Boston Public Library
Collections of Distinction

American Civil War 20th Massachusetts Regiment

Location: Rare Books Department

 

34-star American flag In 1892, Boston Public Library accessioned the personal collection of Francis W. Palfrey, a colonel in the American Civil War (1861–1865). These 287 books formed the cornerstone of the 20th Massachusetts Regiment Collection, a collection now totaling over 6,000 items including printed books, manuscripts, photographs, and realia relating to military affairs, specializing in the Civil War and Massachusetts. The surviving members of the 20th Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, donated $10,000 in 1896 to formally establish this special collection of books and materials “of military and patriotic nature.”

What makes the collection unique and valuable is the diversity of rare items donated by the regiment’s veterans. Many of the officers of the 20th Regiment were Harvard graduates, and regular service members hailed from Massachusetts. The wealth of personal letters that the officers and soldiers sent and received provide a wide view of life both on the battlefield and on the Massachusetts home front during the war. The collection includes roughly 50 diaries and personal narratives of soldiers and sailors serving during the Civil War, including the handwritten diaries of Captain William A. Noel from Libby Prison.

Also included are the letters of Lieutenant Henry Ropes and two ornaments and six buttons worn by him in the Civil War.

The collection is strong in regimental histories, with a near complete run of the General Orders of the various Departments of the Union Army, and in contemporary sheet music. It also includes ten scrapbooks of patriotic envelopes and nine portfolios of battle and camp photographs by Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner.

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