Mercenaries for Massachusetts
The former slave State of Massachusetts had great difficulty finding citizens to fight a war they did much to foment, and many fled to neighboring States to avoid service. Hence the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts comprised of black men not from that State, and men from California forming a Massachusetts cavalry regiment, and all counting toward the quota set by Lincoln.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.circa1865.org
Mercenaries for Massachusetts
“Both [abolitionists John Murray] Forbes and [Amos] Lawrence devoted a great deal of time to raising troops. At the end of 1862 Forbes wrote a friend that “I eat, drink and sleep recruits.” He added, “no slave-trader is more posted on the price of men.” By early January 1863, Forbes was complaining that “volunteering with and without bounties is nearly played out” and that without the California men he would not have been able to fill the [Massachusetts] cavalry regiment.
In the fall of 1863, Forbes, back in Boston, returned once more to the idea of encouraging foreign immigration to Massachusetts . . . to provide men for the State’s quotas . . . [of troops for Lincoln]. They would advertise on the Continent for prospective immigrants, holding out to them prospects of homesteads, high wages, or sizable bounties if they enlisted in the army.
Some [Bostonians] organized their own companies to put up some funds. They hoped to use the large [enlistment] bounties offered by the State and local governments to purchase “voluntary immigrants” from the Continent; they would give them less than the full bounty and, even after paying their passage, expected to obtain a profit. A Massachusetts man in Hamburg told the investors that he could obtain some 2000 men there who had been gathered for a war in a neighboring German state; they were not wanted there after all and were ready to come to Massachusetts.
Eventually, 907 Germans were brought to Massachusetts in 1864. The State adjutant general later admitted that they were transported there by a Boston firm “partly from patriotic motives, and partly for speculative purposes.” Upon arrival in Massachusetts, most did enlist in the State’s regiments. Some of them later claimed that Massachusetts agents had either forced them into service against their will or deceived them through false representations.
The colonels of the regiments in which these men served were . . . unhappy . . . most of the recruits could not speak English or understand orders, and many were subsequently massacred in the Wilderness Campaign that summer. At the end of the war the Massachusetts adjutant general confessed that the whole affair was of questionable propriety and reflected poorly on the patriotism of the people of his State.
The eagerness with which Massachusetts leaders sought to fill their State quotas by finding men in neighboring States, in Canada, or in Europe reflected the atmosphere of desperation in which these steps were taken. The same reasoning affected their decision to recruit black troops for the Union armies. Clearly, Massachusetts would benefit from such efforts. Raising black troops would enable the State to meet its draft quotas more easily, would keep white workers at their jobs, and might also be less costly than paying high premiums [bounties] to whites. [Forbes argued] that “we ought to be pushing our Negro and German resources” in order to avoid “going much into the population now at home . . .”
In the summer of 1862, calls on Massachusetts for troops were increasingly difficult to meet, and Forbes predicted that “we must either draft men or resort . . . to slaves.” He was sure that the citizens of Massachusetts would rather see blacks enlisted to fight “than see our people violently drafted, or brought in with enormous bounties.”
(Cotton and Capital, Boston Businessmen and Anti-Slavery Reform, Richard H. Abbott, UMass Press, 1991, pp. 114-118)