The following article is based on two talks given by D. Eldridge, one to the Meigs Memorial Association, and the other to the Hyde Park Historical Society, both in 1906, and then published as an article in volume VI of the Hyde Park Historical Record, 1908. The article below includes an edited extract from, History of the Fifty-fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infrantry 1863-1865 by Luis F. Emilio (1894). Emilio was initially appointed as the second lieutenant in the 54th eventually gaining rank as its captain.
Before the Civil War (1861 – 1865)
…it was called Sprague’s Plain, and was one general whole prior to the building of the Providence Railroad. State musters were held in those far-off days, and it was here that the “striped pig” is said to have made its advent, or more properly speaking, it was here invented. To those who are uninformed, I will explain that it was a ruse to cover the clandestine sale of intoxicants. The tent which served as a cover to a bar, bore the legend ” Striped Pig.” About 1840 there appeared this verse in a local paper :
In Dedham now there is a great muster,
Which gathers the people all up in a cluster;
A terrible time, and what do you think?
They’ve found a new way to get something to drink.
Mr. Ebenezer Paul, living near Paul’s Bridge, owned the land. It is related that the first that Ebenezer Paul knew of any designs upon his land as a camping ground, was his sudden discovery one morn of two or three men sitting under one of the long rows of elms, a few of which are now standing, and his cows gazing upon them with interest. Later, it is said, they came and took the land, leaving him to apply to the State for compensation, which he did, and I am credibly informed that he received three hundred dollars per year rental.
The first call for troops — insignificantly small as it proved — was succeeded in May, 1861, by a second, this time for 500,000, and it was under this call that the first troops assembled “On Sprague’s Plain near Sprague’s Pond in the town of Dedham.” Quoting the language of the order of Governor Andrew dated July 2, 1861.
The first to arrive upon these grounds, — and they came within a few days after the 4th of July, 1861, — were the 18th and 20th Regiments, the latter commanded by Col. William Raymond Lee, who is credited with having selected the spot. The ground over which we now are was covered by the tents of the 20th, while a little farther away from Milton Street, near the Elms, the 18th pitched its tents.
In connection with the accounts of the 18th Regiment, the press announced that the camp would be called Camp Brigham, and the 20th named it Camp Massasoit. This shows that each regiment adopted a name for its own camp, and this method continued for awhile, until the general name of Camp Meigs was placed upon the whole.
About the middle of August it was announced that the 20th Regiment had about 500 men and the 18th Regiment 641.
On the 19th of October, a newspaper said that stables had been completed for 600 horses, the rest will be completed this week, and that the camp was near low, marshy ground. The Cavalry Regiment numbered 1,029 early in December, and they had about 900 horses. The cold was such that small stoves were issued, for use in the tents, which were of the Sibley pattern (conical). All had departed for the battlefront by the end of 1861.
Our camp at Readville remains vacant, silent and solemn until August, when under the call of 2d of July for 300,000, we find at Readville the 9th and nth Batteries and the 42d, 43d, 44th and 45th Regiments.
I will here remark that the Quartermaster, Capt. McKim (now Judge of Probate), employed William Bullard, of Readville, as one of his agents to procure straw, hay, wood, etc. This 44th man, who was quite prolific in language (and I feel thankful that he was), said, “We arrived here the 29th of August, about 4 p. m., and here our trouble began. We had either come too soon or the carpenters had been too lazy, for only three of the ten barracks were roofed and some were not even boarded.” He then continues: “So while the carpenters were at work outside, we went at it inside, putting up and fixing the bunk. A load of straw arrived at sunset.”
” Our first night was a jolly one. Poor devils who depend upon good sleep and a good deal of it for what vitality they can muster, might probably have sworn. Not that the boys were riotous, not even obstreperous, but simply jolly. The inside musical performance opened with a barnyard chorus by the entire company, and this was followed by a rapid and unintermittent succession of dog, hog, cat and rooster solos, duets, quartettes, both single and combined, until the arrival of an officer, who unfortunately had no ear for music.”
