Fort Devens Museum

General Devens Survived War to Become U.S. Attorney General, Judge

September 1, 2004

Conclusion of an occasional series

By Don Eriksson,
Copyright Nashoba Publications

Charles Devens, for whom Fort Devens was named, left a pre-Civil War career as a lawyer, state senator, U.S. Marshall, orator and militia officer to join 75,000 volunteers recruited by president Abraham Lincoln to fight in the war.

Judge Charles Devens of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court

He began his federal military career as a major in the 3rd Battalion, Massachusetts Rifles on April 19, 1861. When it was finished in 1866, Devens held the rank of brevet major general. Along the way, he nearly lost his life three times because of serious wounds. Records show he was a man of valor and an outstanding leader who consistently thought of his men before himself.

Devens was almost killed by a rifle ball in the battle of Balls Bluff in Virginia in October 1861. He was a colonel in command of the 15th Massachusetts Infantry. The bullet struck a button on his uniform, which saved his life as he attempted to rally retreating Union soldiers to hold ground until reinforcements arrived.

For his action, Devens was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers in April 1862. He was again wounded, this time severely, during the Seven Days Battle at Harrison's Landing. That battle was part of an attack on Union Gen. George B. McClellan's 60,000-man army at Yorktown by confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's forces.

Although still recovering, Devens was given command of the 1st Brigade, IV Corps from July to September of 1862. He participated in the second battle of Bull Run at Manassas and had his horse shot from under him at the Battle of Antietam.

Three days after the Emancipation Proclamation, in January 1863, Devens was given command of the 1st Brigade, 3rd Division, VI Corps and later the 2nd Brigade during the Battle of Fredericksburg. At Chancelorville, in May 1863, Devens commanded the 1st Division of Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard's XI Corps, which was virtually destroyed by a flank attack by Stonewall Jackson.

Devens was severely wounded for a third time. According to a report by Gen. Steward L. Woodford, who served with him, Devens remounted his horse, stayed with his men and did not go to the hospital until his men had bivouacked.

At the close of the war, Devens was assigned to command the military district of Charleston. He remained there until 1866. He left with the intent of returning to his law practice in Worcester. But Devens was asked to become a Massachusetts judge and was appointed to the bench of the Superior Court in April 1867.

Six years later, Devens was appointed to the bench of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. He served until 1877 when he was called to become attorney general of the United States in the cabinet of President Rutherford B. Hayes.

According to historical reports, he was one of the most honored and valued members of the cabinet. Upon the close of the Hayes administration, Devens returned in March 1881 to his former position on the bench of the Supreme Judicial Court, and remained there until his death in Boston on January 7, 1891. He is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.

According to a memorial from the Office of Reporter of Decisions of the court, Devens never sought distinction, yet they were conferred upon him, "which shows how all who served with him naturally turned to him with respect and confidence."

He had been, for example, president of the society of the Army of the Potomac, of the Bunker Hill Monument Association, of the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts and of the alumni association of Harvard Law School. Devens also had been commander of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion and commander in chief of the Grand Army of the republic.

"Mr. Justice Devens had rare and peculiar qualifications and powers essential for the wise, pure, impartial administration of justice; a serene patience and good humor a sense of justice intuitive and inborn, (and) an absolute regard for truth and right," the court memorial states.

He had "a keen appreciation of the proportion, relation, and fitness of things, a hearty respect for and sympathy with manliness and virtue, and a bitter scorn for the false, the low, and the mean," the memorial reads.

The record describes Devens as a man of "a peculiar charm and influence" with "great social gifts, charm of manner, grace of speech and bearing, and sparkling humor." His conversation was "enriched with anecdote, apt proverb or illustration, and telling quotation culled from all books and from all times."

Devens spent 13 of his 70 years in the civil ad military service, four years as US attorney general and 21 in high official position in the state of Massachusetts.

A statue of the man was dedicated in 1906 in Worcester. Another stands on the Statehouse lawn.