A Brief History of the Union Club

Early in 1863, a group of Boston's intellectual and civic leaders formed a club to support the Union cause during the American Civil War. That was a dark period for the Union. In early 1862, General McClellan's campaign against Richmond was a failure. That summer the Union army was badly beaten at Manassas, and General Burnside was later ignominiously defeated at Fredericksburg. The elections in the fall of 1862 had not gone well and doubts began to rise in the North, not only about the conduct of war, but also about its very continuation. Issues such as the recruitment of African-American regiments and the acceptance of commissions in such regiments were among the debates which raged in Boston.

It was in those dark days that the Union Club was formed by Bostonians who wished to support the Union and create a place where like-minded men could meet and converse. And this, Article I of the club provided unequivocally: "The condition of membership shall be unqualified loyalty to the Constitution and Union of the United States and unwavering support of the federal government in efforts for the suppression of the Rebellion." The club's newly elected president Edward Everett had served as president of Harvard, Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, United States Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of St. James's, U.S. Secretary of State, and U.S. Senator. The formal inauguration of the club took place on April 9, 1863. Dr. Everett made a speech, the delivery of which is said to have taken the better part of two hours. This preceded an equivalent effort at Gettysburg later that year.

LONGFELLOW, EMERSON, AND DANA

New club members today sign the same book preserving the signatures of almost five hundred founders and early members, Edward Everett, James Russell Lowell, Robert Bennet Forbes, John Murray Forbes, Civil War Govemor John Andrew, Richard Henry Dana, and Oliver Wendell Holmes among them. United States senators, congressmen, Supreme Court justices, Massachusetts governors and jurists, Harvard and M.I.T. presidents, a United States president, ambassadors to the Court of St. James's, and mayors of Boston have joined eminent literary figures, China traders and members of the Boston legal and business community over the years to "maintain the old, esprit of this offspring of Eighteen Sixty-Three." The club continued from its earliest days to celebrate its Civil War heritage. According to a sketch of the club's history done in 1893, thirty years after its founding: "As the war drew to an end, the celebration of its closing scenes, and the presence here from time to time during the following years of those who had been its heroes, will be remembered as among the most interesting events in the career of the club. One need only recall the night of Lee's surrender and the receptions to Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, Meade, Hancock and Farragut."

FORBES, AGASSIZ, AND HAYES


The Union Club did not exist, however, merely to perpetuate the memory of the Civil War. It was, indeed, from the very beginning, a club where people could relax, dine, and enjoy each other's company. In 1870, Ralph Waldo Emerson returned to the city with a visiting Scotsman after a busy day, and they decided to spend the rest of the evening at the Club. Emerson's guest, David McCrae, reported in his Americans at Home: "Longfellow was there; old Dana, the poet, with his snow white hair and patriarchal look; Oliver Wendell Holmes, sprightly, nervous, and lively; Lowell, with his classic head, brown curling beard and moustache, and hyacinthe locks; Hayes, the Arctic voyager, small black-haired with quick dark eye and resolute face; Agassiz, big, jovial, and ruddy; and Fields, the publisher, with one or two of his partners." These and others were men of great distinction in the fields of government, education, business, literature, science, medicine, and the arts. In the words of former club president Robert Montgomery, "It is an inspiring list. It has no parallel elsewhere."

Convivial evenings over the years have produced notable orations, odes, and debates ranging from the serious to the humorous. Historian Bruce Catton presented a significant speech on the occasion of the club's 100th anniversary. On a lighter note, a debate took place at the Annual Meeting of the club in 1951, on the resolve that the Union Club, having won the Civil War, should adopt another serious cause. Robert Montgomery, speaking for the negative, concluded that the only good and serious cause not already adopted by founders and members of the club was Temperance, and that since club members "were not men to despise the social glass or to refuse long potations when there were long orations ... that this is the very one that we cannot seriously adopt." Members' spouses have been welcome guests at the Union Club for many years. Women have been welcomed as members since 1980, and now represent about one-tenth of the Union Club membership. And so club men and women continue to gather in the Granary, overlooking the graves of Paul Revere, Sam Adams, John Hancock, and Mother Goose, raise a toast to all who have preceded them, and then address the causes of the day."

