Brother vs. Brother

Put 'er there, Johnny Reb...same to ya, Yank...

The Civil War in Woburn

The outbreak of hostilities began with the Confederate bombardment of Ft. Sumter in Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861, and news of the fort’s shelling and surrender was greeted by Woburnites much as it was across the North as a whole.  The reaction was one of great enthusiasm for the Union cause, and eagerness to join the fight.  A large crowd gathered at Lyceum Hall on April 18, 1861, where “the war feeling was general, and  unbounded enthusiasm prevailed.”

lyceumhall.jpg (918284 bytes)
Lyceum Hall, Woburn

Captain William T. Grammer proposed raising a regiment of troops, resulting in fifty-eight men signing up right away, and others in the crowd pledging $3,350 toward the cost of the venture.  A second meeting was held two days later, and a third the day after that.  By the third meeting, over 100 men had signed up, and over $8,000 had been raised.

The first men to join the ranks from Woburn left on June 11, 1861, under the command of Sergeant John P. Crane.  More men left a week or so later, under the command of Captain Timothy Winn (son of Jonathan Bowers Winn).  Most of the June enlistees took the train into Boston and joined the 5th Massachusetts Regiment.

There was no formal company from Woburn exclusively, however, until a month or so later, when a group formed the Woburn Union Guard, officially organized on July 27, 1861, under the command of Captain Samuel Thompson and now Lieutenant John P. Crane, who had returned to the Town to raise a company of Woburn men.  The company organized and marched to the train depot, where it departed Woburn amidst a big sendoff, with large crowds waving and band playing, on August 7, 1861.  This group became Company F, attached to the 22nd Massachusetts Regiment.

Meanwhile, troops of the 5th Massachusetts Regiment had already seen action, participating in the first major battle of the war at Bull Run, on July 21, 1861.  Woburnite Robert Pemberton was wounded in the fighting, and both he and the North as a whole got their first indication that the war would be neither as glorious, nor as brief in duration as previously thought.

A few months later reality sunk in further, as the Town received news that one of its sons would not be returning.  Edwin H. Persons, eighteen years old, died October 31, 1861.  He had not gotten far in his quest to fight the rebels.  He had enlisted and had been sent to Camp Brigham in Readville (which is now part of Boston).  He died there of typhoid fever.  His death was indicative of the things to come, as just as many Woburnites and Northern troops in general would die of sickness and disease as would die on the fields of battle.

In 1862, Union armies under the command of General George B. McClellan launched a major effort to take Richmond, by landing near Hampton Tolls, taking Williamsburg, and moving up a peninsula toward the Confederate capital.  McClellan slowly and deliberately inched his armies to within ten miles of so of the city, when Confederate forces, led initially by General Joseph E. Johnston and then by General Robert E. Lee, counterattacked.  The result was a desperate series of pitched battles.  The engagements took place one after another over the course of a week, and became known as the Seven Days’ Battles.  The 22nd Massachusetts Regiment and the Woburn Union Guard were in the thick of the fighting, and by the end of the peninsula campaign, five more Woburnites were either dead or mortally wounded.  Among them were the commander of the Woburn Union Guard, Captain Samuel I. Thompson, and his seventeen year old son, Francis W. Thompson.  The younger Thompson died first, at the battle of Gaines Mill, Virginia.  Four days later, his father was seriously wounded at the Battle of Malvern Hill, July 1, 1862, and was taken prisoner.  He was held briefly at the infamous Libby Prison in Richmond, but released on July 18, 1862.  He died several weeks later in a Union hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.   

Sad News....

