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Seven score and ten years ago

By Katharine Whittemore
Globe Correspondent / May 29, 2011

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Lieutenant William Lowell Putnam of the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry — Willie to his friends, who described him, simply, as “beautiful” — was a bedrock abolitionist. He’d been raised to the cause. His mother, Mary Lowell Putnam, wrote books and plays against slavery. His uncle was James Russell Lowell, the abolitionist, poet, and editor of the Atlantic Monthly, who said of the ardent 20th: “And what they dare to dream of, dare to do.” When Willie signed up at age 21, he wrote: “Human beings never drew sword in a better cause than ours.”

Four months later, he took a bullet to the gut at Ball’s Bluff, a disastrous battle for the north, and the first cause for close grief here in Massachusetts. He spurned care, claiming others had a better shot at survival, and died in untold pain on Oct. 22, 1861. Governor John Andrew accompanied the body to the Putnams’ home at 13 Pemberton Square, near the John Adams Courthouse, home of the Supreme Judicial Court. Willie’s sister met them at the door. “Governor Andrew,” she said, “we thanked you when we got Willie’s commission. And we thank you now.” Andrew broke down in the doorway, and wept.

I’m married to a Civil War buff, and I’ve been to (and wept at) Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, Antietam, and Spotsylvania. By all means, honor the fallen by heading south to a battlefield this year, the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. (Note: one of the biggest reenactment celebrations is at Manassas July 21-24.) But also take a moment when you pass by the courthouse at Pemberton Square, or consider visiting the monument to the 54th Massachusetts on the Common this Memorial Day. Because the war upended Boston, too, and the soldiers who set out from here — as the three following books bear out.

I learned about Putnam in “Harvard’s Civil War: A History of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry’’ by Richard F. Miller (University Press of New England, 2005). The Harvard in the title is a kind of shorthand. Yes, the 20th boasted lots of alums — like future Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Paul Joseph Revere, the midnight rider’s grandson — but also plenty of German and Irish immigrants, whalers from Nantucket, shoemakers from Pittsfield, and “street toughs” from Boston.

Most regimental bios are a forced march of dry writing. Not this one. In fact, James M. McPherson, the renowned author of “Battle Cry of Freedom,’’ calls it “quite simply the most outstanding Civil War regimental history I have read.” Miller gives us the 20th at Antietam, the Wilderness, Gettysburg, and more. He doesn’t stint on regimental class conflict — but he also offers unexpected moments of unifying sympathy. The Brahmin officers helped their less well-off troops pay passage home, for instance, and protected fugitive slaves by hiring them as military valets.

Then there’s Thomas H. O’Connor’s “Civil War Boston: Home Front and Battlefield’’ (Northeastern University, 1997). O’Connor is the Boston College historian who gave us “The Boston Irish’’ and, no surprise, he’s got grand material here on how the group’s status rose because of its wartime service. He also profiles the city’s black community on Beacon Hill and the West End, dropping such gems as the fact that many owned clothing stores where escaped slaves could exchange their incriminating garments for something less conspicuous. And did you know that this war had its own Rosie the Riveters? They worked filling cartridge shells at the Watertown Arsenal.

Which brings us to the subject of women, specifically “Little Women.’’ If you recall the book, the March family must make do while the father is away at war. Thus Geraldine Brooks’s glorious, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “March’’ (Viking, 2005), which imagines his side of the story. Her March is based on Louisa May Alcott’s father, Concord’s own vegan-utopian-educator-abolitionist-transcendentalist Amos Bronson Alcott, friend of Thoreau, Emerson, and John Brown — who left 61 journals behind for Brooks’s inspiration.

Brooks has made a specialty of the immersive, prismatic historical novel, and (bonus) she’s married to a Civil War buff too (Tony Horwitz, author of “Confederates in the Attic.’’) “March’’ has a formal but striking voice, and you can feel Brooks’s delight when scattering obscure 19th-century words (knop, rutilant, nimshi). We travel with him through the horrors at Ball’s Bluff to a cotton plantation taken over by a Yankee merchant, to a Washington D.C. hospital, where he is nursed by a former slavewoman and his wife, Marmee — who acts decidedly less saintly than in “Little Women.’’ Brooks’s characters are so deeply alive. And isn’t that the point as we read and remember the Civil War? To give life to those who fought for the “better cause,” and traded their tomorrows for our todays.

Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at