On the 8th of September, 1862, I find the first mention of ” Camp Meigs,” and in connection with the fact of the arrival at Readville of a company from Dedham.
The 54th Regiment had begun to form. This regiment was the first colored regiment organized in a northern state. Gov. Andrew received his authority to organize colored regiments in January, 1863, and apparently the first to arrive at Readville came on February 21st, and the twenty-seven men were assigned to the barracks first occupied by the 44th. This regiment had a unique experience. The twenty-seven men on the 21st of February had increased to 324 by the 21st of March and the regiment was filled and left Readville on the 28th of May, being sent to the Department of the South to operate against Charleston. Robert G. Shaw, who was made its colonel, was, with other young officers, chosen because of their firm anti-slavery principles, ambition, superiority to a vulgar contempt for color, and because of their military experience.
The presentation of the flags, by Governor Andrew, on the 18th of May, was peculiarly impressive, the Governor taking occasion to speak at length, and the occasion was otherwise marked. The regiment went to the Department of the South, in which department I was serving. They had been in the department but a short time when they were called to battle upon James Island, and following this, were suddenly called to Morris Island, and engaged on the evening of the 18th of July, 1863, in that memorable assault upon Fort Wagner. This regiment was placed in the forefront.
My own regiment, the 3d New Hampshire, was also a part of the assaulting column. In the thick of the fight Colonel Shaw was killed, and next day buried in a trench, with the men whom he had led to their death. The beautiful monument upon Boston Common, opposite the State House, will testify to all generations to the valor of Colonel Shaw and his regiment. A school was established shortly after the close of the war, in Charleston, S. C, for colored children, in his honor, and named the Shaw Memorial School, and the city of Boston has also named one of its schools in the West Roxbury District in his honor. And thus the name and fame of Col. Robert G. Shaw are properly and appropriately perpetuated.
Here now is an edited extract from History of the Fifty-fourth Regiment of Massachusetts (Volunteer Infrantry 1863-1865 by Luis F. Emilio (1894), providing backbround and detail on the 54th’s time at Camp Meigs.
President Lincoln, on Jan. 1, 1863, issued the Emancipation Proclamation. In September, 1862, General Butler had begun organizing the Louisiana Native Guards from free negroes. General Saxton, in the Department of the South, formed the First South Carolina from contrabands in October of the same year. Col. James Williams, in the summer of 1862, recruited the First Kansas Colored. After these regiments next came, in order of organization, the Fifty fourth Massachusetts, which was the first raised in the Northern States east of the Mississippi River. Thence forward the recruiting of colored troops, North and South, was rapidly pushed. As a result of the measure, 167 organizations of all arms, embracing 186,097 enlisted men of African descent, were mustered into the United States service.
Lieutenant E. N. Hallowell, on Feb. 21, 1863, was ordered to Readville, Mass., where, at Camp Meigs, by direction of Brig. Gen. R. A. Peirce, commandant of camps, he took possession with twenty seven men for the new regiment. Readville is on the Boston and Providence Railroad, a few miles from Boston. The ground was flat, and well adapted for drilling, but in wet weather was muddy, and in the winter season bleak and cheerless. The barracks were great barn-like structures of wood with sleeping-bunks on either side. The field, staff, and company officers were quartered in smaller buildings. In other barracks near by was the larger part of the Second Massachusetts Cavalry, under Col. Charles R. Lowell, Jr. , a brother-in-law of Colonel Shaw.
During the first week seventy two recruits were received in camp, and others soon began to arrive with a steady and increasing flow ; singly, in squads, and even in detachments from the several agencies established throughout the country.
Surgeon General Dale, of Massachusetts, reported on the Fifty-fourth recruits as follows: —
” The first recruits were sent to Camp Meigs, Readville, in February, 1863 ; their medical examination was most rigid and thorough, nearly one third of the number offering being peremptorily rejected. As a consequence, a more robust, strong, and healthy set of men were never mustered into the service of the United States.”
