Richard Henry Dana

Author: Richard Henry Dana  | Date: 1890

Show Summary

Attack on a United States Court-House (1854)


MAY 25 [1854]. Thursday. This morning, at a little before nine o’clock, as I was going past the court-house, a gentleman told me that there was a fugitive slave in custody in the United States court-room. I went up immediately, and saw a negro, sitting in the usual place for prisoners, guarded by a large corps of officers. . . . I offered to act as his counsel. . . .

The claimant, Colonel Suttle of Richmond or Alexandria, Va., was present, and sat in full sight of the poor negro all the time. . . .

[May 26.] To-night a great meeting is to be held at Faneuil Hall. There is a strong feeling in favor of a rescue, and some of the abolitionists talk quite freely about it. But the most remarkable exhibition is from the Whigs, the Hunker Whigs, the Compromise men of 1850. Men who would not speak to me in 1850 and 1851, and who enrolled themselves as special policemen in the Sims affair, stop me in the street and talk treason. This is all owing to the Nebraska bill. I cannot respect their feeling at all, except as a return to sanity. The Webster delusion is passing off. . . .

May 27. Saturday. Last night an attempt was made to rescue the slave. It was conducted by a few and failed for want of numbers, the greater part being opposed to an action then. They broke in a door of the court-house and a few of them entered, but they were not supported.

They killed one man, a truckman named Batchelder, who has volunteered three times to assist in catching and keeping slaves, and the officers retreated. But the men who entered were at first driven back, and the crowd thought themselves repulsed and retreated also. The men who went in first were wounded, and on being driven out, they found that the crowd outside had deserted them. The leader of this mob, I am surprised to hear, in secrecy, was Rev. T. W. Higginson of Worcester. I knew his ardor and courage, but I hardly expected a married man, a clergyman, and a man of education to lead the mob. But Theodore Parker offered to lead a mob to the rescue of Sims, if one hundred men could be got to enroll themselves, but they could not get thirty.

Robert Carter tells me that Dr. Samuel G. Howe offered to lead a mob of two hundred to storm the court-house, and that it would probably have been done had not Higginson’s attempt led the marshal to call out the military.

Immediately after this mob, the marshal sent for a company of United States marines from Charlestown, and a company of artillery from Fort Independence. The mayor, too, ordered out two or three companies of volunteer militia to keep the peace, but not to aid in the return of the slave.

The hearing began at ten o’clock. The court-house was filled with hireling soldiers of the standing army of the United States, nearly all of whom are foreigners. The lazy hounds were lounging all day out of the windows, and hanging over the stairs, but ready to shoot down good men at a word of command. Some difficulties occurred between them and the citizens, but nothing very serious. . . .

The trial of the Burns case occupied all day of Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, 29th, 30th and 31st of May. Each day the court-room was filled with the United States marshal’s "guard" as he called them, a gang of about one hundred and twenty men, the lowest villains in the community, keepers of brothels, bullies, blacklegs, convicts, prizefighters, etc. Mr. Andrews, the ex-jailer, says that he finds forty-five men among them who have been under his charge at various times. . . . These are all armed with revolvers and other weapons and occupy the rows of seats behind the bar and the jury seats. A corps of marines from the navy yard, about sixty in number, commanded by Major Dulany, and two companies of United States Artillery, about one hundred and twenty men, commanded by Ridgely, occupy the court-house and guard all the passages with loaded guns and fixed bayonets. To reach the court-room one has to pass two or three cordons of police, an two of soldiers. Personally I have been well treated, and all whom I desire to have admitted have been admitted; but there has been a great deal of rudeness and violence to others. . . . There were frequent instances of men prohibited from going into the courts of the state, and no one was permitted to enter the court-house, judges, jurors, witnesses or litigants, without satisfying the hirelings of the United States marshal that they had a right to be there. All this time there were, or attempted to be, in session in the building, the Supreme and Common Pleas Courts of Massachusetts, and the Justices’ and Police Courts of Boston. . . . It was the clear duty of the court to summon before it the United States marshal to show cause why he should not be committed for contempt, and to commit him, if it required all the bayonets in Massachusetts to do it, unless he allowed free passage to all persons who desired to come into either of the courts of the State.

Beside the general "guard" which the marshal had to keep his prisoner, there was a special guard of Southern men, some of them law students from Cambridge, who sat round Colonel Suttle and went in and out with him. . . .

