John Albion Andrew, famous statesman and abolitionist

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Probably one of the most famous figures in Windham history is John Albion Andrew, who was born here on May 31, 1818, in a white cape-style house that still sits on Depot Street today. From this  simple beginning, he went on to later become the governor of Massachusetts during the Civil War.

Andrew, commonly called Albion by those who knew him, was the eldest of four children born to Jonathan Andrew and his wife Nancy Green Pierce. He grew up in South Windham where his father owned a prosperous grist mill and a grocery business. As his mother had been a teacher at Fryeburg Academy, Andrew was educated at home for his primary years. He later attended Gorham Academy where he gained a reputation for being able to memorize church sermons and recount them by mimicking the style and tone of the preacher who had originally delivered them.

He went on to Bowdoin College and was recognized as an excellent speaker while studying law. After his graduation in 1837, he continued his studies under Henry H. Fuller, Esq., of Boston and was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar in 1840. He began practicing law in Boston and quickly found himself at the top of his profession. By 1867, he was sufficiently successful to be able to move his family to a house on Boston’s prestigious Charles Street.

Law was not the only of Andrew’s passions. He was also an avid abolitionist whose anti-slavery beliefs went as far back as his days at Bowdoin College. He was a member of Boston’s First Vigilance Committee, an organization established in 1846 to help escaped slaves. He also helped to organize the Free Soil Party whose main goal was to end the expansion of slavery into the western territories.

At 29, while attending an anti-slavery fair Andrew met Eliza Jane Hersey of Hingham, Massachusetts, and they married shortly thereafter. She shared his  strong abolitionist leanings and supported him throughout his career. They had four children together.

In 1859, following John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, Andrew provided legal support for Brown. He expressed sympathy with Brown’s position, if not his deeds, and his efforts on Brown’s behalf brought Andrew statewide notice. His popularity gained him the Republican nomination for governor of Massachusetts in 1860, and he defeated the Constitutional Union Party candidate, Amos A. Lawrence, to win the general election that year.

Once in office, Andrew began readying the Massachusetts militia for war. He updated the state’s coastal defenses by unconventionally securing funds from major Boston banks. He also led the force in promoting the enlistment of black men as uniformed soldiers in the Union army and was granted permission to raise a black regiment in January, 1863.

Andrew believed the black regiments, the 54th and later the 55th Massachusetts, should be led by black officers. This did not come to pass, but Andrew was able to hand-pick officers from strong abolitionist circles. He also lobbied for black soldiers receiving equal pay to their white counterparts.

Because Andrew led the state of Massachusetts through the War Between the States, he became known as the War Governor of Massachusetts, but he also achieved other interesting accomplishments that were not war-related. For example, he started the Massachusetts State Police in 1865, the first statewide police force in the nation.

When the war ended, Andrew did  not seek reelection and in 1867 returned to his law practice, where among his clients was a group of businessmen seeking the loosening of the state’s strict alcohol prohibition laws. This was another cause that Andrew believed in.

Sadly, he died before he could further its progress. On Oct. 30, 1867, he died of apoplexy resulting from a stroke he suffered after having tea at his Charles Street home  at the early age of 49.

Andrew’s last visit to Windham was on July 4, 1862, when he left his pressing Civil War duties to deliver a vibrant address to the residents of his hometown on Independence Day. He is buried in the Hingham (Old Ship) Cemetery in Massachusetts where his grave is marked with a full-sized statue of the man who led his state through our nation’s war-torn years of 1860-1865.

John A. Andrew School in Windham was named for him. It was torn down just a few years ago, but parts of it still live on in the Windham Historical Society’s Village School, the one-room schoolhouse on the Society’s Village Green on Windham Center Road.

Haley Pal is a Windham resident and active member of the Windham Historical Society. She can be reached at haleypal@aol.com.

John A. Andrew

The John A. Andrew House on Depot Street in South Windham.

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