THE “DASHING” EIGHTH
The Beginning: 1636-1861
The Eighth Massachusetts Infantry was a Regiment organized within the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia (M.V.M.) which had its origins dating back to Colonial times as far as 1636. Prior to the Civil War, the Massachusetts Militia had participated with distinction in every major American military conflict including the French and Indian Wars, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War.
Massachusetts Regiments and Brigades were based on geographic location within the Commonwealth and were formed from local militia Companies which were headquartered in individual communities. The Eighth Regiment was comprised of companies from the “North Shore” communities of Gloucester, Ipswich, Lynn, Marblehead, Newburyport, Salem and Saugus. Initially organized as the East Regiment in 1636, it was re-designated as the Essex Regiment in 1643 which it remained until 1775 when it became known as the First Essex Regiment. In 1840 the regiment was renamed the Sixth Regiment of Light Infantry before finally being changed to the Eighth Infantry in 1855.
In 1792, Congress passed a law which remained in effect until 1903 requiring all able-bodied males aged 18-45 to enroll in the organized Militia (the unorganized militia included the entire male citizenry of age who were also expected to possess and maintain their own personal arms).
As the Militia was the foundation for the common defense of both community and country, participation in the ranks was expected of all male citizens and involved regular drills, inspections and annual encampments where the men participated in maneuvers and competitions involving military skills such as marksmanship, wall-scaling, etc. Officers and Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) were elected by the rank and file based on respect, leadership skills and experience as well as financial contribution to the unit’s support (in some cases). Participation in the militia was considered a social activity as much as a civic obligation, and it was an invaluable opportunity for developing the character of young men. The organization of the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia continued without much change from its inception until the Civil War in 1861.
The Civil War: 1861-1865
Following the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln requested 20 companies of infantry from Governor John Andrew to assist in protecting the Capitol at Washington, D.C. On April 16, 1861 the companies of the Eighth Infantry reported for duty at Faneuil Hall, Boston. Company K was first formed at this time in order to complete the Regimental organization at 10 companies per the regular U.S. Army standard. The regiment entrained and traveled through New York to Pennsylvania where it seized a large railroad ferry called the Maryland to cross the Susquehanna River, arriving off Annapolis on April 21. The arrival of the Eighth Infantry protected the USS Constitution (“Old Ironsides”) from certain capture or destruction by Confederate forces. On April 22, Company K was detailed to reinforce the garrison at Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor (of “Star Spangled Banner” fame), where they remained until May 16 when they rejoined the rest of the regiment outside of Baltimore. The Eighth secured the Northern railroad supply and communication line to Washington (Baltimore & Ohio Railroad), ensuring a flow of Federal reinforcements at a rate of up to 5,000 troops per day into the Capitol. On July 21 during the first Federal defeat at the first battle of Bull Run, the Eighth Infantry remained stationed at Baltimore. On July 29, the regiment was relieved and returned to Massachusetts.
The Eighth Infantry was redeployed on November 25, 1862 to New Berne, North Carolina, traveling by the transport Mississippi to anchorage at Beaufort on November 29. The regiment disembarked on November 30 at Morehead City, N.C. and traveled by train to New Berne, N.C. where Company K was detailed to defend Fort Totten which contained 25 guns and commanded the westerly approach to the city. On February 15, 1863 a Confederate attack under the command of Gen. D.H. Hill was successfully repulsed, and on April 8 the Eighth joined the unsuccessful march of a relief column headed for Washington, N.C. to support besieged troops under Gen. Foster of the Department of North Carolina. On April 9, elements of the regiment were engaged with Confederate forces at Blounts Creek, N.C., and on April 16 the Eighth joined a reconnaissance force under Gen. Prince and captured many prisoners during a six-day operation near Core Creek, N.C.
On July 1, 1863 the Eighth Infantry arrived at Baltimore, Maryland where it remained until July 7, when following the Battle of Gettysburg it led the brigade advance to re-occupy Maryland Heights and intercept the retreating forces of Gen. Robert E. Lee. On July 12 the Eighth Infantry then joined the Second Division, First Corps of the Army of the Potomac at Boonesboro, MD and advanced into Virginia where it arrived at Middleburg on July 21 before receiving orders to return to Boston on July 26, 1863.
The Eighth Infantry was called to duty for a third and final time during the Civil War on July 6, 1864, arriving in Baltimore by July 26 where it guarded the Northern Central Railroad from attack by Confederate guerillas. After a brief garrison and provost duty in the city of Baltimore, the Eighth returned to Massachusetts and was mustered out of Federal service on November 10, 1864.
Building The Armories: 1888 Onwards
From the beginning, the local Companies of the Massachusetts Militia had assembled for drills and inspections in their respective communities in meeting places which were selected by the officers with rent charged against the local corporation. In general, these “headquarters” were simply the largest halls that could be obtained in the areas where the Companies were located. Larger assemblies of Regiments or Brigades were accomplished through the annual encampments which could utilize large, open spaces during the Summer and Fall months.
After the Civil War, State Armories for the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia were constructed throughout the Commonwealth under a Legislative Act of 1888 which provided funding for the purpose. Every city and town in the Commonwealth that possessed two or more Companies took advantage of the provisions of the Act, and the state-wide building initiative continued from 1890 through the turn of the Century.
The Somerville Armory was built in 1903 and originally housed the Somerville Light Infantry. By 1912, subsequent unit reorganization had made the Somerville Armory home to Companies K and M of the 8th Infantry Regiment when Sam Avery first enlisted. The 3rd Battalion to which Co. K belonged was headquartered at the Lawrence Armory and Regimental HQ was based at the Cambridge Armory.
