Major General Charles Devens Jr., U.S. Volunteers

Biography written by Kenneth H. Robison II, PCC

Colonel Devens
ca. 1861
Brigadier General Devens
ca. 1865
Charles Devens
ca. 1880
    Charles Devens Jr. was born on April 4th, 1820, in Charlestown, Suffolk County, Massachusetts, to Charles Devens (1791 to 1876) and Mary Lithgow (1797 to 1848). He was raised in Boston, and received his early education at the Boston Latin School, before leaving for Harvard College in Cambridge, from which he graduated in 1838. He was then admitted to Harvard Law School in Cambridge and in 1840 graduated from the College and continued his study of law in the office of Hubbard & Watts. With his studies completed he was admitted to the Massachusetts State Bar in Franklin County in 1841, and practiced there until 1849.

    In 1848 he was elected as a State Senator and served in the Massachusetts Senate as a Whig until 1849. In 1849 he received an appointment from President Millard Fillmore as the United States Marshall for the State of Massachusetts, and he occupied the post until 1853. In 1851 he was involved in the remanding of the Fugitive slave Thomas Sims, which was against his own personal feelings, but following the case he attempted to purchase Sims freedom, but was unsuccessful in his efforts, but later while working as Attorney General he secured him a position at the United States Department of Justice. Following his work as a U.S. Marshall he moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, and resumed his law practice at that place, until the secession of South Carolina.

    When President Lincoln issued his call for Volunteers Devens volunteered his services and on April 19th, 1861, was elected as the Major of the 3rd Battalion of Massachusetts Rifles. The following day he received orders to move the Battalion to Washington, D.C., and immediately set out with the command from Worcester to New York City, and then down to Annapolis, Maryland. At Annapolis the Battalion was redirected from Washington to Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland, to protect that installation and aide in ensuring that Maryland would remain in the Union as part of the Department of Annapolis. In July of 1861 the Battalion returned to Massachusetts and on July 20th, 1861, was mustered out of United States service.

    Before the Mustering out of the Battalion had been completed he was appointed as the Colonel of the 15th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment and on July 24th, 1861, he was mustered into service as such at the age of 41. Following it’s mustering the Regiment left Massachusetts and occupied a position at Poolsville, Maryland, in August of 1861. On October 20th, 1861, he lead 300-men of his regiment across the Potomac River towards Leesburg, Virginia, and after crossing the River he halted, the crossing was not completed until 4 o’clock, due to them only have 3 boats that would only hold Thirty-men between the three. The following morning he moved the men towards Leesburg, along with 100-men from the 20th Massachusetts that had joined them early in the morning. After some skirmish the command fell back to the river and Colonel Devens sent word back about the skirmish and awaited further instruction. At 10 o’clock he received work that Colonel Baker was coming up with the rest of the Brigade and would take charge of the situation. From 9 to 11 o’clock the detachment, under Colonel Devens, was joined by the remainder of the Regiment that was then arriving under Lieutenant Colonel Ward. The ensuing fight was hard as the Confederate Forces assaulted the Federals Left and Center, and Colonel Baker commanding was killed, the command was then taken up by Colonel Lee of the 20th Massachusetts who had decide that it would be best for the command to fall back across the river, however Colonel Cogswell then arrived and assumed command of the entire force and reversed the orders and decide to try cut there way out to Edwards Ferry. In the confusion that was caused by this a Confederate Officer rode to the head of a detachment of the Tammany Regiment from New York and ordered them to charge, in the confusion the men obeyed the order and rushed forward and were met by a terrific volume of fire that broke there ranks. In the rush the men of the 15th started to go forward as well, but were halted through the efforts of the officers of the Regiment. After several attempts Colonel Cogswell finally concede that it was not possible to break through the Confederate Line and ordered the men to fall back to the River bank where they would re-cross the Potomac back into Maryland. At the river a larger boat that had arrived to help in the crossing of the men was taken out of service when several men overloaded her and she was swamped. To prevent a total route the Colonel Cogswell had Devens deploy the Regiment as skirmishers on the bluff overlooking the River, however after a short time the Regiment was pressed heavily by the Confederate forces and Colonel Devens instructed the men to escape as best as they could to prevent capture. Colonel Devens then returned to the lower end of the regiment’s position and at nightfall, with the aide of three men from the regiment, was able to cross the river and safety. Upon crossing he gathered thirty men of the Regiment who were nearby and placed them in position to try and prevent anyone from crossing the River, however shortly after doing this he was relived by the arrival of the 19th Massachusetts. At some point during the engagement Colonel Devens was wounded, but it is not recorded at what point he received his wound. After receiving a brief furlough and recovering from his wound he returned to the Regiment in Maryland.

