Each semester, whenever I teach the Civil War, I always mention the Anthony Burns riot of 1854. It is one of the many examples that I use to remind students that political debates over slavery caused the Civil War. Recently, I became aware of an account written by one of the federal soldiers who participated in this famous extradition. That soldier was Lieutenant Orlando Bolivar Willcox, who featured in the previous post. I read his memoir avidly, curious to see what he thought of his participation in that famous event. Did he consider it a job well done?
First, here’s a quick summary of the Anthony Burns case:
Anthony Burns was a slave born in Stafford County, Virginia. He was owned by a merchant named Colonel Charles Suttle, who later hired him out to a man from Falmouth named William Brent. In March 1854, Burns escaped from Virginia by stowing away on a ship bound for Boston. He found work as a pie maker, but he foolishly wrote a letter back to his brother, who was still a slave. Suttle intercepted the letter, which revealed Burns’s whereabouts, and both Suttle and Brent traveled to Boston to claim Burns under the authority of the Fugitive Slave Act. Suttle and Brent went through the proper channels, which required the U.S. Marshal Service to conduct the arrest. On May 24, 1854, the marshals apprehended Burns. When news of this got out, Boston’s abolitionists tried to stop the extradition, petitioning the state government to arrest Brent and Suttle on charges of kidnapping. Wendell Phillips even attempted to purchase Burns’s freedom. Neither plan worked. On May 26, a mob of abolitionists assaulted the courthouse, trying to rescue the slave. Using a battering ram, the mob knocked down the door, and in the ensuing struggle, stabbed one of the U.S. marshals, who later died. On June 2, a federal jury convicted Burns of being a fugitive slave. After news of the riot, President Franklin Pierce had sent a platoon of U.S. Marines to escort Burns from the federal courthouse to a revenue cutter bound for Virginia. Meanwhile, Boston’s mayor called out several companies of militia and members of the 4th U.S. Artillery stationed at Fort Independence, assembling them at the courthouse. Altogether, Burns possessed an escort of 2,000 men.
(Here, you can see Anthony Burns, the focal point of the 1854 extradition case that involved the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marine Corps.)
The detachment had a single mission. It had to march Burns several blocks to Long Wharf, where the revenue cutter awaited him. At the head of the column was Lieutenant Orlando Willcox, a member of the 4th U.S. Artillery. Willcox spoke poorly of the efforts to secure Burns’s safe passage. He wrote, “I soon found that the city authorities evinced a disposition to do no more than preserve the peace on the streets and protect their own citizens at their homes. Up to the night of the last day of the trial, . . . I could hear no steps [taken] by police or local soldiery to join the bodily escort of the slave to the revenue cutter.” Eventually, Willcox even confronted Mayor Jerome V. C. Smith, and as he told it, said, “Well, Mr. Mayor, if the streets of Boston are flowing with the blood of its citizens on the morrow, the responsibility will fall on yourself.”
(This image depicts Lt. Orlando B. Willcox, one of the young officers assigned to the 4th U.S. Artillery. On June 3, 1854, he found himself leading the strange procession through Boston.)
The next morning, June 3, the massed federal troops had to carry out their orders, escorting Burns to the revenue cutter. None of the soldiers quite knew what would happen. As Willcox remembered, “Thus the die was cast, with all the civil and military weight of a great city and center of abolitionism in favor of law and order.” Most of the soldiers feared they would be overpowered by the mob and Burns released from their clutches. Before the soldiers and marines were even ready to march, an angry crowd had gathered outside the courthouse and started pelting it with stones.
Shortly before noon, General B. F. Edmands led the way out of the courthouse. Deputy marshals with swords and pistols followed him. They formed a hollow square around Burns, who had been given a new set of clothes. The federal forces came next and they formed an outer ring around the marshals. Willcox related:
The marshal and his group took position in the center of the hollow square, and amid mingled execrations, hurrahs and hisses of the multitude, the silent procession moved off. Major Ridgeley and our two companies from Fort Independence were at its head. Following the square of marshals with the negro, who now may be said to be “escorted,” came the marines, next a six-pounder gun under Lieutenant—afterwards General—[Darius] Couch, of the Fourth Artillery, and finally a rear guard of city cavalry.
(This illustration depicts the Anthony Burns extradition as it left the federal courthouse. If you look closely, you can see the hollow square formation. In the center of the square, you can see a dozen marshals surrounding Burns. Presumably, one of the officers at the outer edge of the square is Lt. Willcox.)
The weird procession marched its way down State Street, heading to the docks. Thousands of Bostonians line the route, cheering for Burns, hanging U.S. flags upside down, heckling the soldiers, and tossing hot peppers and bottles in their direction. Willcox continued:
At the corner of Court Square and Court Street, the demonstrations of the baffled mob were most uproarious, and all the way down Court Street we were greeted with theatrical-like thunder, a bottle or two of vitriol and cayenne pepper from the windows, and from the office of the Commonwealth newspaper were thrown a little shower of cayenne, cowitch and other noxious missiles. But no bones, and scarcely any flesh parts, were broken, and we continued to move in utter silence and indifference, more apparent than real, waiting to see what should happen next. The person most alarmed and the one who felt most relieved, as we reached the revenue cutter, was Anthony Burns. As he leaped on deck, he slapped his hand on his thigh, laughed and said: “No nigger ever had a whole brigade escort him afore.” He was quickly placed out of sight in the cabin. But one attempt had been made to break the column, and that was foiled by a detachment of National Lancers and others of the Massachusetts volunteers. After some delay occasioned by the labor of getting the field piece aboard, the word “cast off” was given, and the cutter, at 3 P.M., June 3, 1854, started for the South with her precious charge on board, and the troops returned to their stations.
(This illustration depicts the tense march along State Street. In the center of the image, bound by chains, you can see Anthony Burns. Note the citizens shaking their fists in disapproval. The soldiers in the shakos are meant to represent the 4th U.S. Artillery, the unit that led the procession through the city. Perhaps the young officer in the right-front is meant to be Lt. Willcox.)
Willcox considered the whole affair to be a job well done. Not long after this strange duty, he traveled to Washington to give his full report to President Franklin Peirce and to Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. The meeting with Davis ended poorly, with the Secretary telling Lieutenant Willcox that the whole affair had ended badly. Willcox couldn’t see Davis’s point: the federal troops had returned Burns to slavery with no loss of life. Writing about the interview in later years, Willcox explained, “He may have thought that the execution of the law by force was not a fair test of government sentiment, as tomorrow there might be a government opposed to the execution of that law. Or he might have thought the hostility in New England was nothing more than one might expect from the whole North. Or he might have felt chagrined that our employment of one hundred deputy marshals was a reflection on himself as the military commander.” Then, he added: “Or possibly he was already hoping if not scheming for pretexts looking to the dissolution of this great and glorious Union.”
Willcox wrote the above passage many years later, so we might be a little skeptical of its foreshadowing tone. However, I think his principal message is accurate. The young lieutenant had been abused by the citizens of Boston for carrying out his official duty and he reported to Washington expecting to receive a pat on the back. Instead, he got a mouthful of disdain and criticism. In the end, no one gave him any praise. The Anthony Burns extradition had turned into a political theater for both the pro-slavery forces and the anti-slavery forces, and Willcox felt as if he had become an unwilling participant in their game.