Yesterday at the Memorial Day Service of the Greater Lowell Veterans Council on the steps of the Lowell Memorial Auditorium, I was invited to speak about Lowell and the Civil War. Rather than speak from a prepared text, I used a rough outline so I could gauge the length of the talk to the occasion. Here’s a rough approximation of what I said plus some material I could have added:
When the topic is Lowell and the Civil War, two stories predominate. The first is of Ben Butler, the prominent lawyer and politician who became a Major General, held many important commands throughout the war, and who left a fascinating legacy of decisions, some bold and successful, others not so much. The second story involves two young men at the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum. Luther Ladd and Addison Whitney were two young mill workers who would have been forgotten to history but for the riot in Baltimore on April 19, 1861. There, Ladd and Whitney, two privates in the Sixth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, died, making them the first soldiers to be killed by hostile fire in the Civil War.
But Lowell had many other Civil War stories. More than 5000 men from the city served in the Union Army and Navy during the war and nearly 500 of them died in the service. While men were scattered in across a multitude of units, three Massachusetts regiments had large concentrations of Lowell men. The 28th and 30th were both recruited by Ben Butler and served under his command in New Orleans and on the Virginia peninsula. The third of these regiments, the 33rd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry had 282 men from Lowell in its ranks and it participated in some of the greatest campaigns of the war.
Soon after it was raised and trained during the summer of 1862, the 33rd Massachusetts joined the Army of the Potomac (the main Union Army in the east) for the momentous battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. The devastation to both sides at Gettysburg caused a pause in the action in the east which allowed Confederate commander Robert E. Lee to dispatch a Corps across the Shenandoah Mountains to join Confederate forces in Tennessee. In reaction to this, the Union sent a Corps of its own under the command of Major General Joseph Hooker to reinforce the Union army in Tennessee. (It’s widely and wrongly believed that the word “hooker” as in prostitute was derived from General Hooker’s name because of the women who used to follow his army columns but the word was used for that purpose in newspapers at least a decade before the war). Of the 40 some-odd regiments in Hooker’s Corps, only two – the 2nd and the 33rd – were from Massachusetts.
The 33rd Regiment received its baptism of fire as part of the Army of Tennessee in a night attack on a hilltop that was along the main Union avenue of advance against Chattanooga. Although it was near midnight on October 28, 1861, the 33rd Massachusetts and the 73rd Ohio were ordered to occupy a large hill called Raccoon Mountain and evict any Confederate forces they may find there. Each regiment advanced up one side of the hill. Near the top, the Massachusetts soldiers sensed movement to their front and some opened fire. A shout from up ahead said “You’re firing at your own men.” A Massachusetts officer called out “Are you the 73rd Ohio?” to which the voice replied “Yes, what regiment are you.” The answer “the 33rd Massachusetts” was met with a tremendous volley of fire from the dug-in Confederates. The surprise and the intensity of this barrage staggered the Massachusetts regiment and the men withdrew back down the hill.
Rather than wait for reinforcements, however, the regiment reformed and fixed bayonets. The following account is from “Record of the 33rd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry” by Andrew J Boies of Fitchburg who was there as a member of the regiment that night:
The regiment started slowly and cautiously up the hill with orders not to fire, but drive the enemy out entirely with the point of the bayonet. Once more gaining their former positions, they were received with a murderous fire. The men kept pushing and climbing for the top, which was finally reached, and then commenced a scene of heroism and bravery seldom equalled in this war. Over the bank and into the Rebel rifle pits the men went, charging with the bayonet, dealing each other blows over the head with the musket, slashing and cutting with swords. This was too much for the Rebels and they seemed amazed and confused and finally gave way, leaving the 33rd in possession of the hill. . .
. . . The 33rd feel proud of last night’s doings, it being their first charge. General Hooker says it is the greatest charge of the war but no more than he expects of Massachusetts troops. Done at the hour of midnight, up a steep mountain side, it was a brave and gallant act. Coming from the Army of the Potomac into the Army of the Cumberland and this being our first engagement, the Western boys are delighted and show their friendship with a hearty shake of the hand.
The 33rd Massachusetts went on to participate in the capture of Atlanta, Sherman’s “March to the Sea”, and the movement northward through Carolina where the regiment was when the war ended. Of the 282 men from Lowell who had enlisted in the 33rd back in the summer of 1862, 18 were killed in action, 8 died from wounds, and 17 died from disease, a 15% mortality rate.