In 1780, John Adams wrote, “”I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have the liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry, and Porcelaine.”
Ironically, his descendant – Charles F. Adams, Jr. – had to study war and volunteered to fight in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry during the Civil War. Present at Gettysburg and fighting during that campaign, he continued his family’s traditional commitment to upholding the federal government and value of freedom.
Founding Father: John Adams
John Adams (b. October 30, 1735) grew up in the colony of Massachusetts and practiced law. He opposed British taxation without representation but believed strongly in fairness and justice, defending the British troops in court after the “Boston Massacre.”
During the American War for Independence, he served in the Continental Congress, played a major role in the ideas and creation of the Declaration of Independence, and oversaw important military committees. In 1777, Adams became ambassador to France; later he was ambassador to the Dutch Republic and helped to negotiate the Treaty of Paris which ended the was and secured American independence. He followed up with Great Britain as ambassador of the United States, trying to establish better relations and following the progress of the Constitution framing.
Adams got 34 electoral votes in the first executive election, and, according the Constitution at that time, became the first vice president, working with George Washington to establish protocols and processes of the new government. From 1797-1801, John Adams held executive office as the second president of the United States, the last president of the Federalist Era, advocating for stronger central government and military powers. During his presidency, the national capital moved to Washington “City” on the Potomac River. He died on July 4, 1826, living long enough to see his son John Quincy Adams serve as the sixth U.S. President. (John Quincy Adam’s son – Charles Francis Adams, Sr. – served as a diplomat during the Civil War and his eldest son was Charles Francis Adams, Jr.)
Great-Grandson: Charles Francis Adams, Jr.
Charles Francis Adams, Jr. (b. May 27, 1835) was the grandson of John Quincy Adams and great-grandson of John Adams, thus related to two United States presidents. He graduated from Harvard in 1856 and practiced law in the years prior to the war. In 1861, Adams joined the Union volunteers and commissioned as a first lieutenant in Company H of the 1st Massachusetts Volunteer Cavalry.
During 1862, he fought with the company in South Carolina campaigning and in the Antietam campaign. Adams received promotion to captain and became the commander of Company H in October 1862. He commanded that company during the Gettysburg Campaign and through the disastrous losses at Aldie. (see below) Throughout the battles and campaigns, Adams leadership was recognized and praised for “distinguished gallantry and efficiency.” He was promoted to lieutenant colonel in June 1864, transferred to lead the black soldiers of the 5th Massachusetts Volunteer Cavalry, and fought at the siege of Petersburg. Adams ended the war as a Brevet Brigadier General of Volunteers.
He resigned from military service in August 1865 and recovered his health. During the post war years, Adams was involved in the railroad industry, serving as a member of Massachusetts Railroad Commission and later President of the Union Pacific Railroad. He died on March 20, 1915, and is buried in Quincy, Massachusetts.
1st Massachusetts Cavalry
Formation of the 1st Massachusetts Volunteer Cavalry began on September 3, 1861, and the unit mustered in to defend the Union. They spent the beginning half of 1862 in the Department of the South (South Carolina) at Hilton Head and James Island, fighting at the Battle of Secessionville. Some of the companies transferred back to Virginia and served in the Antietam Campaign in September 1862. They operated in Virginia during the autumn and were present at the Battle of Fredericksburg.
They spent the early part of 1863 on reconnaissance missions, then fought in Stoneman’s Raid and at the Battle of Brandy Station before the Gettysburg Campaign and Battle of Aldie (see below). The Bay Staters actively fought, scouted, and picketed during the Bristoe, Rapidan, and Mine Run Campaigns.
In 1864, the regiment moved with other cavalry units during the Overland Campaign and around the fortifications of Richmond and Petersburg. They guarded City Point as provost guards and were present at the fall of Petersburg in April 1865. The 1st Massachusetts mustered out of service on June 29, 1865.
On The Fields At Gettysburg (And On Campaign)
During the Battle of Gettysburg, the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry arrived at the battlefields with 292 men and was temporarily attached to the 6th Corps Headquarter. Though the regiment did not see much active service at the battle, they had played an important role at the cavalry battle at Aldie earlier in the campaign.
On June 17, 1863, in the shadow of Snicker’s Gap (Virginia) Confederate cavalry under Thomas Munford clashed with a Union cavalry column commanded by Judson Kilpatrick as the Federals arrived at the town of Aldie. The Confederate cavalry screened the Southern infantry advance through the Shenandoah Valley and into Maryland and Pennsylvania.
As the fight at Aldie progressed, the Union horsemen believed the Confederates were retreated and charged, with the 1st Massachusetts and the 4th New York Cavalry charged, but were driven back. With battle lines shifting the Massachusetts Cavalry got trapped in a hidden curve of the turnpike and suffered heavy casualties – 198 of 294 men. The Battle of Aldie ended inconclusively and became a series of small battles and skirmishes between the cavalries throughout the campaign.
How would John Adams have felt about his great-grandson fighting to protect the Union and end slavery? We can’t know for certain, but he probably would have been worried, proud, and pleased. We do know that the Founding Father would have supported the official Union position adopted in 1863 moving toward complete abolishment of slavery in the United States. “I have, through my whole life, held the practice of slavery in such abhorrence, that I have never owned a negro or any other slave…”
Certainly, Charles F. Adams did his part to defend the Union and fight for freedom through his Civil War service. From the battlefield of Aldie to his reserve position at Gettysburg, Adams was present during this important campaign which marked a turning point in American history. From Declaration of Independence to executive mansion to Gettysburg battlefield, the Adams family name can be found at key moments in United States history.