[June] 2. Friday. This was a clay of intense excitement and deep feeling in the city, in the State and throughout New England, and indeed a great part of the Union. The hearts of millions of persons were beating high with hope, or indignation, or doubt. The mayor of Boston, who is a poor shoat, a physician of a timid, conceited, scatterbrain character, raised by accident to a mayoralty, has vacillated about for several days, and at last has done what a weak man almost always does, he has gone too far. He has ordered out the entire military force of the city, from 1,500 to 1,800 men, and undertaken to place full discretionary power in the hands of General Edmunds. These troops and the three companies of regulars fill the streets and squares from the court-house to the end of the wharf, where the revenue cutter lies, in which it is understood that Burns, if remanded, will be taken to Virginia. . . .

The decision was short. It took no notice of the objections to the admissibility or effect of the record, but simply declared it to be conclusive as to title and escape, and said that the only point before him was that of identity. On this, upon the evidence of witnesses, there was so much doubt that he could not decide the question, and would be obliged to discharge the prisoner. In this dilemma, he resorted to the testimony of Brent as to the admissions made by the prisoner to Colonel Suttle on the night of his arrest, which he considered as establishing the identity beyond a reasonable doubt, and on these admissions he was convicted. Convicted on an ex parte record, against the actual evidence, and on his own admissions made at the moment of arrest to his alleged master! A tyrannical statute and a weak judge!

The decision was a grievous disappointment to us all, and chiefly to the poor prisoner. He looked the image of despair. . . .

Mr. Grimes and I walked to and fro in front of the court-house for an hour or so, the entire square being cleared of the people, and filled with troops. Every window was filled, and beyond the lines drawn by the police was an immense crowd. Whenever a body of troops passed to or fro, they were hissed and hooted by the people, with some attempts at applause from their favorers. Nearly all the shops in Court and State streets were closed and hung in black, and a huge coffin was suspended across State street and flags union down. A brass field-piece, belonging to the Fourth Artillery, was ostentatiously loaded in sight of all the people and carried by the men of that corps in rear of the hollow square in which Burns was placed. Some 1,500 or 1,800 men of the volunteer militia were under arms, all with their guns loaded and capped, and the officers with revolvers. These men were stationed at different posts in all the streets and lanes that led into Court or State streets, from the court-house to Long Wharf. The police forced the people back to a certain line, generally at the foot or middle of the lanes and streets leading into the mare streets, and wherever there was a passage, there, a few paces behind the police, was a body of troops, from twenty or thirty to fifty or one hundred, according to the size and importance of the passage.

The mayor having given General Edmunds discretionary orders to preserve peace and enforce the laws, General Edmunds gave orders to each commander of a post to fire on the people whenever they passed the line marked by the police in a manner he should consider turbulent and disorderly. So, from nine o’clock in the morning until towards night, the city was really under martial law. The entire proceeding was illegal. The people were not treated as rioters or ordered to disperse. No civil officers were on the spot to direct the military or to give orders when and how to act. But the people were given their line, as on a parade day, and the troops were ordered, by a military commander, to fire upon them, at the discretion of the various commanders of posts. . . . It has been the greatest good fortune in the world that not a gun was fired by accident or design. No one could limit the consequences; and all concerned would have been in the eye of the law murderers.

Mr. Grimes and I remained in the court-house until the vile procession moved. Notwithstanding their numbers and the enormous military protection, the marshal’s company were very much disturbed and excited. They were exceedingly apprehensive of some unknown and unforeseen violence.

The "guard" at length filed out and formed a hollow square. Each man was armed with a short Roman sword and one revolver hanging in his belt. In this square marched Burns with the marshal. The United States troops and the squadron of Boston light horse preceded and followed the square, with the field-piece. As the procession moved down, it was met with a perfect howl of Shame! Shame! and hisses.

I walked slowly down the streets at a considerable distance in the rear of the procession, and when I heard the news that it had safely reached the end of the wharf, and that the cutter was steaming out to sea, I returned to my office.

Charles Francis Adams, (Boston, etc., 1890), I, 265–282 passim.

Related Resources

Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

Download Options

Title: Richard Henry Dana

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: Richard Henry Dana

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: Richard Henry Dana, Richard Henry Dana, ed. Charles Francis Adams in American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. Albert Bushnell Hart (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1903), Original Sources, accessed April 13, 2024,

MLA: Dana, Richard Henry. Richard Henry Dana, edited by Charles Francis Adams, Vol. I, in American History Told by Contemporaries, edited by Albert Bushnell Hart, Vol. 4, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1903, Original Sources. 13 Apr. 2024.

Harvard: Dana, RH, Richard Henry Dana, ed. . cited in 1903, American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. , The Macmillan Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 13 April 2024, from