The Clubhouse, 1875

The property which is now 7 and 8 Park Street was originally purchased by Thomas Amory, and Thomas Handasyd Perkins, the "Merchant Prince," at public auction in 1801. In 1804, Charles Bulfinch, the State House architect, laid out Park Street, or Park Place as it was first called, in the place of the old Sentry Street. As a Boston selectman, Bulfinch had language inserted into town deeds requiring a uniformity for houses to be built on Park Street, and that they be "of brick or stone and covered with slate or tile or some materials that will resist fire." He was responsible for the construction of the houses known as Bulfinch Row at 1-4 Park Street, and for the Amory House built on the corner of Park and Beacon Streets.

The Union Club is located on the site of the houses built for the Lawrence and Lowell families. The Lawrence side, at 8 Park Street, was built in 1809, and was acquired in the Fall of 1863, shortly after the founding of the club, from the family Abbot Lawrence, the head of one of the greatest American mercantile houses of the day.' GridleyJ. F. Bryant, architect of the Old City Hall, prepared alterations to the house appropriate to a club. In the 1880's Peabody and Steams added a floor and the elevator to 8 Park Street, and strengthened the walls of the old building. Next door, at 7 Park Street, Henry Gardener, the "Know Nothing" party Governor, had lived from 1854 to 1856. In 1869 the house was sold to John Amory Lowell, from whose estate it was acquired by the club. It was then demolished, and a new building designed and erected in 1898. Club member A. Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard, was a distinguished grandson of the two families who once owned 7 and 8 Park Street. His mother is pictured as a child playing a harp in a silhouette in the Lawrence Room representing the family in its early years in the house which would become the club.

Club rooms bear the names of soldiers of the Civil War, most of whom were founders or members of the club, and many of whom died in battle. Among those remembered are Colonel Norwood P. Hallowell (who was second in command of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw’s famous 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry, and who subsequently commanded the 55th Massachusetts Colored), and his brother, Brigadier General Edward Needles Hallowell (who succeeded Norwood under Shaw, was wounded during the assault on Fort Wagner, and subsequently assumed command of the 54th after Shaw’s death on the parapets of that fort). The nobility of these regiments is recorded in the Robert Gould Shaw monument across the street from the club; John Murray Forbes, an early member of the club, chaired the monument committee.

VIEW OF PARK STREET FROM THE STATE HOUSE
Showing Ticknor House and the Union Club on the left and the sidewalk along the Common.

Brigadier General Charles Russell Lowell, one of the Club founders, was commissioned as a Colonel in April 1863. About the founding of the Union Club, he wrote, "Clubs have, in all trying times, been great levers for moving events along." Married to the sister of Robert Gould Shaw, he was engaged in operations in the Shenandoah Valley with Sheridan, where he had thirteen horses shot from under him. He died in battle, in October 1864. Major General Charles Devens, whose portrait hangs in the Reading Room, was one of the Massachusetts lawyers who volunteered for the war. After his service, he was appointed to the Supreme Court, before becoming attorney general of the United States in the Hayes administration, and a member of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, where he served until his death. Major General Charles Jackson Paine was admitted to the bar in 1856, severely wounded at Port Hudson on the Mississippi in 1863, rescued by his African-American troops, many of whom lost their lives in the effort, and eventually returned to Boston where he participated in three successful America's Cup defenders, totally supporting the cost of the Mayflower and the Volunteer. These and others are commemorated by memorial plaques in each Club meeting room.

The Andrew Room is named for John A. Andrew, active in anti-slavery efforts from boyhood, and the much-beloved Governor of Massachusetts at the time of the founding of the club. He provided key support to Lincoln. The Needham Room was named to honor Daniel Needham, Jr., who was its distinguished president at the time of his death in 1992.

Material for this brief history has been drawn from the club's "125th Anniversary History, " edited by Crocker Wright and Asa E. Phillips, Jr.; from speeches to the membership by former Union Club Presidents John M. Harrington, Jr., and justice Paul C. Reardon; from an ode by Oscar Haussermann, Jr.; and from Richard B. Johnson's 1976 essay on the "History of the Buildings." Prints courtesy of the Boston Athenaeum.

Featured Biographies: Benjamin Apthorp Gould, Jr., Edward Everett

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Club History

The club was founded in early 1863 to bolster support for the union cause during the Civil War.

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The Union Club of Boston
Eight Park Street
Boston, MA 02108-4803
(617) 227-0589