In the wake of the whaling industry’s collapse, Nantucketers responded with heroic dedication to the call for volunteers to support the Union in the Civil War.
Even in the face of pacifist island traditions, nearly 400 Nantucket men enlisted in defense of the Union forces, with 73 ultimately giving their lives in the war. Dozens of repurposed whaling vessels, including the Nantucket whaleship Potomac, were put into service in the Stone Fleet, sunk by Union forces in Savannah and Charleston harbors to create blockades of Confederate vessels. Other whaleships were destroyed by Confederate raiders near the end of the war.
After war was declared in 1861, Nantucket established a militia known as the Island Guard, associated with the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Recruits to the “Bloody 20th”—or “Harvard Regiment”—were led by the charismatic George Nelson Macy, whose home was at 123 Main Street. Macy and his fellow islanders would see action at many of the pivotal engagements of the war, from Fredericksburg to Gettysburg. As Brevet Major General, Macy would also attain the highest rank of any Nantucketer.
After the conflict, Nantucket veterans from the 20th Mass., 45th Mass., and other regiments, proudly served in the Thomas M. Gardner Post of the Grand Army of the Republic, holding annual memorial celebrations of their contributions to the defense of the Union.