Bad news continued to come home to Woburn throughout the remainder of the year, as the major battles of Second Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredericksburg all claimed lives of Woburn young men.  By the end of 1862, twenty-three young men had died, and scores more had been wounded.  They had died in battle, they had died later from their wounds, and they had died of disease.  The list included plenty of native Woburnites, like Andrew Jackson Harris, who had been born in the Town in 1843, and died of typhoid fever in March 1862, and Joseph H. Merriam, who was born here in 1836 and died in Libby Prison in July 1862 from wounds incurred at the Battle of Gaines Mill.  The list also included foreigners, however, like John O’Leary, born in Ireland in 1834, who died at the Battle of Williamsburg, Virginia, May 5, 1862, and Thomas Murray, also born in Ireland in 1834, who died in the fields of Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862.  The point would not be lost on those young immigrants who did safely return to Woburn.  Having fought for their adopted homeland on an equal footing with those whose families had been there for generations, they had less patience in their quest to obtain an equal share of the good things in life in their new home.

Meanwhile, Woburnites were continuing to answer the call to arms.  The failed peninsula campaign in the spring of 1862 had resulted in many Union casualties, and in July of that year the president called upon the states to furnish more troops.  In response, a new company from Woburn was formed, with 101 men signing up over the course of a fifteen-day recruitment drive.  The company was known as the Woburn National Rangers, with its officers being of solid and old Woburn stock: Captain John L. Richardson, First Lieutenant Luke R. Tidd, and Second Lieutenant Luther F. Wyman.  The Company left for Washington on September 6, 1862.  Eventually it would become attached to Company K of the 39th Massachusetts Regiment, and would suffer heavy casualties in the campaigns of 1864.

Yet another company of Woburn men formed, in August 1862.  Called the Woburn Mechanic Phalanx, under the command of Captain William T. Grammer, this company became attached to Company G of the 5th Massachusetts Regiment, and saw some minor action along the North Carolina coast.  There were no fatalities from Woburn, however, and the unit returned to Woburn and was disbanded in June 1863.

The war continued and 1862 rolled into 1863.  Woburn young men escaped any fatalities at the first major battle of the year, at the Union defeat at Chancellorsville, in May 1863, but were not so lucky at the watershed battle of Gettysburg, in July of that year.  Cut down in battle was Woburnite Herschel A. Sanborn.  Two fellow citizens, James Goodwin and James Stewart, were mortally wounded in the same fight, Goodwin dying a couple of weeks later, and Stewart surviving until November of that year.  The year 1863 saw four additional soldiers from Woburn die of illness or disease.

By this time as well, the war was having a significant economic and emotional impact on things back home.  Financially, the townspeople’s initial enthusiasm for the war led to a vote in 1861 to pay Woburn soldiers a sum of money over and above their military pay.  Their sense of generosity was curbed soon enough, however, as they found the state assessing a mandatory tax to each city and town to help defray the cost of raising, training, and equipping Massachusetts regiments.  The Town’s assessment from the state in fiscal year 1863-1864, for example, was over $25,000, with the following year’s tax at over $33,000, and all of this to a town whose entire yearly budget before the was only about $30,000.

To meet these additional costs, as well as everyday expenses, town officials began to borrow more money, and the town debt, which stood at under $17,000 in 1860, rose to over $82,000 by war’s end in 1865. 

The men who were coming back in coffins, or with missing body parts had paid a far higher price, however, and there is no evidence that the townspeople met their increased financial obligations with anything by cheerfulness and a sense of patriotic duty.  Indeed throughout the was a number of private citizens and groups continued to supplement the war effort with financial donations or, as in the case of the Patriotic Ladies, by knitting shirts, socks, or blankets for Woburn boys in the service.

Everyone seemed to get caught up in the war effort in one way or another, with boys too young to enlist forming their own company.  Funded with uniforms and materials by the Trustees of Warren Academy, these “Warren Cadet,” as they came to be known, practiced military drill, marched in parades, and performed escort duty for returning veterans.  Many of these cadets, of course, came of age during the four-year conflict, and eventually enlisted in the service for a taste of the real thing.

Enlistments in general, however, were becoming a problem.  Casualties were high, and the eager shine of going off to war had been badly tarnished by the ugly reality of battle and disease.  More Northern troops were needed, and the enlistments weren’t nearly high enough.  The result was the initiation in 1863 of the first-ever national military draft.  Containing as it did provisions that generally allowed a draftee to pay his way out of it by hiring a substitute to go in his place, the measure was immediately unpopular among those at the bottom of the economic ladder, and draft riots occurred in Boston, New York, and other Northern cities in July 1863.

