Category Archives: History

Dennis Lehane Making Sense

“As a country, we used to respect knowledge that was earned over knowledge that was cherry picked.”

—Dennis Lehane, Boston Globe,4/1/9/14

In today’s Boston Globe, author Dennis Lehane thinks aloud about the Boston Marathon Bombing, knowledge vs. opinion, intellectual relativism, bad narratives, and his belief that good ideas will prevail. Read his essay here, and get the Globe if you want more of this kind of writing.

Sixth Massachusetts in Baltimore

April 19, 1861: Lowell soldiers killed in Baltimore

On a small patch of grass wedged between two busy streets in front of Lowell City Hall sits a twenty-five foot high granite obelisk. Few passersby know that this monument commemorates nineteen year old Luther Ladd and twenty year old Addison Whitney, two Lowell mill workers who, along with Sumner Needham of Lawrence and Charles Taylor of parts unknown, were the first soldiers to die in the American Civil War. Fewer still realize that Ladd, Whitney and Taylor are actually buried beneath the monument, right in front of City Hall.

While our neighbors may commemorate Patriot’s Day by recalling the opening battles of the Revolutionary War at Lexington and Concord – not to mention the Marathon and an early Red Sox start – some in Lowell devote a few moments each April 19th to remembering the members of the Sixth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, a unit drawn primarily from Lowell and Lawrence, and their struggle in Baltimore on another April 19th. Here’s what happened.

Shortly after learning that the South Carolina militia had attacked Fort Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers from the northern states to come south to suppress the rebellion. Because of the foresight of Governor John Andrew and Lowell’s Benjamin Butler (a general of the Volunteers) the Massachusetts troops were well organized, well equipped, and ready to leave on short notice.

The train carrying the regiment left Lowell on April 17, 1861, just two days after the surrender of Fort Sumter. Because Washington, DC, was garrisoned by only six companies of regular troops and fifteen companies of local militia whose pro-Southern sentiments made them more of a threat than an asset, the Sixth Regiment was ordered to proceed to the capital as quickly as possible.

The quickest route to Washington led through New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, a city with extensive economic, social, and cultural ties to the south. The configuration of the rail route through Baltimore heightened the risk of confrontation. Trains coming from the north arrived at the President Street Station. Individual cars were then decoupled and drawn by horse a mile through the city to Camden Station (adjacent to the current Camden Yards baseball stadium). There, the cars would be reunited with a locomotive and continue the journey southward.

Upon his arrival in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at 5:00 P.M. on April 18, Colonel Edward F. Jones, the commander of the Sixth Regiment, learned of the likelihood of violence in Baltimore and formulated a plan designed to avoid confrontation. Rather than remain the night in Philadelphia, the regiment would depart at 1:00 A.M., placing it in Baltimore at first light, when the troublemakers would still be asleep. Once there, the entire unit would dismount from the train and quickly march through the city to Camden Station. The logic of the plan was clear since an entire regiment would likely intimidate any mob that appeared.

The plan went awry before the troops even reached Baltimore. Crossing from Delaware into Maryland, the ten cars of the train were floated across the Susquehanna River by ferry. Although Colonel Jones failed to realize it at the time, the cars were reattached to the locomotive in a different order, leaving Jones in the fourth car of the train, not the first. When the train finally arrived in Baltimore, the railroad workers immediately began shuttling individual cars through the city. By the time Jones realized what was happening, his unit was scattered throughout Baltimore, and all he could do was wait and hope that the cars all reached Camden Station intact. The first seven cars did just that, but their passage had alerted city residents who took to the street, blocking the way of the final three cars. A captain took command of the troops in those cars, got them off the train and led them through the streets and the ever-growing crowd. Bricks and then bullets soon followed the insults of the crowd. Four soldiers were killed; thirty-one were wounded. The men of the Sixth returned fire, killing twelve and wounding an untold number of civilians. After reaching the relative safety of Camden Station, the regiment reformed and continued on to Washington where its men were welcomed as heroes and housed in the Senate chamber.

The riot in Baltimore gave the Sixth Massachusetts an early prominence that was eclipsed by the enormous scope of the war and that regiment’s limited participation in it. At the time, however, Ladd, Whitney, Taylor and Needham were seen as “the first martyrs of the great rebellion” and provided the North with symbols to rally around. The men of the Sixth Regiment were not professional soldiers. They were ordinary citizens who came from all walks of life, from lawyers to laborers. Some died during the war, others never returned to the Merrimack Valley. Those who did return, however, made countless contributions both big and small to their respective communities throughout the post-war period. We still feel their influence today.

