More than a Name: Charles Devens Was a Union Hero, Distinguished Attorney General

Born on April 4th, 1820 in Charlestown, Charles Devens Jr. was an attorney, politician, judge, and renowned military leader during the American Civil War.

Charles Devens attended Boston Latin School, Harvard College, and Harvard Law School, successfully admitted to the bar in Franklin County, Massachusetts upon his graduation in 1840.

Devens practiced law for nine years before entering the political realm. In 1848, Devens was elected to the Massachusetts Senate as a member of the Whig Party. He subsequently served as the United States Marshal for Massachusetts from 1849 to 1853.

One of Devens’s most notable acts as Marshal came as a result of a conflict between his official duties and his personal virtues. He was forced to remand a fugitive slave, Thomas Sims, to slavery in 1851, feeling his hands were tied in this decision. Suffering personally from this decision, Devens attempted, unsuccessfully, to purchase Sims’s freedom with his own money. Although the initial attempt to purchase the man’s freedom was unsuccessful, Devens kept a close eye on Mr. Sims, later appointing him to serve a position in the United States Department of Justice in Washington D.C.

Embroiled in one of America’s worst conflicts, Charles Devens became passionately involved in the Civil War for the Union. In a call to arms on April 16, 1861, Devens urged a group of young men at Mechanics Hall in Worcester to “rise up and go” with him to the “rescue of Washington.” A few days later, Devens was appointed Major of the 3rd Massachusetts Rifle Battalion. Quickly climbing the ranks for his heroism in battle and aptitude for military strategy, Devens was appointed to colonel of the 15th Massachusetts Infantry in July 1861, promoted to Brigadier General of volunteers in April 1862, and Division Commander of multiple divisions throughout the War. Despite several serious injuries during battle, Devens was known not only for fighting valiantly, but for never leaving the side of his men, even when his sustained injuries required urgent medical care. He was highly regarded among both those he led and those he served as a man of utmost honor and respect.

Following the conclusion of the Civil War, Charles Devens was nominated and confirmed in 1866 for the award of the honorary grade of Brevet Major General for the United States Volunteers for his services during the Richmond campaign – Devens and his troops were the first to occupy the Confederate capital after its fall in April 1865, in what marked one of the final and most important Union victories over the Confederacy. Serving his country in a non-military capacity, Devens served as a Judge for the Massachusetts Superior Court from 1867-1873, and then as an Associate Justice for the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court from 1873-1877 and again from 1881-1891. During the gap from 1877-1881, Devens was appointed by President Rutherford B. Hayes as the 35th Attorney General of the United States.

Charles Devens passed away from a heart failure in Boston on January 7, 1891 and found his eternal resting place in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

He is the namesake of the Devens School in Everett.

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