WPA Guide Series

By Fern Nesson

Fern Nesson takes us on the road following the original WPA Guidebooks. Follow along as she re-enacts these journeys, discovering what’s old and what’s new.

Travels With the WPA State Guides: The Civil War in Boston

The American Guide Series, produced by the Federal Writers’ Project, is one of the most well-known WPA projects. Written as a collection of travel guides, the series included suggested tour routes as well as essays on the history and culture of each U.S. state and territory. Major U.S. cities and several regions were also given their own separate guidebooks.  

The state guides give a fascinating snapshot of American life in the 1930s. Written in a lively and approachable style, they detail and celebrate the rich diversity that our country displayed at that time. The writers’ enthusiasm is infectious and their guide is as much fun to read today as it must have been for travelers in the 1930s.  

Several historians have written about the American Guide Series over the past 80 years, but no one, to my knowledge, has used them as current-day travel guides. That is just what I set out to do. I am an American historian, art photographer, and enthusiastic traveler. I have read each of these guides. I love them for their wonderful enthusiasm and their curiosity about every aspect of regional life—from food, to linguistics, to folklore, to statistics, to geography, to environment, to history—and especially for their liberal attitudes and respect for diversity. In this series, I will be posting photo essays and articles based upon tours recommended in the guides.

Fern L. Nesson

“I am in earnest – I will not equivocate – I will not excuse. I will not retreat a single inch – and I will be heard!”

William Lloyd Garrison, “The Liberator”

Boston was the center of the pre-Civil War abolition movement.  The Massachusetts Guide’s history section, edited by Arthur Schlesinger Senior, eminent professor of history at Harvard,  takes a relatively dim view of the movement. In his own historical scholarship, Schlesinger, stressed material causes such as economic profit and downplayed ideology and values as motivations for the American Revolution and the Civil War.  Note the skepticism permeating the Guide’s account of pre-war events in Boston (highlighted in italics):

“From the mad, shifting world of [reforming idealists] emanated the crusade against slavery…. It was in Boston that William Lloyd Garrison established his newspaper“The Liberator” in 1831, committed to the immediate emancipation of all humans held in bondage and vitriolic in the abuse which it heaped upon slaveholders. It was in Boston that the New England Anti-Slavery Society was formed … stirring sentiment everywhere in favor of uncompensated emancipation. The movement that was to plunge the nation into civil war was within two decades was launched in Massachusetts. …

Garrison was opposed by many moderate men .. who favored legal and peaceful means of freeing the slaves and by most of respectable society, who soon became alarmed lest the agitation check the flow of cotton from the South….

The turbulence of these trying days [persisted] until, by 1856, the Republican party with its anti-slavery principles invaded the Commonwealth and the votes of Massachusetts … helped elect Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860.”

Massachusetts Guide  p. 47- 49


Boston, then and now, did not share Schlesinger’s views.Throughout the 1830’s-60’s, thousands of Bostonians attended rallies at Faneuil Hall and the African Meeting House on Beacon Hill where William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass and Sarah Grimké decried the inhumanity of slavery. Bostonians protesting the enforcement of Fugitive Slave Laws attempted to block the return of escaped slaves to the South both by litigation in the Massachusetts courts and by direct action outside them. 

On October 30, 1842, when escaped slave George Latimer was arrested and threatened with return to his master, Bostonians meeting at Faneuil Hall resolved that:

“[I]f the soul-traders and slave-drivers of the South imagine that Massachusetts is slave-hunting ground, on which they may run down their prey with impunity…they will find themselves mistaken. Massachusetts is solemnly bound to give succor and protection to all who may escape from the prison-house of bondage, and flee to her for safety.”

The Liberator (1842)

They purchased Latimer’s freedom and their petition to the Massachusetts legislature containing 64,000 signatures resulted in the passage of the Personal Liberty Act of 1843, which forbade Massachusetts officials or facilities from being used in the apprehension of fugitive slaves.

