited to its quota, I knew they would, as they did, pay the State aid, and there was neither risk nor hazard about it.” [Butler’s Book, 310]

Andrew’s campaign to undermine Butler culminated in early January, when the Eastern Bay State Regiment, whose development was always a little ahead of its Western counterpart, was already on a steamer preparing to head south. Its commander reported that surreptitious messages had been passed to the men claiming that they were an “irregular force” raised by Gen. Butler “against the lawful authority of the State, and the United States.” As a result, according to a letter signed by an “Assistant Military Secretary,” the men “may seem to have voluntarily deprived your family of the benefit of the soldier’s family relief act.” If these poisonous messages failed to incite mutiny, it was “only from a want of credence in the authenticity of the letters or the accuracy of the statements they contain” as the colonel maintained. [Col. Shepley to Butler, Jan. 8, 1862; Marshall, 315] If these letters were legitimate, it was a shocking attempt to subvert military discipline, with consequences that could not be foreseen. It is little wonder that, even after the passage of many years, Butler concluded that the Governor “had the good quality of cultivating malignity as a parlor plant.” [Butler’s Book, 309]

While the troops may not have understood the legal arguments or the depth of personal vituperation, they were well aware of the direct consequences. As the stay at Camp Seward lengthened, there were increasing rumbles of discontent. A delay in distributing pay contributed to the grumbling. Tupper warned that “The men are getting rather mutinous and there will be trouble if the promises which the officers have made to the men are not fulfilled in regard to State Aid.” [letter, Feb. 2, 1862] Even the strongly religious J.W. Hawkes concurred: “Two things are settled in my mind that we do not leave here till we are paid off and the state aid is decided.” [letter, Jan. 20, 1862; emphasis in original] Many of his comrades shared these feelings, so the atmosphere at Camp Seward must have been strained.

Butler and Gov. Andrew never met in person, nor was there any formal treaty or agreement between them. Possibly their aides met, but if so there seems to be no record of it. Left to themselves, the two adversaries might have gone on squabbling indefinitely, but outside realities intervened. Butler was committed to a plan for a campaign that promised great glory. As of February 9, he had 2000 of his men in camp off the Mississippi coast. He could hardly afford to leave two or more Massachusetts regiments behind, and this made him more agreeable to compromise. Andrew, for his part, was perhaps beginning to see that his obsessive pursuit of prerogatives that mattered only to him was threatening to put him in the position of preventing organized Massachusetts troops from going into action.

The War Department facilitated a solution by giving Butler command of the newly-created Department of the Gulf on February 23. At the same time, the temporary Department of New England was abolished. This removed Butler’s authority to recruit, and eliminated the direct source of controversy. The Governor, perhaps advised that these moves were forthcoming, had agreed to accept the regiments Butler had formed. Thus the Eastern and Western Bay State Regiments became the 30th and 31st Mass. respectively, and the original names passed into history. Andrew also agreed to give commissions to many of the officers Butler had named (most of whom had already been approved by the War Department), and these commissions were backdated to February 20.

*

On January 17, 1862, Col. Whelden ordered an end to furloughs and transfers, a signal that the regiment was about to enter a new phase, but even then more than four weeks remained in its sojourn at Camp Seward. [Hawkes letter, Jan. 26, 1862; Knight Diary, Jan. 17, 1862] Finally on February 12, after a hectic night of preparation, the regiment departed its unloved temporary camp and marched through the streets of Pittsfield to the railroad depot. By then the men had been paid and had some confidence that the state aid issue was being resolved. Although it was early in the morning, a large number of people had gathered at the depot, “and when that long train moved off many were the damp eyes and moist handkerchiefs. The air was full of white cambric and loud rang the voices until lost in the distance.” [Knight letter, Feb. 13, 1862] The regiment left behind a quantity of broken and intact bottles, confiscated during inspections after Company A stirred up a row on February 6. [Underwood Diary, Feb.6 and 8. He observed that the smashing of bottles was such “as to give one the idea of a temperance reform.”]

The Western Railroad provided a train of three locomotives and 23 passenger cars for the regiment. It is somewhat surprising that they had that much spare equipment, unless some regular trains were annulled. “At every station on the route crowds were gathered so that our whole journey was a kind of perpetual ovation.” [Hawkes letter, Feb. 15, 1862] At Springfield the citizens treated the men to wheat bread and ham, with coffee, and later they were offered beer, so that some of “the boys were pretty happy and tight.” Many greeted friends for the last time. [Wheeler Diary, Feb. 12, 1862; Underwood Diary, Feb. 12] It was a thrilling, rather joyous journey, but it almost ended in catastrophe when drawbars on the long train separated twice coming downhill, probably on the steep grade into Chester. [Wheeler Diary, Feb. 12, 1862; Underwood Diary, Feb. 12] Trainmen would have had to climb up on the cars to set hand brakes to keep the detached cars from going out of control. It could have resulted in a smashup that devastated the regiment. No one suspected that this was only the first of several disasters that threatened the survival of the 31st before it reached its destination. At Worcester the regiment transferred to the Worcester & Nashua Railroad and completed the trip to Camp Chase around 7 PM.