Companies A and B were filled by March 15 ; Company D was then formed ; Company C came to camp from New Bedford on March 10. These four companies were mustered into the United States service on March 30. Lieutenant Partridge on March 28 was assigned to begin Company E; Lieutenant Bridge, reporting from recruiting service, was placed in command of Company P, just forming; Lieutenant Smith, on April 10, was chosen to organize Company G. As recruits came in during April at the rate of one hundred per week, these three companies were ready for muster on April 23. Companies H, I, and K were mustered May 13, completing the regiment.
With some twenty-one officers and four hundred men in camp, on April 1, the regiment was fairly under way. On March 25, Colonel Shaw wrote: —
” If the success of the Fifty-fourth gives you so much pleasure, I shall have no difficulty in giving you good words of it whenever I write. Everything goes on prosperously. The intelligence of the men is a great surprise to me. They learn all the details of guard duty and camp service infinitely more readily than most of the Irish I have had under my command. There is not the least doubt that we shall leave the State with as good a regiment as any that has marched.”
Surgeon-General Dale, in the report previously quoted from, speaks further of the Fifty fourth as follows: —
” From the outset, the regiment showed great interest in drilling, and on guard duty it was always vigilant and active. The barracks, cook-houses, and kitchens far surpassed in cleanliness any I have ever witnessed, and were models of neatness and good order. The cooks, however, had many of them been in similar employment in other places, and had therefore brought some skill to the present responsibility.
” In camp, these soldiers presented a buoyant cheerfulness and hilarity, which impressed me with the idea that the monotony of their ordinary duties would not dampen their feeling of contentment, if they were well cared for. On parade, their appearance was marked with great neatness of personal appearance as concerned dress and the good condition in which their arms and accoutrements were kept. Their habits being imitative, it was natural that they should be punctilious in matters of military etiquette, and such observances as the well disciplined soldier, in his subordinate position, pays to his superior. And fortunately for them, they had the teachings of those who were not only thoroughly imbued with the importance of their trusts, but were gentlemen as well as soldiers.”
” It was remarked that there was less drunkenness in this regiment than in any that had ever left Massachusetts; but this may have been owing to the fact that the bounty was not paid them until a day or two previous to their departure. Nevertheless, it is my dispassionate and honest conviction that no regiments were ever more amenable to good discipline, or were more decorous and proper in their behavior than the Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Colored Volunteers.”
Owing to heavy and frequent rains in March and the early days of April, the mud was often very deep between the barracks and officers’ quarters, requiring much labor to clean paths. During cold weather the quarters were kept warm by wood fires. In stormy weather squad and company drills went on in vacant barracks. Later in the season the companies under commissioned officers were taken several times each week to bathe in a pond near by to insure personal’ cleanliness.
The first dress parade took place on April 3, when four companies were in line. Every day, but especially on Sundays, large numbers of visitors were present. Many ladies graced the camp with heir presence. People came from distant places to witness the novel sight of colored soldiers in quarters and on the drill ground. For the purpose of securing familiarity with drill and tactics, and to obtain uniformity in the unwritten customs of the service, an officers’ school was begun April 20, at headquarters, and held frequent sessions thereafter, until the regiment departed for field service. There were a few deaths and a moderate amount of sickness while at Readville, mainly from pneumonia and bronchitis, as the men were first exposed in the trying months of February and March.
Now and then the monotony of camp life was broken by some noteworthy event. On April 21, a visit was received from the “Ladies’ Committee.” Mrs. Governor Andrew, Mrs. W. B. Rogers, Mrs. B. D. Cheney, Mrs. C. M. Severance, Miss Abby May, Judge Russell, Rev. Mr. Grimes, Charles W. Slack, and J. H. Stephenson were of the party. Another event was the review by Governor Andrew and Secretary Chase in the afternoon of April 30, the President’s Fast Day. The line was formed with eight hundred and fifty men ; and the distinguished visitors were received with due honors. Dr. Howe, Robert Dale Owen, Mr. Garrison, and other gentlemen were also present.