Charleston, South Carolina

For those interested in the history of the American Civil War, there are a number of iconic places that just have to be visited. One of them is Fort Sumter, the place where the shooting part of the Civil War began on April 12, 1861.

Although I’d spent 20 years visiting Civil War battlefields, it wasn’t until 2010 that I made it to Fort Sumter. The delay was partly because it was tough to get there from here and partly because it was in South Carolina. I had never been to that state but the image I had wasn’t a particularly positive one. Four years ago I finally decided that I could tolerate a few days in Charleston if it meant setting foot inside Fort Sumter.

A funny thing happened during that trip: I fell in love with Charleston. When the opportunity arose to return there for a few days this spring, I seized the chance.

It’s easier to get to Charleston now. Several airlines (JetBlue, Delta) offer direct flights from Boston to the Charleston International Airport which is only a 20 minute cab ride away from the downtown historic district. Charleston is a peninsula wedged between two rivers, the Ashley and the Cooper. The historic district is at the tip of peninsula.

Fort Sumter in 2014

Fort Sumter in 2014

Civil War-wise, Charleston is most famous for the shelling and capture of Fort Sumter in April 1861 but Charleston suffered greatly through the rest of the war. The Union blockade closed the port and made scarce many of the essentials of life. The Confederate flag over Fort Sumter also stuck in the collective consciousness of the northern states and great efforts were expended to recapture the fort and punish the city. For example, the movie Glory, which recounts the heroism of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment (composed of African American soldiers), was set just outside Charleston. Battery Wagner, the objective of the fateful and fatal final charge of the 54th sits on Morris Island, just to the southeast of Charleston. Eventually captured by the Union army, Morris Island became the site of a huge concentration of Union artillery that was used to shell both Fort Sumter and downtown Charleston. The city claims to be the site of the longest siege ever on the North American continent (it was eventually captured by Union forces when General Sherman cut it off from the rest of the Confederacy with his march northward after seizing Atlanta). This caused much of the downtown to be leveled. It also turned Fort Sumter into a pile of rubble. When first built, its red brick walls were three stories high. All that was left when the Civil War ended was the first level which is all that remains today of what is now a National Park Service site.

Charleston homes
After the war, the destroyed sections of the city were rebuilt with majestic houses at the bottom of the peninsula followed by a large stripe of commercial buildings filled with banks, law offices and retail space. Further up the peninsula is the tourist district filled with hotels, restaurants, shops and historic businesses. Finally you have two colleges, the Citadel military academy and the College of Charleston. Beyond that is more affordable residential areas mixed with large industrial and shipping enterprises (the port of Charleston is one of the busiest cargo and passenger hubs on the east coast). On the drive back to the airport, we passed an enormous Boeing facility where the Dreamliner is being assembled which made me recall past news stories about Boeing moving this plant from union-friendly Washington state to union-hostile South Carolina. Thinking of the textile mills leaving Lowell in the 19th century for the same reason, I was reminded that history does indeed repeat itself.

King St, CharlestonCharleston does a great job of using history to drive tourism which in turn drives retail and the arts. During our stay we attended a locally-produced play at the Charleston equivalent of the MRT and spent Sunday afternoon strolling along King Street, the main retail area, which is closed to vehicles on the second Sunday of the month for a street fair that gets many people – mostly locals from the looks of it – into the shops and restaurants that line the streets. Although the city is quite walkable, a free shuttle bus continuously circles the downtown, moving tourists mostly from hotels to historic sites to dining establishments.

Like every city, Charleston undoubtedly has plenty of problems, but my visits back in 2010 and again last weekend showed the city does a lot of things right, things that Lowell is trying to do or do better. In April of 1861, the gaze of Lowell’s leaders focused on Charleston; perhaps in 2014 it’s time for that to happen once again.

Another Lowell Poet Whom We Should Know

(re-posted from Sept. 14, 2008)

“Thomas Fitzsimmons was born in Lowell in October 1926. He entered WWII as a young merchant mariner following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and left the US Army Air Force after the bombing of Hiroshima. He taught for many years at Oakland University in Michigan and is now professor emeritus of literature. He has received several Fulbright fellowships to travel in Asia and Europe and was awarded three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (in the categories of poetry, translation, and belles lettres). He worked as a writer and editor for the New Republic magazine in Washington, DC, and the Asahi Daily News in Tokyo. He has written, edited or translated 60 books. As of 2003, he was editing two book series published by the University of Hawaii Press: Asian Poetry in Translation: Japan and Reflections. His books from the past ten years include Build Me Ruins: The One-Eyed Boy Grows Another Eye(2002),  Iron Harp: The Birth of the One-Eyed Boy (1999), Planet Forces (1999), Fencing the Sky (1998), and The Poetry and Poetics of Ancient Japan [a translation] (1997). With his wife, Karen Hargreaves-Fitzsimmons, he publishes Katydid Books (distributed by Univ of Hawaii Press), from their home near Santa Fe, NM (” [I reprinted this biography from the website.]

