Wartime IconFrom Specimen of Printing Types from the New England Type Foundry (Boston, 1834). Image courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society

After the English colonized Cape Ann, wartime combat never reached closer than its harbors and beaches, but the area was still greatly affected by national and international conflict. Gloucester’s City Hall holds almost all of the official records of its engagement in wartime efforts, as well as muster rolls and other documentation of enlistment. Supplementing town records, the Selectmen’s Records deal more with financial than political matters. Nonetheless, they capture the zeitgeist of the town as the global became local. For example, the Selectmen’s Record from 1766 orders “a cask of Powder to be used toward expressing our Joy for the repeal of the Stamp Act by the Parliament. News arrivd on Fryday last.” The act had required that many printed materials in the colonies be produced on English paper and carry an embossed revenue stamp. Opposition to the act in the colonies was strong, and much of the organizing against it, including the founding of groups like the Sons of Liberty, fueled the Revolution.

News of the beginning of the Revolution in 1775 spread swiftly throughout the colonies. Reports of the battles of Lexington and Concord first appeared in the Boston News-Letter on April 20, and then in twenty-six other newspapers by the end of May.[1] On April 21, Gloucester prepared for war, making plans to purchase firearms, disband the minutemen, and enlist men for service. The selectmen’s moderator, Captain Peter Coffin (ca. 1724–1796), added a marginal note to explain their actions: “American Blood was spilt at Lixinton by British Robbers.” That description surely captured the sentiment at the meeting, as Cape Ann was largely in favor of the Revolution. Several companies of soldiers were made up of men from the area, and two of the companies fought in the battle of Bunker Hill on June 17.[2] The war came close to home later that year when the British warship Falcon, after trying to land at Coffin’s Beach, proceeded to cannonade Gloucester before being repelled in the harbor.[3]

ParadeStereopticon Card of a corps of boys drilled by Capt. Richard C. Lawrence, Jr. of the Eighteth Mass. Regiment ca. 1876. Cape Ann Museum

Letters and diaries of Cape Ann citizens help to reframe the Revolution’s battles as personal, lived experiences. Rockport’s Sandy Bay Historical Society and Museums holds a number of letters from the parson’s son Ebenezer Cleaveland, Jr. (1754–1822) to his intended wife, Lois Pool. The letters are filled with expressions of affection and resolute purpose, but also with frustration and fear. “Once more,” he wrote, “I try to make my pen the Messenger of My heart.” Torn between duty and love, Cleaveland reflected, “It is with the Greatest Reluctance I am Obliged to Submit to a Separation. But When I Consider the honorable Service In which I am engaged it Makes Some Atonement for our separation.” Luckily for the couple, Pool and Cleaveland were able to marry in 1777, before the end of the war.

Celebrations abounded when the war finally did end in 1783, as David Choate (1757–1808) recorded in his diary, but the first decades of independence were tumultuous for the new nation. As part of the effort to quell Shays’ Rebellion in central Massachusetts, Gloucester raised a company to join the 3,000 troops called up by Governor James Bowdoin from the eastern part of the state.[4] Upon these troops’ return, town leaders reasserted their allegiance to the state of Massachusetts and to the Congress of the United States, which had exclusive “jurisdiction, superiority, preeminence, authority, dispensing or other power, in any matter, civil, ecclesiastical or spiritual, within this Commonwealth.”[5] Such sentiments rang throughout the nation as its leaders prepared to meet in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

CannonStage Fort Park ca. 1910. Photographer Chester N. Walen. C. Walen Collection. Image #18820. Cape Ann Museum

The union was once again in peril almost a century later. In May 1861, President Abraham Lincoln issued a call for volunteers for the Civil War, and 48 men from Essex immediately enlisted. Just over a year later, he issued a second call, and this time the town of Essex offered $150 to enlistees.[6] Some certainly enlisted for ideological reasons—to preserve the union or to end slavery—but some did so because they needed a job. The Essex recruitment poster appealed to the practical reasons for joining the Union Army, listing the payments to soldiers and their families for services rendered. The poster did not mention the larger political or moral motivations that might inspire a young man to sign up.