On April 30, the regiment drew nine hundred and fifty Enfield rifled muskets and a suitable number of noncommissioned officers’ swords. Lieutenant Jewett, appointed ordnance officer, issued the arms on the following day. May 2, the regiment was drilled for the first time in the School of the Battalion. General Peirce, accompanied by Surgeon-General Dale and the. Governor’s Council, reviewed the Fifty-fourth on May 4. Brig. -Gen.
By May 11, more recruits had arrived than were required, and the Fifty-fifth Massachusetts was begun with the surplus on the succeeding day. They occupied the old cavalry camp.
Friends had procured flags, and it was determined to make the occasion of their presentation, on May 18, a memorable one. The day was fine and cloudless. Very early, friends of the command began to arrive in private carriages, and by the extra trains run to Readville. Many prominent persons were present, including Surgeon General Dale,- Hon. Thomas Russell, Professor Agassiz, Prof. William B. Rogers, Hon. Josiah Quincy, George S. Hale, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Samuel May, Rev. Dr. Neale, Frederick Douglass, and many others. The parade was thronged with white and colored people of both sexes, to the number of over a thousand.
Line was formed at eleven o’clock, and the regiment was broken into square by Colonel Shaw. Governor Andrew, with his military staff in full uniform, took position inside the square. Brilliant in color and of the finest texture, fluttering in the fresh breeze blowing, the flags destined for the regiment were ready for presentation. They were four in number, — a national flag, a State color, an emblematic banner of white silk with the figure of the Goddess of Liberty, and the motto, ” Liberty, Loyalty, and Unity,” and another with a cross upon a blue field, and the motto, In Soc Signo Vinces.
By invitation, the Rev. Mr. Grimes offered an appropriate prayer. Governor Andrew then stepped forward; and the flow of eloquent words delivered with the earnestness which characterized him, heightened by the occasion, will never be forgotten by those that heard his voice.
After the command was reviewed by the Governor, the battalion was dismissed, and officers and men devoted themselves to the entertainment of their guests.
May 28, at 6.30 a. m., the regiment formed line for the last time at Readville, and marching to the railroad station, embarked on cars, arriving at Boston about nine o’clock. As the companies filed into the street from the station, the command was received with cheers from a large gathering. One hundred policemen, under the chief. Colonel Kurtz, were present, to clear the streets. Unknown to the general public, reserves of police were held in readiness, under cover, to repress any riotous proceedings.
Preceded by Gilmore’s band, the line of march was taken up through Pleasant, Boylston, Essex, Chauncy, Summer, High, Federal, Franklin, Washington, School, and Tremont streets, Pemberton Square, Somerset and Beacon streets to the State House. All along the route the sidewalks, windows, and balconies were thronged with spectators, and the appearance of the regiment caused repeated, cheers and waving of flags and handkerchiefs.
The national colors were displayed everywhere. Passing the house of Wendell Phillips, on Essex Street, William Lloyd Garrison was seen standing on the balcony, his hand resting on the head of a bust of John Brown. Only hearty greetings were encountered; not ail insulting word was heard, or an unkind remark made.
Halting at the State House, Governor Andrew, his staff, and many distinguished gentlemen were received with due honor, and thence escorted along Beacon Street to the Common, which was entered by the Charles Street gateway. This historic parade-ground was crowded with spectators.
Of this march the papers of the day were full of items and accounts. One journal said : —
” No regiment has collected so many thousands as the Fifty fourth. Vast crowds lined the streets where the regiment was to pass, and the Common was crowded with an immense number of people such as only the Fourth of July or some rare event causes to assemble. . . . No white regiment from Massachusetts has surpassed the Fifty-fourth in excellence of drill, while in general discipline, dignity, and military bearing the regiment is acknowledged by every candid mind to be all that can be desired.”
On the 4th of February there were nearly 4,000 men in Camp Meigs, and on that day General Burnside reviewed them, accompanied by Governor Andrew and General Devens, each with his staff. A special train brought the reviewing party, arriving about 2 p. m. Jones’ Battery fired a salute of thirteen guns.
The position of the troops was as follows: 4th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry, Milton street; 59th Regiment, nth Battery, near barracks; 56th regiment, 13th Heavy Artillery, near barracks; 5th Cavalry, 58th regiment, west of railroad. Total 3,879.