In 1981, I published one of Tom’s poem in a broadside form in a series from Loom Press. The original has slightly different spacing for the lines, but I can’t find the original broadside at the moment. Susan Kapuscinski Gaylord, then of Billerica and now a book artist in Newburyport, did the poem in calligraphy as a nod to Tom’s interest in Asian poetry. Here is the poem:

Rainbow Poem

by Tom Fitzsimmons

When I was a kid

Playing hooky

Spending my dime on a loaf of Greek bread

To eat dry

High on a hillside above the Merrimack River

Outside Lowell, Massachusetts,

I did not think I

Would be sitting on Parnassus slope

Above Delphi

Eating my loaf of Greek bread

With feta, black olives,

& retsina

Looking down thru temple valley and time

To when I was a kid

Playing hooky eating my bread

Dry on the hills above the Merrimack River

Outside Lowell, Massachusetts

(written at Delphi, 1976)

Lucy Larcom ~ Author, Poet, Lowell Mill Girl


MassMoments reminds us that writer Lucy Larcom – one of Lowell’s iconic Mill Girls in her youth, died on this day April 17, 1893.  In her autobiography A New England Girlhood, Lucy Larcom wrote: “From the beginning Lowell had a high reputation for good order, morality, piety, and all that was dear to the old-fashioned New Englander’s heart.”  Larcom  not only tells her story but the story of Lowell – of those who funded, founded, built and worked the factories – the story of the “Lowell experiment.” Lucy Larcom  also reflected on the role of women ~ “We  might all place ourselves in one of two ranks the women who do something, and the women who do nothing; the first being of course the only creditable place to  occupy.”

On This Day...

      …in 1893, Lucy Larcom died. A popular poet during her lifetime, she would be forgotten today except for a work of prose that she wrote in 1889. Her autobiography, A New England Girlhood, tells the story of her early childhood in the coastal village of Beverly and her move to Lowell, the mill town on the Merrimack River, where she lived and worked for more than a decade. She was a regular contributor to the Lowell Offering. The magazine was published by a group of “mill girls,” as the young women who made up the great majority of workers in Massachusetts textile factories were called. Larcom’s reputation as a poet soon faded, but A New England Girlhood remains an American classic.
Learn more here at

Tip O’Neill Announces a Run for Congressional seated being vacated by John F. Kennedy

If you think that the Congress of today has always been this way, well just remember Massachusetts Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill - the way he served, his work ethic and the way he ran the House of Representatives when he was “Mr. Speaker.” A man of the 20th Century,  he believed that government works and should take an active role in fighting poverty and injustice.  A  man with a genius for getting things done, his colleagues elected him as Speaker in both the Massachusetts House and U. S. House of Representatives. At his death in 1994, O’Neill was eulogized as one of the twentieth century’s most gifted politicians but also as a man who never forgot where he came from. As his North Cambridge neighbors said, “His hat still fit.”

Tip O’Neill Announces Run for Congress

On This Day... 

      …in 1952, Thomas P. (“Tip”) O’Neill of Cambridge announced that he would run for the Congressional seat being vacated by John F. Kennedy as Kennedy began a campaign for the Senate. O’Neill had already served seven terms in the state legislature. He would serve in the U.S. Congress for the next 39 years, the last ten as Speaker of the House. An affable man who believed “all politics is local,” O’Neill played an important role in national affairs —supporting civil rights, opposing the Vietnam War, and leading the fight for liberal causes. Although one of the most powerful men in the nation, at his death in 1994, O’Neill was remembered as a man who “never forgot where he came from.”
Speaker O’Neill came to Lowell  to support 5th District Congressman Jim Shannon. He is pictured here at The Speare House circa 1980 with my parents Jim and Marie Kirwin (and me).

Dismantle the South Common? Hands Off.