Lincoln’s second call for troops was even heeded by some boys on Cape Ann. In August 1861, Congress ruled that with their parents’ permission, boys younger than eighteen could enlist. William Allen gave permission for his thirteen-year-old son, Robert Wallace Allen (b. 1848), to enlist as a drummer in the Massachusetts Volunteers. In both the Confederate and Union armies, a significant portion of these underage enlistees were drummer boys, whose beats led the troops’ movements. Drummers and buglers sounded commands on the battlefields, and their signals ordered the soldiers’ day: when to wake and sleep, when to drill, when to water horses. It was not until 1864 that Congress prohibited the enlistment of boys under sixteen.[7]

By the time of the Civil War, literacy rates had risen substantially, and soldiers wrote home regularly. Their letters, which survive in most of the Cape Ann collections, reveal not only the soldiers’ personal lives but also their motives for fighting. Though the primary cause of the Civil War was the conflict over the abolition of slavery, not all Union soldiers believed in this cause. Just seven months into the war, a bomb was thrown into the Universalist Church in Rockport during a lecture delivered by the staunch abolitionist Parker Pillsbury (1809–1898),[8] and many men carried their anti-abolitionist sentiments into battle. As the Civil War historian James McPherson explained, “The cause of Union united northern soldiers; the cause of emancipation divided them.”[9] A case in point is Samuel Hanscomb (1840–1884), who was stationed at Freedman’s Village, a camp in northern Virginia established to house formerly enslaved people in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation.[10] In his letters home, Hanscomb blamed formerly enslaved people for potentially prolonging war: “I almost hate them to think that this war might be stopped if it was not for the Nig.” He then wrote of  “hating” Lincoln for hosting “a Nigger picknick in the front of the White House” on the Fourth of July, and he urged his wife to share this incident with their neighbors in Annisquam. After the war, Hanscomb returned home to work in the granite industry. Though he left Virginia unscathed, a quarry explosion from a powder blast left him burned and with a broken arm.[11] He died six years later.

The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was formed a year after the Civil War ended. A fraternal organization for former Union soldiers, the GAR was initially a political advocacy group, and it grew increasingly controversial “as the veterans tried to prescribe an older vision of the nation for an impatient and burgeoning industrial state.”[12] The height of the GAR’s activity was in the 1890s; in a large black-and-white photograph taken in front of the Essex Meeting Hall (which today houses the Essex  Historical Society and Shipbuilding Museum archives), twenty-two former soldiers of the Union Army gather, and six women from the auxiliary organization called the Woman’s Relief Corps (WRC) crowd the doorway. The WRC, formed shortly after the GAR, has outlasted it, still maintaining its status as a charitable organization. It has enlarged its mission to provide “assistance to veterans of all wars and extend needed aid to the widow(er)s and orphans of all those that gave their life for freedom.”[13] The GAR was dissolved in 1956, when the last of its members died.

As various monuments around Cape Ann attest, residents continued to serve in the military throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. The area has also seen peace protests and antiwar demonstrations in opposition to the battles the country has engaged in since September 11, 2001. Cape Ann’s archives continue to collect material records of the histories of war and of peace as they occur.


[1]. American Antiquarian Society, “The Battles of Lexington and Concord: A Public Relations Case Study,” The News Media and the Making of America, 1730–1865, http://americanantiquarian.org/earlyamericannewsmedia/exhibits/show/age-of-revolution/lexington-and-concord, accessed January 18, 2018.

[2]. John J. Babson, History of the Town of Gloucester, Cape Ann: Including the Town of Rockport (Gloucester, Mass.: Procter Bros., 1860), 389.

[3]. Robert Beatson, Naval and Military Memoirs of Great Britain, from 1727 to 1783 (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees and Orme, 1804), 90.

[4]. Babson, History of the Town of Gloucester, 470.

[5]. “Oath of Allegiance,” March and April 1787, Box 41 Folder 4 (Gloucester, Mass.: Gloucester City Archives).

[6]. Robert Crowell, History of the Town of Essex from 1634-1868 (Essex, Mass.: published by the town, 1868), 358–360.

[7]. James Alan Marten, Children for the Union: The War Spirit on the Northern Home Front (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2004), 126–130.

[8]. “Sad Occurrence,” Trumpet and Universalist Magazine, December 21, 1861.

[9]. James M. McPherson, What They Fought For, 1861–1865 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994), 56, 4, 61.

[10]. “Freedman’s Village,” U.S. National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/arho/learn/historyculture/emancipation.htm, accessed January 18, 2018.

[11]. Barbara H. Erkkila, Hammers on Stone: The History of Cape Ann Granite (Woolwich, Maine: TBW Books, 1980), 54.

[12]. Stuart Charles McConnell, Glorious Contentment: The Grand Army of the Republic, 1865–1900 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992),16, 237.

[13]. “Woman’s Relief Corps,” http://womansreliefcorps.org/, accessed January 19, 2018.

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