At the outset of the Civil War, Capt. Charles Russell Lowell thought a benefit of being an officer was that he didn’t have to kill anyone.
The enlisted men did the killing, he thought.
In the spring of 1863, Charles Russell Lowell found out how wrong he had been. He would not only kill, he would kill a Union soldier right in downtown Boston.
And the killing of an Irishman by a wealthy Brahmin would worsen tensions between Boston’s ruling Yankees and its poor immigrant population.
Charles Russell Lowell
Charles Russell Lowell was descended from Percival Lowell, who had come to America in the Great Puritan Migration. His uncle James Russell Lowell was a famous poet. His great-uncle, Francis Cabot Lowell, made a fortune manufacturing textiles in a city that took his name: Lowell, Mass.
Young Lowell graduated first in his class at Harvard, spent several years exploring Europe and worked for John Murray Forbes as treasurer of the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad. Then he ran an iron foundry in Maryland.
When war broke out in 1861, 26-year-old Charles Russell Lowell used his family’s influence to wangle a commission as a captain in the 3rd U.S. Cavalry.
The war didn’t go well for the Union in 1863, and in March Congress enacted a national draft. It allowed a draftee to hire a substitute or buy an exemption for $300. In other words, the army only drafted poor men, and in Boston that meant the Irish.
To the Irish, the draft represented more pious hypocrisy from the Yankee abolitionists. Already they had to work to death for slave wages, and now they had to risk their lives to free enslaved Africans.
But Boston’s aristocratic Brahmin officers viewed the Irish as rough, undisciplined, devious and disorderly. And Charles Russell Lowell had a horror of disorder.
Melee or Mutiny?
Charles Russell Lowell was taking a break from the battlefield in the spring of 1863 to recruit a new cavalry regiment. He had seen action at the horrific battle of Antietam, and his younger brother James Jackson Lowell died at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff.
Lowell arrived at his recruiting office at 2 City Hall Ave., near the Old State House, at 8:30 a.m. on April 9, 1863. A melee had broken out in the basement, which served as a barracks.
Sgt. Anson Burlingham tried to arrest a recruit for drunkenness. Another recruit named William Lynch shouted, “You shan’t do that to any man in this place.” Then an 18-year-old shouted, “Kill the son of a bitch of a sergeant!”
The men rushed the sergeant, punching him in the face and head.
Burlingham escaped and ran upstairs to tell his lieutenant and the recruiting officer. Lt. Archibald McKendry ran back downstairs, and he began to control the situation. Then the police arrived, summoned by the recruiting officer.
The men rushed the police with swords and curses. The police fled upstairs.
Then Charles Russell Lowell arrived on the scene. He led the police downstairs and ordered the men to halt. Then he ordered Lynch to step forward and the police to handcuff him. With fearful oaths, the men swore he should not be handcuffed.
Lowell asked for a weapon. Someone handed him a Colt revolver.
He told the men they were in a state of mutiny. They would probably face a court-martial and could even hang.
“The order must be obeyed. After it is obeyed, I will hear what you have to say, and will decide the case on its merits, but it must be obeyed first,” Lowell said. “God knows, I don’t want to kill any of you, but I shall shoot the first man who resists.”
It didn’t work. The men waved their sabers, cutting a corporal on the head and slashing the recruiting officer on the wrist.
Somehow Lynch was handcuffed, which infuriated the men even more. A 23-year-old soldier named William Pendergast then lunged for McKendry. Lowell stepped forward and shot Pendergast. He fell to the floor without a word and died in four minutes.
Coward or Hero?
The furious recruits called Charles Russell Lowell a ‘son of a bitch’ and a ‘coward.’ Lynch, in handcuffs, stepped up to Lowell and vowed he would avenge Pendergast. Sgt. Burlingham dragged Lynch away to jail.
Lowell left the recruiting office, walked the few blocks to the Statehouse and entered Gov. John Andrew’s office. He saluted Andrew and said, “I have to report to you, sir, that in the discharge of my duty, I have shot a man.” He saluted and left.
Andrew said to the men gathered around him, “I need nothing more. Colonel Lowell is as humane as he is brave.”
Word of the shooting spread quickly and a crowd gathered around the Statehouse.
An inquest was held the next day. The jury found Lowell “shot the deceased in the discharge of his duty, and in defense of the life of one of his officers, the company being at the time in a state of revolt.”
Five of the recruits were confined and court-martialed. William Lynch was executed.
Opinion then divided along predictable lines. The Boston Courier opined the officers were too officious, had contempt for enlisted men and got their commissions through their influence. The editors also argued Lowell killed Pendergast because of his prejudice against the Irish.
Edward Emerson, the son of Ralph Waldo Emerson, reflected the Brahmin view in a biography of Lowell. He had “showed the rough characters once for all the kind of man with whom they had to deal,” wrote Emerson.
And he quoted Anna Lowell, mother of Charles Russell Lowell: “The whole incident was very painful to Colonel Lowell, especially because he had always regarded it as one of the privileges of an officer that he did not have to kill with his own hand.”
Charles Russell Lowell died at the Battle of Cedar Creek. William Pendergast, the man he killed, supposedly had a wife in New York. Lowell’s wife tried to find her after her husband died, but didn’t succeed.
With thanks to The Nature of Sacrifice: A Biography of Charles Russell Lowell, Jr., 1855-64 by Carol Bundy. This story was updated in 2021.