The story of the hospital.
In June, 1864, the barracks at Readville were ordered to be turned over to the Medical Department for conversion into a hospital. The barracks being in two groups, one east of the Providence Railroad, and the other west of it, I assumed that General Pierce exercised his judgment as to the scope of the order, and turned over to the medical department only those upon the east side of the railroad, consisting of quarters for two full regiments, i.e., twenty barracks.
There were forty barracks as well as other buildings ready for conversion into a hospital. It shows that the cook-houses and officers’ quarters were placed at the ends of the barracks, and thus forming porches, one at either end of the forty barrack.
As to the work and capacity of the hospital, I find that on the 13th of December, 1864, there were 498 sick and 498 wounded, a total of 996. Early in May, 1865,there were 478 patients, cared for by 78 attendants, and on the 3d of June, 1865, there were 376 patients. All the accessories, whether of material, of buildings, or of medical officers, were supplied to make this a first class hospital, which finally embraced a library, gymnasium and chapel.
Of the many operations at this hospital, one requiring more skill than perhaps any other was that performed upon Private Paran C. Young, Company B, 3d Massachusetts Cavalry and now living in Provincetown, Mass. He had been severely wounded in the neck at Cedar Creek. He arrived at Readville, January 2d, 1865, and was at once reported upon the dangerous list. Four days later Dr. Langmaid performed tracheotomy upon him; and at a moment when he was presumed by the attendants to be dead, Dr. Langmaid knew better, and the result was that the man was almost literally snatched from the grave. A silver tube was inserted, and in all these years Comrade Young has breathed through it, and when he speaks, a hand is pressed in the proper place to permit speech.
On July 1st, 1865, it was ordered, the war having ended, that the hospital be discontinued, and the patients transferred to the Dale General Hospital at Worcester, and these orders were carried out with very little delay.
On the 13th of January, 1866, the Dedham Gazette announced that Mr. Ebenezer Paul had sold his entire farm to Charles A. White for the sum of $20,000, including the old camp ground. “We had hoped,” said the editor, ” that the ground would have been consecrated to some public purpose.”
1884. January 1. Deed Francis Bryant to Readville Homstead Association 1,665 feet. 1890. Hamilton Park Association organized.
1894. Changed to Meigs Memorial Association.
1897. May 30. Flag pole and guns dedicated, Post 121 G. A. R, officiating.
1903. January 4. Name of Hamilton Park changed to Meigs Memorial Park.
Let me say that Hyde Park may well be proud of its delightful suburb, proud that so historic a spot is an integral part of the town. Proud may the dwellers at Readville be, for here, beneath our very feet, nearly fifty years ago, thousands marched up and down and upon this plain. The rattle of musketry, the bugle’s blast, the rat-a-tat-tat of the drum, the clanking of the sabre, the neighing steed and the roar of cannon became familiar sounds.
Here the very flower of the youth of this good old Commonwealth of ours gathered themselves together as a mighty phalanx. Here they learned the art of war, bade fond mother and father, or wife, the sad good bye and marched away. Thousands never came back; other thousands perished upon the battle-field, or in the hospital or the dreadful southern prison. Yet other thousands of the wounded and the sick were sent here to the hospital that they might be near to those they loved and that they might be tenderly nursed.
May these memories, these facts, be kept green, and may the Meigs Memorial Association slack not its hand, but see to it that this and coming generations who make their homes here shall know that this is historic ground, that here was the largest military camp in New England, that soldiers went forth from here to a war such as no man had ever seen. And to you specially, as members of the Meigs Memorial Association, let me say, keep the subject of devotion to country before the people, fling the banner of the free to the breeze from yonder flagstaff upon every proper occasion, and keep bright the names of Meigs, and Shaw, and Carroll, till the last member will have drawn the drapery of his couch about him, and lain down to pleasant dreams. And finally, I offer you one and all, this sentiment:
To the soldiers who went from Readville,
For all they were,
For all they did,
For all they dared,
All honor forever
And for aye,
Edited for the web by Peter Brown