    On April 15th, 1862, Colonel Devens was promoted to Brigadier General of United States Volunteers and was placed in command of the First Brigade, First Division of the IV Army Corps, which was then composed of the 7th & 10th Massachusetts, 36th New York, and 2nd Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry Regiments and was serving with the Army of the Potomac under Major General George B. McClellan. With this Brigade he joined the Army in the movement to the Peninsula, and lead them into the battle of Seven Pines (or Fair Oaks) on May 31st, 1862, and in which action he was wounded, Colonel Charles H. Innes assuming command of the Brigade temporarily. After recovering from his wounds he rejoined the brigade and served in the several campaigns of the Army until September 26th, 1862, when his command was transferred to the 6th Army Corps and was designated as the Second Brigade of the Third Division. At the time of the transfer of the Brigade it was composed of the 7th, 10th, and 37th Massachusetts, the 36th New York, and 2nd Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry Regiments. He continued on at the head of the Brigade for the remainder of the Battles and Campaigns of 1862.

    On April 20th, 1863, General Deven’s was detached from his brigade and was assigned to command of the First Division of the 11th Army Corps, relieving Brigadier General Nathaniel C. McLean. At the time of his assuming command of the Division he lead them into Major General Joseph Hookers campaign against the Army of Northern Virginia into the Wilderness region and into the Battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia. On May 2nd, 1863, despite warnings from the lead elements of the Division, General Devens and his men were caught unaware by the surprise attack of Confederate Lieutenant General Thomas J. Jackson’s II Corps. In the ensuing fighting the Division was driven back and General Devens was wounded and taken to the rear, General McLean resuming command of the Division for the remainder of the fight.

    While at home recovering from his wounds he was assigned to command of the Depot for drafted men at Springfield, Massachusetts, per Special Orders No. 296, War Department, Washington, D.C., on July 4th, 1863. He continued in this role until April 7th, 1864, when he was ordered to proceed on a tour inspection through the Northern & Eastern states with a view to pushing forward recruits and volunteer regiments to their commands in the field per Special Order No. 141. Following his finishing his inspection tour he was ordered to report to Major General William F. Smith in the Department of Virginia and North Carolina for assignment in the Department on May 3rd, 1864, and upon reporting was assigned to command of the Third Division of the Eighteenth Army Corps on May 30th, 1864. He remained in command of the Division until June 4th, 1864, when as a result of ill health he was relieved by Brigadier General Adelbert Ames. Upon recovering his health he was temporarily assigned to command of the First Division of the Eighteenth Army Corps on October 29th 1864, relieving Brigadier General Gilman Martson, and lead the Division from that time until January of 1865.

    On January 2nd, 1865, General Devens was assigned to temporary command of the 24th Army Corps, and remained in command of the Corps until the 15th when he was relieved by Major General John Gibbon and returned to command of the Division. On April 3rd, 1865, General Devens was Brevetted by the United States Congress to the rank of Major General of United States Volunteers for his gallant and meritorious services during the campaign before Richmond, Virginia. Following the fall of Richmond and Petersburg General Devens was detached from his command and assigned to take charge of the United States forces in and around Richmond, Virginia, per General Orders No. 42, Headquarters, Department of Virginia, Army of the James on April 17th, 1865. He remained in command of the area for some time, and on April 30th, 1865, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant wrote to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton recommending General Devens promotion to Major General of United States Volunteers, stating that “He has proven himself one of the most gallant and devoted officers, keeping with his command always when it was in the field and when he was in a condition rendering him entirely unable to walk or ride on horseback.” However the endorsement was not enough and the promotion to Major General never went through.

    On July 28th, 1865, General Devens was ordered to report to Major General Quincy A. Gillmore in the Department of South Carolina, along with Brigadier Generals Adelbert Ames and John T. Croxton for service (General Orders No. 130, Adjutant Generals Office, War Department, Washington, D.C.). Upon his arrival he was assigned to command of the Military District of Charleston by General Gillmore, and remained in command until 1866. In September of 1865 he served on the Court of Inquiry in the Investigation of the murder of Confederate Veteran Calvin Crozier at Newberry, South Carolina, by members of the 33rd United States Colored Troop Regiment. Despite his strong objections the officer who had taken responsibility for the Murder was exonerated and allowed to return to duty with the Regiment. On June 2nd, 1866, he was honorably mustered out of United States Volunteer service at his own request, and left South Carolina for Massachusetts.

    Following his return home to Worcester, Massachusetts, he resumed his law practice, and in April of 1867 he received an appointed from Governor Bullock as a Judge in the Massachusetts Superior Court. He served as such until 1873 when received an appointment from Governor Washburn as an Associate Justice with the Massachusetts Supreme Court, and continued in that position until March of 1877. On March 12th, 1877, he was appointed as the Thirty-Fifth Attorney General of the United States in the Administration of President Rutherford B. Hayes. In 1881 his term as Attorney General came to an end and he returned to his home in Massachusetts. Shortly after his return he was reappointed as a Justice to the Massachusetts Supreme Court and served on the bench there until his death in 1891.

    In addition to his duties as a Judge and as the Attorney General he was active in Veterans affairs and from 1882 until his death he regularly attended the reunions of the 15th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment Association, as well as serving two terms from 1873 to 1875 as the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic.

    General Devens died at 5 o’clock on January 7th, 1891, at his home at 12 Ashburton Place in Boston, Massachusetts, of heart failure at the age of 70. In January of 1891 he was laid to rest at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Middlesex County, Massachusetts.

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