Recruiting a Regiment: Thomas G. Stevenson and the 24th Massachusetts

Stevenson, Thomas G-sketch.jpg

The frontispiece of the 24th Massachusetts’s regimental history depicts a heroic-looking Thomas G. Stevenson, the regiment’s martyred first commander

As one of the ranking officers with the New England Guard, a prewar militia group based in Boston, Thomas Greeley Stevenson felt primed for leadership when the Civil War broke out.

Answering the call to arms, he and a close friend, Francis Osborn, another of the ranking officers in the Guard, approached Massachusetts’s governor, John Andrew, with a plan to hand pick officers and soldiers for a regiment. The officers, who would come from the Guard, would receive special training from Stevenson and then be sent out to personally recruit rank-and-file men to fill out their various companies. “[I]n point of efficiency,” the regimental historian later wrote, the regiment “should be second to none that the State might send out.”

In this manner, the historian explained, the “homogenous body of officers, all trained in the same school . . . would be on the best of terms with each other and, for this reason, would work harmoniously together for a common purpose.”

The governor “acknowledged the superiority of the plan and said he should be very glad to commission the officers at once and give them the authority asked”—yet he declined. “Massachusetts must fill her quota [of troops] with the utmost dispatch,” he said, and he feared that Stevenson’s plan would be too slow. He countered by offering both men commissions in another regiment then being formed. Dissatisfied with what they believed was a recruiting system that didn’t live up to their ideals, Stevenson and Osborn thanked the governor for “the opportunity to decline [the] commissions” and said they’d wait for a chance to try again.

Three times Stevenson declined commissions to command other regiments. Finally, at the end of August 1861, the governor approved Stevenson’s regiment-raising plan. Stevenson could recruit and command the 24th Massachusetts Infantry; Osborn would be the regiment’s lieutenant colonel.

“[T]he news of the governor’s action spread like wildfire,” the regimental historian recorded, and by the end of the weekend, Stevenson had thirty-eight hand-picked commissioned officers working to recruit what would become the 24th Massachusetts Infantry. “[T]hese officers,” recorded the regimental historian, “with the exception of five, were all under thirty years of age, so many of them in their teens or early twenties that they came near reaching the minimum age of such organizations.” Stevenson himself was only 25.

Stevenson & Officers

In the fall of 1861, newly appointed Col. Thomas Stevenson (center) sat for a photo with fellow officers from the 24th Massachusetts, including (left to right) Adjutant John F. Anderson; Lt. Col. Francis Osborn; Stevenson; Stevenson’s brother, Maj. Robert H. Stevenson; and surgeon Samuel A. Green.

In the late summer, Stevenson and his officers posed for a portrait, with Stevenson seated in the center. In the portrait, he looks old for his age. His younger brother, Robert—appointed a major at the time Stevenson was appointed colonel—stands next to him, determined but fresh-faced.

Stevenson also at some point posed for some solo photos with Boston photographer James Wallace Black. One image, available at the Library of Congress, shows him posed with his hat askew at a rakish angle, looking like a pugilistic leprechaun looking to crack skulls. His “get down to business” attitude would served him well on the battlefield, though, and earn him promotion from regimental to brigade to division command.

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The second image, from Stevenson Ridge’s collection, shows a sterner-looking Stevenson with hat off. Twenty-five, at the time, didn’t seem especially young, but looking back at 25 from 47, I realize how little I really knew at the time (versus what I thought I knew!). Imagine the lives of a thousand men in your hands, in the crucible of battle, at 25.

From the shores of Boston Harbor, the 24th Massachusetts would find itself, by early 1862, on the Carolina coast under the command of Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside. It seemed a fortuitous match, right down to the complimentary sideburns. “This officer commenced his services in the war with me in the expedition to North Carolina,” Burnside said, “and on all occasions proved himself a brave and efficient soldier.”

BewhiskeredBurnsideStevenson

Burnside made his remark in 1864 following the battle of Spotsylvania Court House, where Stevenson—commander of the Second Division in Burnside’s IX Corps—was killed on May 10. For more on Stevenson’s career, you can check out the post I wrote on the 150th anniversary of his death. And coming later this summer, keep your eyes peeled for a special ECW publication on the Civil War at Stevenson Ridge.

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One Response to Recruiting a Regiment: Thomas G. Stevenson and the 24th Massachusetts

  1. Meg Groeling says:

    Looks like Stevenson had a fair set of “burnsides” himself!

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