The Spanish-American War: 1898-1899
The Eighth Infantry including Company K was again mustered into Federal service as the Eighth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (or 8th Massachusetts Infantry, U.S.V.) during the Spanish-American War on May 14, 1898. The regiment assembled at the State Camp Ground in South Framingham, Mass. which was known at the time as Camp Dalton.
The Eighth Infantry was stationed at Camp Thomas in Chickamauga, Georgia and Camp Lexington in Lexington, Kentucky through the end of the war on December 10, 1898. On January 7, 1899 the Eighth Infantry sailed for Cuba as part of the occupation force and remained on the island at Matanzas until April 4 when it returned to the United States. Once again, the Eighth Infantry was mustered out of Federal service in Boston on April 28, 1899.
The Militia Act: 1903
The Militia Act of 1903 (also known as the Dick Act) provided reform and reorganization of the militia as a military establishment following the Spanish-American War which had revealed weaknesses in both the historic militia system and the regular United States Army. The Act of 1903 gave permanent Federal status to the organized militia of the various States, renamed the militia as the “National Guard” and further required units to attend 24 drills and 5 days of annual training per year for which the troops would be paid. Militia units were also subject to inspection by the Regular Army to ensure they met Federal standards. Under this new system, the Land forces of the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia were redesignated as the Massachusetts National Guard on November 15, 1907. The Eighth Mass. Volunteer Militia had now become the Eighth Mass. National Guard, although both designations would continue to be used interchangeably (especially by veterans like Sam) until 1916.
The Mexican Border Campaign: 1916
In response to the Mexican Revolution and the crisis on the Mexican Border caused by increased guerilla incursions into United States territory in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson dispatched a Regular Army force into Mexico under Gen. John J. Pershing in pursuit of Francisco “Pancho” Villa. At the same time, President Wilson activated the National Guard to secure the Border region in what was the first large-scale deployment of National Guard troops to support Homeland Security and defend against terrorism. Each of the states contributed troops for a deployment period of approximately 90 days (in keeping with the Act of 1903) from 1916-1919. The “Dashing” Eighth Infantry would stay for longer.
The Eighth Infantry with Company K assembled once again in late June, 1916 at the State Camp Ground in South Framingham, Mass. and entrained for El Paso, Texas. The regiment secured the Border region including transportation and manufacturing infrastructure around El Paso, Texas opposite Juarez, Mexico and came under occasional sniper fire, attempted infiltration and sabotage. After being relieved by elements of the Georgia National Guard, the Eighth Infantry returned home to wait and watch the ongoing Great War in Europe.
The National Defense Act: 1916
The National Defense Act of 1916 finally transformed the militia from individual state forces into a formal reserve component of the U.S. Army and made the term “National Guard” mandatory. All units now shared a common Federal status with standardized officer qualifications established by the War Department. The old elective system of promotion for Officers and NCOs was replaced by an appointment system based strictly on qualification. The number of required drills were increased to 48 and annual training days to 15 per year.
In contrast to the National Guard of the United States (which was deployable on orders from the President in a national emergency), Section 61 of the National Defense Act of 1916 also provided for separate and distinct “State Guard” units which were recognized as parallel State-based volunteer military organizations (Home Guards) under the control of their respective Governors. These units were reserved for employment during local emergencies and for domestic support of national defense, but were not eligible to be sent overseas. The distinction between the National Guard and the State Guards (currently known as State Defense Forces) is frequently misunderstood but remains in effect today.
The End: 1917-1919
Following the entry of the United States into the Great War, the companies of the Eighth Mass. Infantry including Company K mustered in their armories for the last time in July, 1917 before being disbanded and absorbed into the new U.S. Army divisional structure suitable for modern warfare. The men were screened to determine their fitness for overseas duty according to stringent U.S. Army standards. Those who were passed found themselves assigned to different units within the newly-formed 26th Division without consideration for their origins or prior experience. Those who did not “pass muster” for whatever reason were reassigned to newly-formed State Guard units on the home front instead.
Subsequent references to the “Home Guard” in Sam’s writings indicate that the new Massachusetts State Guard took up the mantle of the volunteer citizen-soldier still active in the local community while those in the National Guard had lost their local or regional identities and were absorbed into the anonymity of the vast new U.S. Army.
In February, 1918 while the original members of the “Old Eighth” were already in the trenches with the 26th “Yankee” Division in France, the skeletonized remainder of the Eighth Massachusetts Infantry was re-designated once more as the Fifth Pioneer Infantry. The men of the 5th Pioneer Infantry served under federal status until January, 1919 but remained in the United States as depot or “non-divisional” troops at Camp Wadsworth in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
After their return to the United States in April 1919, the men of the 26th “Yankee” Division were all discharged together at Camp Devens. Once again, there was no regard for whether they had been originally mustered into Federal service as veteran National Guardsmen or recent draftee replacements. All were summarily returned to civilian status. Unfortunately for Sam, there would never be an opportunity to return to Company K and the “Old Eighth.”
“There has always been a small group of citizens who, either as professional soldiers in the regular forces or as civilian soldiers in the military organizations voluntarily maintained by the different states, have kept alive the traditions of the best of our military history, and the practical knowledge of the military methods of the day… The national guard, another proof of our warlike qualities, could not exist except for this military enthusiasm of numerous civilians. It has offered to many that opportunity for experience which has given a basic knowledge, in many cases soon turned in war into successful leadership.”
- Brig. Gen. Henry J. Reilly O.R.C.