Reviewed by Gordon Berg
Deval Patrick, the first African American governor of Massachusetts, followed custom and hung a portrait of a former governor in his chambers from which to draw inspiration. Patrick chose John Albion Andrew. In his 2007 state of the Commonwealth address, Patrick justified his choice of this portly white man, saying, “At a time of great divide in America, [Andrew] demonstrated a willingness to change the status quo and encourage others to do the same.” (xiii).
Patrick’s choice was an obvious one. As Massachusetts’s Civil War governor, Andrew was instrumental in the formation of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the regiment whose assault on Battery Wagner in September 1863 forever cemented into the American psyche the vision of free Black men willing to fight and die to preserve the Union. But there was a lot more to Governor Andrew than his wartime service and his decision, courageous as it was, to form and outfit this regiment of brave Black men. Indeed, during his lifetime, he championed nearly every progressive cause that advanced social and racial justice for all people.
It staggers the imagination, therefore, that Engle’s comprehensive, copiously researched, (his footnotes and bibliography run a whopping 117 pages) and sturdily written life-and-times biography of Andrew is the first in over a century to bring to life a truly remarkable American hero. His consequential governorship occurred during a time of unprecedented political and social unrest in a nation whose founding principles he deeply loved. Thankfully, Engle brings the right credentials to the job as Andrew’s biographer. His previous book examined the relationship between President Abraham Lincoln and all the northern governors during the Civil War.
Andrew was a child of strong New England stock, born in 1818 to parents of devout Unitarian principles in Windham, Maine while that northern frontier was still part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The one ideal about which his life would revolve, however, was formulated during his freshman year at Bowdoin College. There, the Anti-Slavery Society brought the British abolitionist and human rights advocate George D. Thompson to speak. His fiery sermon transfixed Andrew and he memorized the words that would be his guiding beacon. “There is not an institution which the sun in heaven shines upon, so fraught with woe to man as American slavery,” Thompson thundered. (19) Andrew never forgot those powerful words. For the rest of his life, Engle contends, Andrew “embraced one profoundly radical idea: that all men are truly created equal.” (xi)
From rural Bowdoin, Andrew migrated to the metropolis of Boston where he started a successful legal practice under the watchful eye of his mentor, abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner. Andrew mixed with leading lights of the progressive religious, social, and political movements of the age, including staunch abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and members of the “secret six,” men who financed the activities of John Brown. Andrew became well known in the African American community, defending Blacks under Massachusetts’s personal liberty law against slave catchers using the Fugitive Slave Act trying to re-enslave them.
With the passage of the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford decision and the emergence of the new Republican Party, Andrew became part of the state’s party leadership and played a pivotal role in securing votes that solidified Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 nomination. “The final balloting revealed that Lincoln had won not only Massachusetts delegation votes but also the convention’s presidential nomination,” Engle writes. “When the chair announced the result, Andrew rose to second the nomination.” (121) Although Andrew continued to deny his fitness for political office, many Bostonians thought otherwise. Andrew spent the summer of 1860 stumping for Republican candidates throughout New England. He became the party’s choice for governor and when elected, “prevailed by the largest margin in Massachusetts history.” (129)
Andrew assumed the governorship with war clouds firmly on the horizon. “Andrew was not a typical politician,” Engle argues, “but he quickly demonstrated that he was intellectually and administratively suited to be a war governor. (136) He turned his statehouse office into a war room and himself “from a peacetime civic figurehead into a war-ready commander-in-chief.” (144). While no detail was too small to evade his attention, he knew that “preserving the Union required an indestructible federal-state bond, and this took shape as Andrew mobilized for war…He laid the foundation for what would become an enduring active partnership between state and nation.” (144)
Andrew is best known, if he’s known at all, as the governor of the state that sent the Civil War’s most famous African American regiment into battle, the 54th Massachusetts. “On May 18,  thousands of spectators poured into Readville, Massachusetts to watch the governor present the regimental colors to the Fifty-fourth.”(244) Engle details the regiment’s exploits, commenting that the governor “was deeply impressed by their determination and sacrifice and hoped the world would finally recognize that they were entitled to the rights and privileges of every soldier.” (246). Andrew closely followed the campaigning of the 54th and worked diligently to gain for it pay equal pay afforded to white regiments. When his efforts finally bore fruit, Engles quotes a letter from a soldier in the 54th to Andrew that said there is “at least one member who knows that Mass has done more for his race, than all the States, and that your Excellency has done more than all Governors put together for their benefit.” (277)
Throughout the war, Andrew never lost sight of his duties as governor of his state. “Throughout his tenure as governor,” Engle writes, “Andrew had remained devoted to his duties and his principles.” (297) Throughout his public life, Andrew was plagued by headaches, fatigue, and nosebleeds and he looked forward to a time when he could relinquish the reins of governor. When the war ended and Andrew chose to move outside of politics, Engle reminds us that he “retained his sway within the African American community and the state’s Republican Party.” (328) He continued to work on behalf of his state and people until his dying day, collapsing at his home on October 30, 1867. He was buried in Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts and moved two years later to his final resting place in Hingham. A marble statue stands near his grave adorned with a single word, “Andrew,” a name, Engle concludes “encapsulated a lifetime’s pursuit of justice.” (382)
Gordon Berg has published dozens of articles and reviews in popular Civil War periodicals. He writes from Gaithersburg, Maryland.