The South Common was created for the enjoyment of all the residents of the city. The South Common is not an empty lot waiting for a better use. The South Common is functioning well for its designated purpose, thank you. The South Common is scheduled for a major renovation, based on a thoughtful plan put together for the City of Lowell by a well respected landscape architecture firm—and with significant community input. We have been waiting for years for a major investment in this park. The South Common is part of the South Common Historic District, and the Lowell Historic Board has a say in the razing of existing structures and design of new structures in the district. The South Common is not a good location for a new high school. I live on Highland Street. No secret. The idea of injecting many hundreds of additional cars of teachers and students into already highly congested Thorndike, Gorham, and Highland streets is not a good idea. In addition to contributing to the quality of life of current neighbors and recreational users, as a marvelous and active green space the South Common can be an asset for Sal Lupoli’s planned innovation-commercial-residential development at the former Comfort Furniture/Hood Co. complex and for the future Judicial Center, not to mention the whole Hamilton Canal District. Who speaks for open space in the city? Who speaks for Nature? Who speaks for the current users of the South Common? Who speaks for this important part of Lowell’s heritage?


Massachusetts Passes First Education Law ~ April 14, 1642

Education has always been a high priority in Massachusetts even back to its ”Bay Colony” days. So it’s important to go back to the archives to remember this important day.

MassMoments remind us that on this day – April 14, 1642 – the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed the first law in the New World requiring that  children be taught to read and write. It was an incredible step for education. While not a universal mandate at the time, it did set the stage for universal, free, compulsory  public-school education in Massachusetts.  “When John Adams drafted the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780, he included provisions that guaranteed public education to all citizens.”

On This Day...

      …in 1642, Massachusetts Bay Colony passed the first law in the New World requiring that children be taught to read and write. The English Puritans who founded Massachusetts believed that the well-being of individuals, along with the success of the colony, depended on a people literate enough to read both the Bible and the laws of the land. Concerned that parents were ignoring the first law, in 1647 Massachusetts passed another one requiring that all towns establish and maintain public schools. It would be many years before these schools were open to all children. Only in the mid-nineteenth century was universal free public schooling guaranteed – in time, made compulsory — for Massachusetts children.
Read the full article at here  for a fuller history of  how a free,  public school education  system evolved in Massachusetts and how it became a model for the nation.

Poetry at the Parker (4/12/14)

We had more than 50 people at the Whistler House Museum yesterday for the poetry reading with Joe Donahue and me offering work angled toward the Acre neighborhood and Aegean Sea in honor of our hosts, Lowell’s Hellenic Culture & Heritage Society. We ranged through tragedy and memory and mystical union, bringing into the room Aeschylus, JFK, Gorky, Tsongas, Warhol, Ellen Goodman, Larry King, Eros, Cavafy, Seferis, Sappho, Kerouac, Troy (not Troy Donahue, no relation), and elite Kenyan marathoners, among other figures and configurations and loaded locations. Joe sold out his pile of books and exited the painter’s birthplace through the Parker Gallery, past tables of baklava, koulourakia, and green grapes. In a review of Joe’s 2003 book “Incidental Eclipse,” John Ashbery wrote that Joe is “one of the major American poets of this time.” So, there you go—an assessment from an author with a roomful of prizes. The reading was taped by Lowell Telecommunications Corp. and will be broadcast soon on local cable TV. Catch it if you can.

Tewksbury & Tewkesbury

My association with the town of Tewksbury is long, and I like to think deep.  Many, many years ago I remember attending an event in which several dignitaries from the town of Tewkesbury, England were the featured guest. Honestly, I was there for political reasons, more than historical.

At that time I learned that Tewksbury, Massachusetts and Tewkesbury, England kept connected through a local committee called the twinning committee.  I remember being less than  impressed with the American and English association and I continued to think that way until last week.

Last week, I watched the BBC Series The White Queen, which centers around the English King Edward IV and several women who jockey for power around him. What does this have to do with our town of Tewksbury you are probably asking? Well the series The White Queen reveals the prominent role the town of Tewkesbury, England had in the War of the Roses.

tewk1It was in Tewkesbury that Edward IV finally defeated Richard Neville and regained the crown, a battle many consider to be the most important of the War of the Roses;  it is in Tewkesbury Abbey that Edward IV’s brother George is buried along with his wife Isabel; and Henry VI’s son Edward, Prince of Wales is also buried in Tewkesbury (Henry VI is the king Edward IV replaces “twice”…it’s a long story). 

tewks 3Now, thanks to The White Queen when I think of the twinning of Tewksbury, Massachusetts and Tewkesbury, England   I have a whole new appreciation.