The men spent about a week at Camp Chase, occupied in inspections, issuing equipment and other preparations. An air of tense expectancy pervaded the camp, as the men were constantly reminded that the serious phase of their work was fast approaching. General Butler bustled around, busily examining and observing. The men noticed that accommodations at this camp were pleasanter than at Camp Seward, which must have caused some chagrin and reawakened the resentment the western part of the state felt toward the dominant eastern portion. The divergent Company K was here united with the other nine companies. According to a cryptic remark by Butler, “Company K stands upon different grounds. It was recruited at the expense of the United States wholly.” [to Col. Brown, Asst. Adjt. Gen., Feb. 15, 1862; Marshall, 355] The men in this company were recruited in Boston, came overwhelmingly from the eastern part of the state, and had never been at Camp Seward. [Young recollections, 7]

Camp Chase was surrounded by a tight fence, which presented a challenge to some of the unruly young soldiers. One night a number of them climbed over the fence and proceeded into town, where they conducted a major “jollification.” Eventually they were rounded up and thrown into the guard house, along with some of the men who had been sent to guard them. It happened that General Butler was coming out, and the next day, like naughty schoolboys, they were hauled into his presence. Here Butler demonstrated that his years in the militia had taught him how to deal with volunteer soldiers. More in sorrow than anger, he began by saying “My young friends I am very sorry to meet you in this manner.” He concluded by appealing to their higher sense of responsibility, reminding them that “when we leave the city of Boston behind us, we must leave behind us all our boyish tricks, and all the notions that we may have entertained that we are going our south just to have some fun. Behave yourselves like Men and I believe you will find in me one who besides being your General will try to be your friend.” [Young recollections, 5-7] A West Point officer would never have adopted this approach, and it might not have succeeded with troops from another part of the country, but Butler knew his New Englanders.

The foray into town was probably a direct consequence of the fact that the soldiers had been paid after a long wait. An account by Tupper brings to mind the common expression about money burning a hole in their pockets: “Those that got paid have brought all the pies and cakes the sutler had, and he has nothing but crackers and cheese left, and they are howling around and stoning his shanty like a pack of hungry wolves.” [letter, Feb. 16, 1862] (Sutlers were private merchants who, usually with permission, came into camps to offer food specialties and other handy items that the army did not provide. It is interesting that, even though the regiment was only slated to remain at Camp Chase for a short time, it was long enough to attract sutlers.) Other men went into town to make impulse purchases or have their picture taken. While there they got into a brawl with “some rowdies,” and “Southworth got knocked down with a club, and his face is quite swollen.” [ibid.] (This was Constant E. Southworth, 21, a carpenter from Hardwick.)

The underlying history of Civil War regiments is the process of attrition. A full regiment was supposed to have 1000 enlisted men, though most were somewhat short of that maximum. In a report from that period, Butler listed his infantry regiments as having a strength of 900 each. [Marshall, 350] The gradual and relentless decay began while the regiment was still in its home state. Official records show that 22 men were discharged for disability at Pittsfield and Lowell, while another 33 had made a rapid assessment of military life and deserted. Thus the regiment’s nominal strength was already reduced by about 6% before it really got started. It does not appear that much was ever done about the deserters, though one wonders how they explained themselves at home. In a few cases, they were listed as later joining other units, perhaps after bounties began to be offered. It is a testimony to the dedication of the vast majority of the recruits that, despite ample evidence of inefficiency and after seeing the demoralizing conflict over state aid, they remained true. It would be gratifying to think that this was the last time the common soldiers would be disappointed in their leadership, but that was hardly the case.

On a raw February 20, 1862, the regiment was taken to Boston by train, “marched through the streets in slosh nearly knee deep” and at Long Wharf boarded the steamer Mississippi. [Hawkes letter, Feb. 24; emphasis in original] The bad luck that hung over the 31st Mass. persisted to the end, as the men had to stand in snow for two hours before leaving Lowell because the engine was stuck. [Norris letter, Feb. 24, 1862] After passing a night crowded in the confined quarters of the vessel the troops departed on the 21st. A pilot accompanied them to the limits of the harbor, after which the Bay State shore, itself an unfamiliar sight to most of the men from inland towns, fell away. Several weeks earlier, a 23 year-old soldier, returning from what he expected was his last furlough, wrote that “I took a last long look at all the old scenery of Charlemont, the impression of which will remain upon my mind as long as time shall with me last.” [Hawkes letter, Dec. 22, 1861.] Now they were cut loose from their direct link to home and were relentlessly pulled away on their grand and unknown adventure.

One thought on “Part 1 — B. F. Butler & the Creation of the Western Bay State Regiment

  1. Thank you for thus wealth of information. Interesting to read about the brothers who served together, particularly the Frinks. In my own family there was a father-son pair who enlisted together in the 31st (and unfortunately both died, within a few months of each other — one from disease and one from injuries). They were Ellis Peckham Amsden and his son Jacob Ezban Amsden, of Company C. They were my great-great grandfather and great-great uncle respectively. Please contact me if you want more information about them.

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