Revolution Retold in Boston’s Civil War

Boston and the Civil War: Hub of the Second Revolution
Barbara F. Berenson
192 pp. The History Press. Paperback $12.04


Photo credit Amazon.

Barbara Berenson’s Boston and the Civil War: Hub of the Second Revolution retells the antebellum and Civil War periods with particular emphasis on the roles played by Bostonians. A far-reaching treatise on the considerable contributions of a city and its denizens to a pivotal era of American history, the book presents citizens, leaders, families, and communities from all corners of the Hub that had a hand in ending slavery and preserving the Union.

The first half of the book chronicles the rise of the Abolitionist movement and life in antebellum Boston, highlighting abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison, his followers, and his enemies. The book reaches the outbreak of war near its midpoint, and the latter half of the book focuses on the impact of the Emancipation Proclamation and the contributions to the war effort and life in Boston made by women, Irish immigrants, and Blacks. Berenson goes on to defend her view of the Civil War as the “Second [American] Revolution.”

Boston is the product of Berenson’s comprehensive, vast research, and it succeeds in portraying Boston as a city lying at the heart of the slavery conflict by telling a history of the Civil War in which the City on a Hill appears at every turn of the page. At only 172 pages, the book incorporates a wealth of portraits, letters, books, and newspaper articles. Yet Berenson doesn’t prevent Boston from being accessible to any reader, Boston expert or not.

Much of Berenson’s focus is on individuals. One example is prominent Bostonian Wendell Phillips: attorney, orator, leading voice of Abolitionism, and advocate of women’s and Native American rights. Phillips was the cousin of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., to whom Berenson also dedicates his own section, a Civil War veteran and future justice of the United States Supreme Court. Holmes’ legal philosophy of valuing ideas based on their pragmatic use rather than theoretical merit was strongly influenced by his experiences on the battlefield.

Family connections such as these come up often. While these connections assist in weaving the story of those who fought slavery, they tie together the leaders to such an extent that it’s often unclear whether or not Boston is the story of a historical movement or the personal story of the group leading the movement, both of which largely came out of the Hub.

This work’s focus on Boston also places a unique emphasis on the idea of the Civil War as the “Second Revolution.” The Civil War is referred to as the completion of the work the Founders began but never finished—bringing freedom to all Americans. Especially after the Emancipation Proclamation, the ending of slavery would serve as a great redemption for the hypocrisy of the previous 80 years of American government, wherein “of the people, by the people, for the people” applied only to whites. Berenson makes it clear that this sentiment meant more to Boston than it did to any other American city in the 1860s. The Abolitionist leaders used Boston as their base of operations. As Berenson writes, “They strove to create a ‘great Northern sentiment’ against slavery and to persuade audiences that the restoration of the old Union—one with slavery—was ‘well-nigh impossible.’”

Boston was the center of both the Revolution and Abolitionism. So little time had passed between the two that both eras shared locations and family ties: Faneuil Hall was visited by George Washington and served as venue for Abolitionist speeches. Paul Joseph Revere, grandson of Paul Revere, fought in the Union army for two years and was killed in the Battle of Gettysburg. And a few months prior to Revere’s enlistment, Longfellow published “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” whose poetic call to action “in the hour of darkness and peril and need” was particularly fitting at the outbreak of war.

At times, the individualized focus Berenson uses to draw parallels between the conflicts is unwieldy: Boston switches quickly between the tones of a broad, historical retelling and a narrow, personal biography, often without a clear narrative relationship between the two. For example, chapter five relates the stories of soldiers in combat. Berenson writes that Boston’s soldiers were mostly literate, providing a wealth of letters and diary entries to analyze today. From these, Berenson selects four men on whom to specifically focus. While the profiles included are all interesting, it would have been beneficial to the reader for Berenson to include more information on the collective thoughts and feelings of the Union ranks before diving into particular life stories.

This conflict is accentuated by the structure of Berenson’s writing. The organization of her chapters often switches between individuals and the events surrounding them. While this alteration is effective in covering information quickly while maintaining chronology, it compromises the historical narrative’s consistency. Berenson’s Boston is at once a biographical series, a legal pamphlet, and an ode to the life and work of Garrison. Despite incoherencies, Berenson provides an excellent selection of individuals, of varying degrees of public fame. Her sources turn a 19th century compilation into a modern-day homage.

Berenson’s Boston is a book that does not quite plant its feet in the kind of narrative it wished to tell, in part because it sought to tell so much. The individuals explored are too complex to be genuinely understood via a passive historical account. But achieving the level of desired intimacy more often found in, say, historical fiction is often constrained by the nature of an academic historical text. Given this constraint, Berenson switches between these narratives well enough to accept the presentation as a compromise between the two. In this environment she presents strong cases supporting both Boston’s central role in the Abolitionist movement and Civil War and a view of this period as a continuation of the Founders’ work. These cases are accurate and engaging, a necessary combination for broader appeal as we approach 2015, the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s end.

Read more here:
Copyright 2018