After the Northern states were required by the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, Massachusetts abolitionists refused to concede. Thousands gathered again at Faneuil Hall in 1854 to protest the capture of Anthony Burns who was being held at the nearby courthouse. Abolitionist Theodore Parker declared that, “Liberty is the end, and sometimes peace is not the means towards it…” (The Liberator, 1854). The crowd then flooded out of Faneuil Hall to attempt a courthouse rescue. The rescue attempt failed and Burns was sent back to slavery but Bostonians subsequently raised the funds to purchase his freedom. He returned to the city a free man.

In the decades after the Civil War, the abolitionists were widely celebrated as heroes. Statues of William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Sumner, Wendell Phillips, William Ellery Channing and Frederick Douglass were erected throughout Boston in its most prominent, honored places.  

Channing, the Unitarian minister of the Arlington Street Church, had written a path-breaking essay supporting abolition in 1836 despite opposition from his wealthy parishioners: “The first question to be proposed by a rational being is not what is profitable, but what is Right.”  His statue was erected in the Public Garden directly opposite his Church.

Phillips’s statue in the Public Garden styles him “Prophet of Liberty; Champion of the Slave” and memorializes his opposition to slavery with his famous quote: “Whether in chains or in laurels, liberty knows nothing but victory.”

Garrison ‘s monument on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall is engraved with his stirring words from The Liberator in 1832.  Of this statue, the Guide comments:

“The declaration inscribed beneath [Garrison’s] statue is dynamic. ‘I am in earnest, I will not equivocate. I will not excuse. I will not retreat a single inch, and I will be heard.‘ Yet the seated figure by Olin  L. Warner shows him as a kindly deacon. It was James Russell Lowell who said: “There’s Garrison, his features very benign for an incendiary.”

Massachusetts Guide, p. 149

Military heroes and presidents were not neglected either. On the front lawn of the Massachusetts Statehouse, General Hooker, who led the Union troops at Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, sits on horseback. Lieutenant Thomas Cass, commander of Massachusetts’ 9th Regiment is honored the Public Garden. Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant share an extraordinarily tall monument on the Cambridge Common. William Sumner sits both in the Public Garden and in the middle of Harvard Square, just outside the gate to Harvard Yard.

Not only were monuments erected after the War, there were celebrations as well. The Guide gives an astonishing description of Boston’s “Peace Jubilee” in 1869:

 “A coliseum seating 30,000 people was erected in Copley Square housing an Angel of Peace, thirteen feet high, together with an extinguished torch of war, frescoes, doves and angels, medallions, emblems,  flags, as well as the largest bass drum in the world, constructed for the occasion, and four organs that required relays of twelve men to pump. Ten thousand choral singers combined with an orchestra of 84 trombones, 83 tubas, 83 cornets, 75 drums, 330 strings, and 119 woodwinds to produce an awe-inspiring “Niagara of harmony.”

At one stage of the celebration, a hundred members of the Boston Fire Department, clad in red shirts, blue pants and white caps, suddenly appeared and beat upon a hundred anvils in what was doubtless the loudest performance of the Anvil Chorus from “Il Trovatore” ever given.

President Ulysses S. Grant, who attended, appeared unimpressed [while Boston’s] foremost music critic of the day fled [the city] in order to escape the din.”

Massachusetts Guide p. 142-3.

Even today, we are reminded of the union’s cause throughout the city. One of the Boston’s  loveliest parks opened in 1853. Anchoring a beautiful residential part of the South End, it  was named Union Park to underscore the city’s support for the cause. The Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, dedicated to the 54th Regiment, comprised of free Black Soldiers, stands directly opposite the Massachusetts State House on the highest corner of the Boston Common. The Massachusetts Guide has nothing but praise for this monument:

“Facing the State House from the edge of the Common is a notable group statue in high relief by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Colonel Shaw, his horse, and the [Black] troops are all sculptured with sensitivity to the medium and the subject.”

Massachusetts Guide p. 153

Erected in 1897, the monument was renovated in 2021 to restore it to its original luster. It was re-dedicated on Memorial Day with appropriate fanfare including a re-enactment of the departure of the troops to Fort Wagner, South Carolina where the majority lost their lives. I visited on the day after Memorial Day. I was not alone. Groups came by at a steady pace to pay their respects.

Visit Boston—the Civil War will come alive for you as well.