Civil War Boston

Historian O'Connor says city's Irish and women benefited from the war, but its African-Americans did not

By Reid Oslin
Staff Writer

Even those casually acquainted with American history know that the Union won the Civil War, but in his recent book, Prof. Emeritus Thomas O'Connor (History) maintains the Boston Irish also were winners by war's end.

In Civil War Boston: Home Front and Battlefield, O'Connor explores the lasting effects of the Civil War on Boston, and the conflict's significant influence on various groups of people in the city. Using excerpts from correspondence and newspapers of the period, the book chronicles the emergence of Irish-Americans and women into positions of influence in Boston, but notes that African-Americans largely did not enjoy similar success.

Boston's Irish-American community, which made up more than a third of the city's population in 1860, benefited the most from the Civil War, according to O'Connor.

"In 1855, we had the height of the 'Know-Nothing' movement, where the Irish were seen as unintelligent, disloyal and dangerous people," he said. "Even before the war was over, these same people were being praised for their bravery and service to the Union."

Prof. Emeritus Thomas O'Connor (History)-"In 1855, we had the height of the 'Know-Nothing' movement, where the Irish were seen as unintelligent, disloyal and dangerous people. Even before the war was over, these same people were being praised for their bravery and service to the Union." (Photo by Gary Gilbert)
A crowning moment of recognition for Irish-Americans came in 1863, O'Connor said, when Boston Bishop John B. Fitzpatrick was given an honorary degree by Harvard University. It was "an extraordinary honor that showed tribute to the Irish" and a clear sign that they had achieved higher status and a degree of tolerance in the city, he said.

"Those who didn't go to war went to work," said O'Connor - a first for many of the immigrant Irish who had found few job opportunities in the city before the war. Employment at the bustling shipyards, iron works and military bases "meant paychecks, savings and the resulting movement of the Irish from the waterfront area to other parts of the city," he said.

Likewise, the women of Boston shared in the change that occurred when the city's men marched off to war. Their direct involvement in the Civil War was applied to subsequent feminist causes, O'Connor said, such as "professionalizing the training and registration of nurses to better reflect their discipline and skills."

For the first time, Boston's women worked in retail stores, munitions plants, post offices, newspapers, and shoe and clothing factories. Emerging businesses, such as photographers, attracted scores of the city's female population for jobs that provided visibility in the community.

Despite some considerable gains, however, the city's small, closely-knit African-American population did not fare as well after the Civil War. Unlike their Irish counterparts, who moved on to Charlestown, Brighton and Roxbury after the war, African-Americans remained largely in the eastern section of Beacon Hill - later known as the West End - and did not begin to branch out into other sections of Boston until late in the 19th century. New employment opportunities eluded most African-Americans, who continued working in service-oriented jobs.

"They were given the opportunity to serve in the Army and the Navy, which had been denied to them previously," O'Connor said. "By the end of the war, or shortly thereafter, through the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, they had been given freedom, civil and social rights, and political rights. But they did not share in the post-war benefits that they had fought in the war to achieve."

O'Connor's interest in the war's effect on Boston has deep roots. He was a member of the Massachusetts Centennial Commission in 1963, but found that none of the thousands of books about the war written during that time focused on Boston. As O'Connor began developing his expertise on the history of Boston, the idea of a Civil War book began to emerge.

More recently, he said, he drew inspiration from Doris Kearns Goodwin's book on Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, No Ordinary Time, which examined the impact of World War II on American life in general, and in particular, on African-Americans and American women. He began to look at whether "the Civil War had the same type of effects 150 years ago."

O'Connor based much of his research on two principal sources. One was the extensive writings of many of the upper-class Bostonians who served in the Civil War, whose letters are preserved by the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Boston Public Library. He also used the library's vast newspaper archives, which recount the war and daily life.

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