The draft went forward, however, and each city and town was given a quota to fill, by one means or another, with Woburn’s initial quota being 111 men.  In order to avoid the arbitrary selection of its citizens by draft, the Town immediately launched a recruiting drive, complete with an appropriation of money to entice men to enlist.  Whether motivated by patriotic fervor or this bounty money, enough men enlisted from Woburn so that only ten men had to be conscripted in that first round of the draft.  The Town’s commitment to offering bounties continued in full force, and though town borrowing increased to cover the costs, enlistments continued to meet or exceed draft quotas for the remainder of the war, and no further Woburn men had to be drafted.

Meanwhile the war had progressed, and Union armies in the east, under General Ulysses S. Grant began a great spring offensive in 1864.  It turned into one continuous campaign from then until the winter.  The battles were longer, and the tactics were simpler, as Grant fed more and more Union troops into a relentless series of assaults on the Confederate lines. Casualties mounted, and the Town of Woburn soon had news of men killed in the major battles of the campaign.  Eleven Woburnites were killed in the opening engagements in 1864, with two falling at the Wilderness, two at Spotsylvania Court House, and seven in battle or from wounds incurred at Laurel Hill.  Five more were killed or mortally wounded outside Petersburg in June of that year.  By summer’s end, six more young men were felled, either in battle or by disease.

In Grant, it is said, President Lincoln had found a general who would fight, but his no-nonsense and unrelenting drive toward total victory meant staggering losses for Union armies.  As part of that same strategy, Grant embarked on a radical change of policy with respect to the treatment of prisoners.  The new policy, in short, was to not return them, and unfortunately for Woburn, the repercussions would be severe.

Up until 1864, prisoners taken in battle were generally held for only a brief time, as both sides usually exchanged prisoners in large numbers.  While this practice had allowed both sides to minimize their efforts in guarding, feeding, and caring for large numbers of prisoners, it had also allowed the prisoners to rejoin their armies to fight once again.  In an effort to deprive the Southern armies of additional manpower, Grant began the policy of holding captured Confederates for the duration of the war.  The South immediately reciprocated, and prisons both North and South soon swelled to capacity, and in most of the Southern ones, to overcapacity.

The result was places like Andersonville, Georgia, where thousands were held in an open stockade under inhumane conditions.  Disease was rampant, and sanitation nonexistent. Some in the South would later make the argument that its armies and people were themselves short of adequate food, clothing, and medical supplies, and to a large extent this was true.  In addition, conditions at some Northern prisons also left much to be desired.  The conditions and treatment afforded Northern prisoners of war at Andersonville and prisons like it, however, have generally been accepted as having crossed the bounds of human decency, resulting in needless and horrible suffering and death for thousands.  Andersonville claimed the lives of three Woburnites: Michael Branagan, taken prisoner at the Battle of New Berne, North Carolina, in February 1864, and dying at Andersonville in June of that year; Roderick McDonald, taken prisoner on May 5, 1864 during the Wilderness Campaign, and dying of starvation at Andersonville on the following September 21st; and Stephen Hines, wounded and taken prisoner at Petersburg on June 17, 1864, and dying of disease at Andersonville on August 18th.

The Southern prison of Camp Lawton, located in Milan, Georgia, also claimed the life of a Woburnite, William M. Corbett, who was taken prisoner outside Petersburg in late June 1864, and died September 2nd.  Likewise died eighteen-year-old Michael Finn, who was taken prisoner at Laurel Hill, Virginia on May 8, 1864, and died in Confederate custody at Danville, Virginia, on October 3rd.

The worst was yet to come, however, and as the war entered its final phases, from the late summer of 1864 into the spring of 1865, the townspeople of Woburn would come to know first hand of the horrors of life, and death, in Southern prisons. 

