George Luther Stearns

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George Luther Stearns
George Luther Stearns.jpg
Born (1809-01-08)January 8, 1809
Medford, Massachusetts
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New York City, New York
Occupation merchant

George Luther Stearns (January 8, 1809 – April 9, 1867) was an American industrialist and merchant, as well as an abolitionist and a noted recruiter of blacks for the Union Army during the American Civil War.


George L. Stearns was born in Medford, Massachusetts on January 8, 1809, the eldest son and second child of Luther and Mary Hall Stearns. He was a member of the early Stearns family, whose ancestor, Isaac Sterne, arrived in Salem on June 12, 1630 from Suffolk County, England, crossing the ocean with Governor Winthrop and Sir Richard Saltonstall. Isaac moved to Watertown on the Charles River where he died in 1671. The American Stearns family grew, moving northward and westward, working as farmers, teachers and clergymen.

George Luther Stearns' father, Dr. Luther Stearns, was born in February 17, 1770, the eldest of five children born to Captain Josiah Stearns, a soldier in the war of American Independence who commanded a company of 50 men from Lunenburg, MA. Luther Stearns entered Dartmouth College at age seventeen but graduated from Harvard in 1791. He worked as a tutor at Harvard and eventually studied medicine, becoming an obstetrician after receiving an honorary degree from Harvard in 1811. Luther married Mary Hall of Brattleboro, VT when she was 16 on December 29, 1799. They moved to Medford, MA to be nearer her relatives, eventually having three children: Elizabeth Hall Stearns, George Luther Stearns and Henry Laurens Stearns (named after the American Ambassador of that name who was distantly related to the family). Dr. Stearns later opened a celebrated preparatory school for boys with students from the South and West Indies.

Dr. Stearns died of pneumonia on April 27, 1820, when his son George Luther was just nine years old. In order to earn money, young George sometimes tended the locks on the Middlesex Canal in town. At the age of 15, he entered the work force to support his family. In early life he engaged in the business of ship-chandlery, and after a prosperous career undertook the manufacture of sheet and pipe-lead, doing business in Boston and residing in Medford. He was married to Mary Elizabeth Preston on October 12, 1843, by Rev. Frederick H. Hedge. They met through acquaintances which included her father Warren Preston, a probate judge in Norridgewock, Maine and Mrs. Lydia Maria Child an American abolitionist, women's rights activist, opponent of American expansionism, Indian rights activist, novelist, and journalist and Unitarian.

Stearns was one of the chief financiers of the Emigrant Aid Company which facilitated the settlement of Kansas by antislavery homesteaders. He identified himself with the antislavery cause, became a Free-soiler in 1848, and established the Medford station of the Underground Railroad to help escaped slaves reach freedom. Stearns was one of the "Secret Six" who aided John Brown in Kansas, and financially supported him until Brown's execution after the ill-fated raid on Harpers Ferry. Stearns physically owned the pikes and 200 Sharps rifles brought to Harpers Ferry by Brown and his followers. Following Brown's arrest, Stearns briefly fled to Canada, but returned to Medford to face inquiry following Brown's death.

Soon after the opening of the Civil War, Stearns advocated the enlistment of African-Americans in the Union Army. Massachusetts Governor John Andrew asked Stearns to recruit the first two Northern state-sponsored black infantry regiments. The 54th and 55th Massachusetts regiments and the 5th cavalry were largely recruited through his instrumentality. He was commissioned Major through the recommendation of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and was later of great service to the national cause by enlisting blacks for the volunteer service in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Tennessee to serve in the U.S. Colored Troops. He recruited over 13,000 African-Americans, established schools for their children, and found work for their families while they served in the army.

He was the founder of the Nation, Commonwealth, and Right of Way newspapers for the dissemination of his ideas.

After President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, Stearns worked tirelessly for the civil rights of blacks. Among his many admirers and friends were Louisa May Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Sumner, Frederick Douglass, and President Andrew Johnson. He helped found the Freedmen's Bureau to support emancipated blacks.

Stearns died of pneumonia in New York City, New York on April 9, 1867. Ralph Waldo Emerson gave the eulogy at his funeral at the First Parish Church in Medford (Unitarian). John G. Whittier published a poem in honor of Stearns in the May 1867 edition of the Atlantic Monthly entitled "G.L.S" (pg 385, The Life and Public Services of George Luther Stearns). Of him Whittier wrote:[1]

"No duty could overtask him;
No need his will outrun;
Or ever our lips could ask him;
His hands the work had done."

"A man who asked not to be great;
But as he served and saved the state."

In 1897, a monument was erected on Boston Common to the memory of col. Shaw, commander of the 54th Massachusetts regiment and who was killed at Ft. Wagner. At the celebration of that occasion, Booker T. Washington, President of Tuskegee College, made an address where he attributed the credit of organizing the colored regiments where it "properly belonged, to George L. Stearns." (Life and Public Services ... page 388).

Following this, Joseph H. Smith, a veteran of the 54th started a movement to have a commemorative tablet placed in the State house at Boston, commemorating Major Stearns' services and sacrifices for the republic. The resolution was passed in 1897 to place a table in Memorial Hall or other establishment in Boston and signed by Governor Wolcott. However, it was never enacted then, requiring a second resolution by the Massachusetts legislature in 1901. The tablet is entitled: In Memorium George Luther Stearns and says, in part:[2]

A merchant of Boston Who illustrated in his life and character The nobility and generosity of Citizenship Giving his life and fortune for the Overthrow of slavery and the Preservation of free institutions To his unresting devotion and unfailing hope Massachusetts owes The fifty-fourth and fifty-fifth regiments of colored infantry, And the federal government ten thousand colored troops, At a critical moment in the great war. In the darkest hour of the republic His faith in the people never wavered.


  1. Stearns, Frank Preston (2013) [1907]. The Life and Public Services of George Luther Stearns. London: Forgotten Books. p. 390. Retrieved 1 January 2016.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Stearns, Frank Preston (2013) [1907]. The Life and Public Services of George Luther Stearns. London: Forgotten Books. p. 389. Retrieved 1 January 2016.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • Heller, Charles E., Portrait of an Abolitionist: A Biography of George Luther Stearns, 1809-1867. Greenwood Press, 1996. ISBN 0-313-29863-7.

Further reading

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