Alonzo Draper – Abolitionist and Labor Activist

Alonzo Draper would be a leader and an agitator wherever he went. Born in Brattleboro, Vt., in September 1835, the young man moved to Lynn, Mass., where work was plentiful.

alonzo draperThere, he became a leader in the Lynn Mechanic’s Association, a forerunner of today’s modern labor unions, and he published and edited the New England Mechanic, a progressive newspaper.

In the late 1850s, modern equipment had allowed the shoe factories to produce more shoes than were needed, and with an economic slump under way, the factory workers were forced to take repeated wage cuts.

In 1860, discontent with low pay boiled over and prompted one of the first widespread organized strikes in New England. It started in Lynn in February, and quickly spread to nearby cities. By March, women workers joined in the walkout. By April, the factory owners relented and offered raises, though they refused to officially recognize the union. That would take more years of organizing effort.

Draper’s leadership came into full view, however, and when the Civil War broke out, he turned his attention to the cause of liberating the slaves. He used his organizing skills to begin enlisting men to join the 14th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry from Lynn and nearby cities.

By August 1863, Draper sought and received a post leading the North Carolina Colored Volunteers after pleading his case in support of freeing and educating slaves. His organizing skills again paid off, as he actively recruited slaves and former slaves to join the unit. The recruitment of colored volunteers was a controversial move by Union forces, as it made clear there would be no peace possible that allowed for the continuation of slavery.

True to his nature, Draper defended the freedoms of his men against the insults and racism that existed in the Union Army and promoted efforts to teach the former slaves to read. Though Draper was criticized for his aggressive attacks on southern guerillas, he rose through the ranks, achieving the rank of brevet brigadier general before the age of 30, a promotion given for brave service, and command of a brigade before the end of the war.

Upon entering Richmond near the end of the war, Draper witnessed the freeing of slaves being held for sale.

“I became so overcome with tears that I could not stand up under the pressure of such fullness of joy in my own heart,” he wrote of that moment.

We’ll never know what he might have gone on to accomplish in life. At the end of the war, Draper remained in the army and was killed three days before he would turn 30 by an accidental gunshot.

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  1. Pingback: The Great New England Shoemakers Strike of 1860 - New England Historical Society

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