This sad local chapter of the war once again involves the Woburn Rangers, the company formed in 1862, and attached to Company K of the 39th Massachusetts Regiment.  The 39th and Company K saw extensive action, and correspondingly extensive casualties, with Grant’s Army of the Potomac in the 1864 campaign, for the Wilderness campaign in May up to the drive to take Petersburg in June.  Grant’s efforts to take Petersburg extended into the summer, however, as he continually shifted his army to the left, trying to encircle the city from below.  In one such maneuver in August, Grant tried to cut the city’s vital railroad line to Weldon, North Carolina, and in what came to be known as the Battle of Weldon Railroad; the 39th Massachusetts met with disastrous results.  The regiment suffered heavy losses, including a staggering 246 men taken prisoner, thirty-five of whom were from Woburn. They were taken to Salisbury, North Carolina.

The prison there was located in the heart of the town, with the main structure being an old cotton factory, along with six smaller buildings.  It was designed to hold about 500 prisoners.  While it had been converted to a prison since the outbreak of the war, it held only about twenty Northern prisoners as late as February 1864, and had primarily been used to hold Southern citizens who were considered to have strong Union sympathies, of which there were about 150 or so at that time.  Grant’s policy changed all of that, however, and by the summer there were between 600 to 800 prisoners at the facility.  As a result of the Battle of Weldon Railroad and other actions in and around Petersburg in the summer an early fall of 1864, however, conditions at the prison suddenly changed.  By October, close to 10,000 additional prisoners had been herded in.  Results were “dreadful,” as the scarcity of water, and lack of sanitary facilities, food, clothing, and shelter wreaked havoc on the formerly well-nourished soldiers of the Army of the Potomac.  The prison “was converted to a scene of suffering and death which no person can adequately describe,” and within six weeks of their arrival, fewer than 500 of the 10,000 were “well.”  Thousands slept in the open courtyard of the complex, without adequate cover or clothing.  Scores of men were dying each day, and of the 10,000 men who had arrived in October, over one in three were dead by the end of February.

The first Woburnite to died at Salisbury was Charles B. Scott, on October 16, 1864, quickly followed by Robert Curry, who died four days later, and George A. Sprague, who succumbed six days after Curry.  Woburnites Miles Roland and Jonas Bacon were added to the list before the year was out, with Roland dying on December 15th, and Bacon suffering no more after December 30th.

The new year saw Moses F. Butler, John Branagan, Frank M. Bryant, and Peter Parks die there in January; with two more Woburnites, Moses D. Reed and Samuel Richardson, Jr., being paroled from the prison in January and late February respectively, but too weakened to survive, both dying in an Annapolis hospital in March.  Eleven Woburnites in all, counting Reed and Richardson, died as a result of their stay in Salisbury, and for their families, as well as the twenty-four others from Woburn who survived there, the tragedy and horrors of this particular chapter of the great Civil War no doubt remained with them for the rest of their lives.

As would occur 110 years later in Vietnam, Woburn would see one of its own be among the last to die in the conflict, with Robert M. Dennett dying April 12, 1865, three days later after General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, from wounds suffered in one of Lee’s last-ditch efforts to escape the pursuing Grant, at the Battle of Five Forks, Virginia, March 31, 1865.

When it was all over, some eighty-two Woburnites had lost their lives in the struggle, with thirty-eight of those dying either in battle or from wounds incurred in battle, and the remainder either from illness, disease, or in Southern prison camps.

Chapter excerpt from "Woburn - A Past Observed" by John D. McElhiney; Copyright©1999, Sonrel Press. All rights reserved.

Rosters of Woburn Men
 who served in the Civil War

22nd Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer
           Infantry -
Company "F"

39th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer
           Infantry - Company "K"


Massachusetts Civil War Research Center

Massachusetts Civil War Web Sites

22nd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry

Civil War Rosters - Arranged By State

The United States Civil War Center

Do you have pictures of your ancestors from Woburn during the Civil War?  If so, email it to me and I will put their picture on this page!

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