Object of the Month

"Shall we submit to have our citizens shot down by a set of vagabond Irishmen!": Changing Perceptions of the Irish in Massachusetts

Americans to the Rescue! Irishmen Under Arms! Americans! Sons of the Revolution!! Broadside

Americans to the Rescue! Irishmen Under Arms! Americans! Sons of the Revolution!!

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Americans to the Rescue!, an 1854 broadside printed in Boston, calls for open defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and reflects the peculiar alliance of antislavery activists and anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant nativists in antebellum Massachusetts. While preparations were being made to return fugitive slave Anthony Burns to bondage, this public notice announced that "cowardly" Irishmen serving in local militia units (the Columbian Artillery) and the United States Marines were protecting the "kidnappers" of Burns (federal marshals) and thwarting the efforts of "Sons of the Revolution" to rescue him.

The Boston Slave Riot

Anthony Burns, who escaped from slavery in Virginia to Boston early in 1854, was tracked down and arrested there on 24 May 1854.  Two days later, the "Boston Slave Riot" was an unsuccessful attempt by abolitionists to rescue Burns from the courthouse where he was being held. During the riot that followed, a deputy marshal named James Batchelder was killed and Mayor Jerome V. C. Smith called out local militia units to restore order.

On 2 June 1854, an enormous crowd gathered in Boston to watch the "vile procession" that marched Burns from his cell past hallowed sites of the American Revolution (the Old State House and Faneuil Hall—the "Cradle of Liberty") to the waterfront where he was placed aboard the Morris, a federal revenue cutter, to be sent back to slavery in Virginia.

In a letter to her father, Benjamin Seaver, a former mayor of Boston, Mary Elizabeth Seaver Blanchard described the enormous throng that gathered to watch the spectacle.   Among the local militia units that aided in the rendition of Burns—and prominently featured in Americans to the Rescue! broadside—was the Columbian Artillery (Company B of the 5th Regiment of Massachusetts militia artillery), a unit made up of Irish immigrants from the North End of Boston commanded by Captain Thomas Cass, an Irish-born Boston merchant and ship owner. The Columbian Artillery also had been called to duty during the Boston Slave Riot.

While abolitionists often resisted the idea of compensating slave holders for their human property, the following year, the Reverend Leonard Grimes of Boston, an African American Baptist minister and antislavery activist, used two checks totaling $1,300 to purchase Burns's freedom.  Finally free, Burns moved to Ohio to study for the ministry at Oberlin College.  He died in Canada after a short but eventful life in 1862.

The rise of the Know Nothing Party in Massachusetts

The American or "Know Nothing" Party in Massachusetts was part of a nativist movement that began to gather strength in the 1830s and 1840s. The Know Nothings themselves were inadvertently responsible for the uncomplimentary nickname of their movement. The American Party was organized as secret society, not revealing who its members were or even what the organization specifically stood for. When queried about their secret organization, members would reply "I know nothing" and this became a comment upon their character and intelligence.

The Know Nothing Party was a national movement, but in no place was it as successful as in Massachusetts where it was both anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant, but also had a strong antislavery platform—at least to keep slavery a regional rather than national institution as the Fugitive Slave Law threatened to make it.  "True Americans" could aid fugitive slaves while, at the same time, standing against Catholicism and Irish immigration.  At least in part because of the Anthony Burns case, Know Nothing candidates swept to power in the 1854 Massachusetts local and state elections.  Under Know Nothing Governor Henry J. Gardner, the Massachusetts legislature passed a strong personal liberty law that protected fugitive slaves and punished state officials who enforced the Fugitive Slave Act.  Governor Gardner moved to disband state militia units made up of foreign-born members.  The members of the Columbian Artillery voted to dissolve their unit before it could be disbanded and re-formed as a literary and military society called the "Columbian Association"—a fraternal organization with its own armory.

The decline of the Know Nothing Party was as rapid as its rise.  The national party was not able to mount a country-wide presidential campaign in 1856 because it was divided over slavery.  The anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant core of support for the Know Nothings had been buttressed by breakaway factions of other parties, including antislavery advocates who were looking for a political home, but they soon moved on to the new Republican Party.

The rebirth of the Columbian Artillery

When the Civil War began, Thomas Cass, who had resigned his commission in the Massachusetts militia, was offered command of a regiment of Irish volunteers from Massachusetts.  The core group of what became the 9th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment was made up of former members of the Columbian Artillery.  Now an infantry unit, the old Columbian Artillery became Company A of the 9th Regiment—the Columbian Guards.  "Vagabond Irishmen" now became "Irishmen to the Rescue!" in recruiting posters for the "Glorious Ninth!".  Colonel Cass commanded the "Fighting Ninth" until he died of wounds in July 1862.  The high honors that marked his funeral in Boston were a stark contrast to how he and the members of the Columbian Artillery had been regarded  by Massachusetts in 1855.

A New Exhibition

Beginning on 10 March 2017, Americans to the Rescue! will be on display at the Massachusetts Historical Society as part of the Society’s exhibition The Irish Atlantic: A Story of Famine, Migration, & Opportunity. The exhibition explores the history of the Irish in Boston from the 1847 voyage of the Jamestown under the command of Capt. Robert Bennet Forbes to bring famine relief supplies to Ireland, through the mass migration of Irish immigrants to Boston that followed, and the growth of the Irish community and institutions in Boston through the last decades of the 19th century. The Irish Atlantic is co-sponsored by the MHS and the Forbes House Museum in Milton, Massachusetts, and will be on display through 22 September 2017. The exhibition is open to the public without charge, Monday through Saturday, 10 AM to 4 PM.

Further Readings

Boston Slave Riot and Trial of Anthony Burns.  Boston: Fetridge and Company, 1854.https://www.loc.gov/resource/llst.019/

Guiney, Patrick R.  Commanding Boston’s Irish Ninth: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Patrick R. Guiney, Ninth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.  Edited by Christian G. Samito.  New York: Fordham University Press, 1998.

Macnamara, Daniel G.  The History of the Ninth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.   Boston: E. B. Stillings & Company, 1899.

Mulkern, John R.  The Know-Nothing Party in Massachusetts: The Rise and Fall of a People’s Party.  Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1990.

O’Connor, Thomas H.  Civil War Boston: Home Front and Battlefield.  Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1997.

Samito, Christian G.  Becoming American under Fire: Irish Americans, African Americans and the Politics of Citizenship during the Civil War.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009.

Stevens, Charles A.  Anthony Burns: A History.  Boston: John P. Jewett and Co., 1856. https://archive.org/details/anthonyburnshiststev

Von Frank, Albert J.  The Trials of Anthony Burns: Freedom and Slavery in Emerson’s Boston.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.