Soldiers’ Barracks and Mayhem in Downtown Boston

The federal barracks were located on Beach Street due to their proximity to the Boston & Worcester Depot–a keyroute southward

The degree to which Boston was dominated by a strong martial presence during the Civil War is often overlooked. Regiments from four states converged on the city to board ships or trains headed southwards. For four years, soldiers paraded through the streets, drilled on Boston Common, and were barracked by the thousands in any number of public halls including Faneuil Hall. As the war progressed, homecoming parades and ceremonies in front of the State House became a regular occurrence. And when not in formation, soldiers wandered the city or packed into the drinking establishments downtown. Boston may not have seen armed conflict but it was nonetheless transformed during the war.

The above location today

This was particularly true of the neighborhood around the Beach Street Barracks. The barracks, which had been a meeting hall, were leased by the federal government to provide temporary quarters for regiments preparing to depart Boston for the South and for returning regiments. No sooner did one unit vacate the barracks than another from Massachusetts, Maine, or New Hampshire moved in. Needless to say, the constant coming and going of thousands of soldiers led to deplorable sanitary conditions in the barracks and considerable disruption of the largely working-class Irish neighborhood around it. The site is now in the heart of Chinatown—in fact, if the barracks still stood, they would look directly out on the famous Chinatown Gate. In the 1860s, this site was just down the street from the Boston and Worcester Railroad Depot where many regiments began or ended their journey.

Discipline was notoriously poor at the barracks. Drafted men often tried to escape the guarded building. In one case a large group of rounded-up deserters were held there and one was shot and killed in the act of trying to escape.[1] In another instance a group of draftees tried to create a diversion by setting fire to the building and escaping out the windows using improvised ropes made from blankets. 30 of them managed to escape.[2] One disturbing incident likely involved pent-up anger on the part of the guards. The officer of the day shot a recruit who mouthed off to him at point blank range in the head. The officer was brought up on murder charges. [3]

This turbulent atmosphere tended to spill out into the neighborhood. A number of barrooms stood nearby the barracks. Soldiers often got into brawls with the local Irish laborers who resided in the adjacent South Cove neighborhood. A local newspaper correspondent described the tension, “​The soldiers have previously had considerable trouble with the crowd of loafers in the vicinity of the barracks and liquor shops being very plenty in that locality it is required the greatest forbearance on the part of the veterans to prevent a fight on several occasions.”[4] The reporter was clearly biased against the immigrants and in favor of the soldiers. This wasn’t always the case.

On August 24, 1864, a riot broke out when a local man struck a soldier and a full melee ensued, engulfing the neighborhood. Some soldiers retrieved their muskets and bayonets from the barracks and beat back the gathering numbers of “South Cove roughs”. One soldier even tried to fire upon being dared by one of the locals but his weapon misfired. During the mayhem, “​a number of bricks and pieces of wood were hurled at the soldiers from the houses in the neighborhood of the barracks.”[5]

This violence represents a remarkable indication of frustration, not just on the part of intoxicated workingmen, but of residents who evidently resented the ongoing presence of soldiers in their city. The Irish community’s anger over the draft and the war in general is well known. Boston residents at large also had to cope with this problem. The constant presence of so many soldiers had a complex effect on how citizens viewed returning veterans. This concept is explored further in my dissertation.

[1] Boston Evening Transcript, April 6, 1864, 4

[2]Boston Evening Transcript, December 12, 1864, 3.

[3] Boston Herald, April 26, 1864, 2

[4] Boston Traveller article reprinted in the New York Herald, August 26, 1864, 8

[5] New York Herald, August 26, 1864, 8

Published by Patrick Browne

I am a historian of the Civil War Era, author, and PhD candidate

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