boston civil war tours

From Abolitionism to Emancipation: Boston’s Civil War Memory

Introduction: The narrow streets of Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood once rang out with the voices of black and white abolitionists. Their passionate pleas demanding the end of slavery shaped the lives of the African Americans, who called this neighborhood home, as well as the broader trajectory of the nation. Through their words and actions, white and black abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, Lewis Hayden, Senator Charles Sumner and others were instrumental in shaping the national discussion about the future of slavery in the United States. It is from this neighborhood that calls went out to President Abraham Lincoln to issue an emancipation proclamation. It is from here that military recruiters fanned out to fill the ranks of the first black regiments to fight in the Union army. And it is here that Bostonians returned after the war to memorialize the men and women who shaped its outcome. The story of the men and women on Beacon Hill who lived through this turbulent period of American history were vital to the nation’s “New Birth of Freedom.”

This two-hour walking tour of Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, Boston Common, and Public Gardens will examine the history of the city’s abolitionist movement during the turbulent decade leading up to the Civil War and their role in steering the war and the nation toward emancipation and freedom for four million slaves. Participants will also have an opportunity to explore how Bostonians chose to remember and commemorate the city’s military sacrifice and the legacy of emancipation and freedom through a close examination of monuments and memorials.

Walk Subthemes:

A Nation Divided: At no point in American history was the nation more divided than it was in the 1850s. The United States was literally divided by region over the fundamental question of whether it would continue as a slaveholding nation. Though relatively small, Boston’s anti-slavery community contributed to this sectional squabbling, increased violence by the end of the decade and the eventual calls for disunion and war.

A Community at War: The anti-slavery community contributed to the national conversation about slavery in the form of speeches and a wide range of publications, but once the war began in 1861 they worked to shape its direction and outcome. Residents of Beacon Hill maintained close contact with the army and the decisions being made in Washington, D.C.

Memory/Commemoration: After the war the residents of Beacon Hill and the rest of the city honored the black and white soldiers and celebrated the end of slavery and a reunited nation with a number of monuments and memorials spread between The Boston Common and Public Gardens. Together they comprise a rich commemorative landscape that is often overshadowed by the city’s emphasis on its Revolutionary War past. The efforts to commemorate this moment in history reflects the Civil War generation’s commitment to remember this history and pass down their legacy to the next generation.

The Tour:

Stop 1: African Meeting House

This site served as the focal point of the abolitionist community on Beacon Hill. The meeting room itself will serve as a setting to discuss the careers of William Lloyd Garrison, Lewis Hayden, Frederick Douglass and others who visited and/or lived in the neighborhood. Here we will also focus on the role of the meeting room as a rallying point of recruiting efforts for the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

Questions: What is abolitionism? How did the abolitionists fit into the broader anti-slavery discussion? What impact did they have in Boston and on the nation? What challenges did recruiters face in enlisting African Americans to fight for the Union?

The Boston Common

Stop 2: Soldiers and Sailors Monument

Serves as the focal point for an overview of Boston’s role in the Civil War and the experience of soldiers from the Bay State in the war. Here we will explore the motivations of why men joined the army and how they understood the importance of Union.

Questions: What did Union mean to the vast majority of the white citizenry of the North? To what extent did volunteers fight for emancipation and the end of slavery? What does this monument tell us about how Bostonians chose to remember the service of its citizen soldiers?

Stop 3: Shaw Memorial (54th Massachusetts Monument)

Will discuss the history of the regiment, the unique experience of black soldiers in the Civil War, and the role of the Beacon Hill community in raising the regiment. The story of how the monument was designed and its significance among other monuments will be addressed as well.

Questions: Why did black men join the Union army? How does the Shaw Memorial interpret the legacy of the black Union soldier?

Stop 4: Public Gardens

The Public Gardens is filled with statues commemorating some of the best-known abolitionists that made Boston home before and during the American Civil War. The decision to commemorate these men tells us a great deal about how Bostonians chose to remember this period of history following the war and the end of slavery. The dedication of these statues, however, also took place during a period when Boston became even more racially segregated.

Questions: Why were specific individuals chosen for commemoration in the Public Gardens? What overall narrative do these monuments collectively encourage? How does that narrative fit into a broader story of increased segregation by the turn of the twentieth century?

Stop 5: Lincoln/Emancipation Monument on Park Square

The Emancipation Memorial (also known as the Freedmen’s Memorial) is a copy of the famous monument dedicated in Washington, D.C. in 1876. This is an ideal place to conclude the tour. The monument itself is considered to be controversial given the relationship between Lincoln and a slave, who looks up to “the great emancipator” for his freedom.

Questions: Does this monument capture how historians and others now interpret how slavery ended? What, if anything, can be done given that some people find this monument to be offensive? Should it be removed, re-located or fitted with interpretive panels?

This tour can be organized in any number of ways depending on your needs and time commitment. It is ideal for tourists as well as student groups.

For additional information, including rates and availability, please contact me at kevinmlevin95 [at]