Newburyport, Mass.: Answering the call to serve

Editor’s Note: As Newburyport celebrates its 250th anniversary this year, The Daily News is publishing a series of stories that looks back on the city’s history. Today we focus on the arrival of war over the years, and how armed conflict in distant places affected the community.

Newburyport separated from Newbury in 1764, and not long thereafter residents faced another decision with political overtones: whether to support the British crown or to back a nascent rebellion, soon to become the American Revolution.

Many families were involved in the shipping industry — directly or indirectly — and trade ties with British merchants were numerous. There was reason to be economically cautious.

But this community backed the rebellion. “Newburyport favored liberty,” says Bethany Groff, a local historian.

Records show that the first “tea party” rebellion to oppose the British tea tax took place here. The city was never the site of pitched battles as was Boston, but the community’s many ships were put to use in the cause of battling the British.

It was a center for privateering during the Revolutionary War and War of 1812, and ship owners like Patrick Tracy and his son, Nathaniel Tracy, became well-known figures for their willingness to put their fleet into action on behalf of the local citizenry.

The town sent scores of men to fight with the revolutionary faction. But in its formative years as a town (it wouldn’t become a city until 1851), many families suffered when men went to war.

Historian Drew Gilpin Faust, now president of Harvard University, has written several books on the challenges that families faced when the men marched off to war, including “This Republic of Suffering” in 2008.

It was much more difficult to bring in the crops, keep small businesses operating — and raise families.

But Newburyport was known as a stout supporter of the movement for liberty.

A plaque on a brick wall on State Street says, “On this site (Wolfe Tavern) in 1774 the Independent Marine Company was formed by members of the Newburyport Marine Society Under Captain James Hudson — First Militia Company of Seamen mustered to defend American rights.” (The plaque was dedicated in 1974 by the Newbury Port Marine Militia).

The “revolutionary” period actually extended into the next century for coastal communities like Newburyport.

Hostilities ushered in by the Revolutionary War that commenced in 1775 continued in some form against the British on the Atlantic until past 1812.

“The War of 1812 was hard on Newburyport,” says local historian Ghlee Woodworth. “The Great Fire took place in 1811, and that destroyed much of the downtown. The War of 1812 came shortly after, and restricted maritime trade. This was one of the worst periods in the town’s history.”

Newburyport built itself back in the mid-19th century, but the arrival of the Civil War meant more disruption in community life.

The area had benefited from slavery for decades because its ships had been used in the commercial triangle of sugar-rum-slaves. Indeed, even though local native William Lloyd Garrison has been lionized as one of the leading abolitionists of the era, the merchant class here scorned the anti-slavery movement because it threatened many prosperous companies.

But Newburyporters promptly supported the union after the firing on Fort Sumter in April of 1861, and hundreds marched off to fight on distant battlefields.

A plaque near the intersection of State and Pleasant streets reads, “To commemorate the memory of the officers of men who left this memorial hall in April 16, 1861 in answer to the first call of Abraham Lincoln for troops to defend the capital, issued April 15, 1861” (Issued by Albert W. Bartlett Post No. 49 Grand Army of the Republic).

Local historians say there are 1,475 names on the Civil War Memorial at Atkinson Common representing local recruits in the Army and Navy.

Civic leaders here supported the union.

In his inaugural address in 1861, Mayor Moses Davenport said, “My friends, we are bound as a people to preserve this union, even at the sacrifice of our best blood,” according to local historian G.W. Creasey, writing in 1903.

In the era of World War I (1914-1918), Newburyport was no longer a center of boatbuilding as it had been during past conflicts, but it did become engaged in the international scene. Scores signed up when the U.S. got seriously involved in 1917.

“Newburyporters joined,” says local historian Jean Foley Doyle. “By this time there were many immigrants working in the community, and many of the newcomers went into military service.”

Doyle says that in addition to losses on the battlefield, many Newburyporters died from the Spanish flu — a worldwide epidemic in that era.

Local families pitched in by creating hundreds of vegetable gardens, so that more food could be sent overseas to the fighting forces.

Minnie Atkinson (1868-1958), author of “Newburyport in the World War,” published in 1938, wrote about the importance of community gardens tended by schoolchildren:

“The local Public Safety committee turned its attention promptly to stimulating food production,” the author says. “What with the many young men sure to be withdrawn from the food producing industries for military service, with the increasing demands of the Allies upon the United States for food and with the need of our soldiers and sailors, when any army should be raised and the navy enlarged, special efforts were necessary to prevent an actual shortage of food.”

In her book, she says that in 1917, “There were in the city about 2,000 children between the ages of 5 and 15 years. About 1,000 of these cultivated gardens.”

When another war was on the horizon in 1939, Newburyport was like many other American communities that did not want to participate in another world war.

“But after the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941, everything changed,” said Foley, at a recent gathering of local historians. “Hundreds of boys left the city.”

Local historians say 43 Newburyporters lost their lives in World War II.

Numerous veterans still live here, including several who fought in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944: Blake Hughes, Al Moskowitz, Bill Plante and Gene Smith.

The war in Vietnam that peaked in the mid-’60s did come home to Newburyport. As in other communities, disagreement arose on whether the U.S. should be fighting a small country in a distant land.

Kevin Hunt, a onetime Navy officer who now serves as director of the local veterans office, said that the war had brought a new dimension that no other war had: protest.

Hunt said that for the first time, Americans began publicly doubting their own government in wartime. In some cases, young men avoided the draft so they would not have to fight.

The anger created in part by the war and in part by racial anger actually fostered destruction here.

Hunt recalled that an armory on Low Street was raided in 1970, and firearms taken there resulted in a shooting death in the Boston area. In 1976, the building housing the Superior Court on High Street was damaged when a device exploded there.

Local historians say that about 720 Newburyporters served in the armed forces during the era of the Vietnam War. A total of 58,000 U.S. soldiers died in that war. Total death toll including Vietnamese soldiers and civilians was 3.1 million, said Hunt.

The pictures of many veterans who died in foreign wars today line the main corridor of City Hall.

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