MHS for the Media

The Purchase by Blood: Massachusetts in the Civil War, 1861-1862

The Purchase by BloodFollowing the surrender of Fort Sumter on April 13, 1861, Northerners rallied behind Pres. Lincoln’s call for states to send troops to preserve the Union. Opening October 7, the Massachusetts Historical Society’s exhibition The Purchase by Blood: Massachusetts in the Civil War, 1861-1862 follows a small group of officers—husbands, brothers, and friends of the first families of Massachusetts—through the first years of the Civil War. These young men, like so many, wanted to feel the glory of combat and enlisted with a sense of adventure and unquestioning patriotism. Not anticipated was the bloody aftermath of early conflicts—the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, the Seven Days Battle, the Battle of Cedar Mountain, the Battle of Antietam—and the horrifying loss of life and optimism. This exhibition showcases letters, photographs, broadsides, journals, and works of art surrounding one group of men as the cost of war is brought home to Massachusetts.

Intended as a “slight demonstration”, the battle of Ball’s Bluff on October 21, 1861, was a cruel baptism to war for the 20th Mass Infantry which would ultimately rank 5th out of 2000 Union regiments for losses suffered. The death of Lt. William Lowell Putnam came to symbolize the collective loss of innocence and new found horror at the sacrifices demanded by war. Born in 1840, Putnam was a law student at Harvard College when war broke out. At the age of 21 he was commissioned Second Lieutenant of Company E, 20th Massachusetts Infantry. Visitors can read Casper Crowninshield’s diary account of the battle which includes a description of Putnam’s death and see images of Ball’s Bluff from Sen. Baker’s Defense at Balls Bluff by John D. Baltz.

The Peninsula Campaign started slowly and without much bloodshed as the Union army successfully advanced up the James Peninsula. Starting on June 25, 1861 and lasting seven days, a series of punishing battles were fought. The 20th Mass Infantry was in the worst of the fighting. Whatever ground gained was given up as the Union Army retreated to protect its lines of supply. Wounded soldiers were evacuated onto hospital ships staffed with nurses and brought to New York or Boston for care. Washington, D.C. was the most immediate location for hospital care and nurses were recruited from across the Union. Louisa May Alcott volunteered for this service. She lasted only three months before returning to Boston with a form of typhoid. On display is a letter she wrote to Hannah Stevenson in December 1862 in which she comments, “Everything here strikes me as very odd and shiftless, both within and without, people, manners customs and ways of living, but I like to watch it all and am very glad I came as this is the sort of study I enjoy.”

Cedar Mountain, a minor battle early in General Pope’s Shenandoah Campaign, was a costly defeat. With the temperature at 98 degrees during the most intense fighting, more than 3,000 men fell in 90 minutes. Visitors can view the letter Robert Gould Shaw wrote after finding Richard Cary’s body on the field in which he states, “Cary was lying on his back with his face turned to the right and his hands crossed over his chest. He looked as if he had just fallen asleep in a comfortable position.” Others showed the effects of war as well: Stephen Perkins was shot three times in the head and James Savage, taken prisoner, lost both an arm and a leg. The incompetence of Generals Banks and Pope cost the Union dearly and helped to make McClellan’s incompetence on the Peninsula appear relatively benign.

September 17, 1862 was the bloodiest day of the Civil War and of all American wars. Though the Battle of Antietam raged for just one day, the losses are staggering. Of the long list of wounded and killed—23,000 casualties in all—it is the mortal wounding of Lt. Colonel Wilder Dwight that most shocked. Shot in the arm and thigh, his hip shattered to a degree that made moving him almost impossible, Dwight was soon trapped. For five hours he lay stranded on the Antietam battlefield, and during that time he took out a pencil and continued a note to his mother begun earlier in the day. Visitors can read this blood-stained letter displayed with his writing desk and several personal possessions. In the days following the Union victory at Antietam, Pres. Lincoln announced his intent to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.   

Throughout the first years of the war recruiting posters were used to entice men with patriotic appeals, promises of adventure, and offers of generous bounties. In Boston, a direct appeal was made to the Irish population promising that they could march into battle flying an Irish flag and assuring the men that the chaplain would be a man of “the old faith.” Several recruiting posters are on view including the 2nd Irish Regiment poster and the 1861 “Empire Course” poster that sets up the conflict as if it were a horse race at Saratoga Springs between Abe Lincoln and Jeff Davis.

By the end of the 1862, the toll of the dead and the sacrifices made for the cause of the Union had begun to shape policy and affect how soldiers and civilians understood the war. As soldiers began to question what is was that they were fighting and dying for, the Union war aim changed from a war to preserve the Union to a war for emancipation.