American reformer and editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911) led the first black regiment to serve in the Civil War. He also supported women's suffrage and encouraged many female writers.
Thomas W. Higginson was born on Dec. 23, 1823, in Cambridge, Mass. He graduated from Harvard in 1841. In 1847 he graduated from the Harvard Divinity School and married a distant cousin, Mary Channing. The couple moved to Newburyport, R.I., where Higginson served the Unitarian congregation, preaching social reform in general and abolition in particular. He was asked to resign after 2 years.
Free of the pulpit, Higginson worked for women's rights, the Free Soil party, and abolitionist causes, which brought him into contact with such men as Henry David Thoreau and Orestes Brownson. In the 1850s, while pastor of the Free Church of Worcester, Mass., Higginson lectured and wrote poetry and essays for the Atlantic Monthly. Asan abolitionist, he was one of the "secret six" who sponsored John Brown's raid. In Ought Women to Learn the Alphabet? (1859) he argued for education and professional opportunities for women.
While trying to recruit a regiment to fight in the Civil War, Higginson continued publishing essays in the Atlantic. One, "A Letter to a Young Contributor, " elicited a response from an unknown poet in Amherst, Mass., who enclosed four poems. The inquirer was Emily Dickinson. Thus Higginson became the first person outside Emily Dickinson's small circle of friends to read her verse and offer criticism.
Higginson entered the Army as a captain of volunteers in August 1862, but he soon was offered the unique challenge of commanding the Army's first black regiment. These volunteers, recruited from freed slaves, became the model for later black units. Higginson's recollections appeared in Army Life in a Black Regiment (1870).
After the war Higginson settled in Newport, R.I. At first he devoted his energies to writing and lecturing in favor of radical reconstruction, but by 1867 he had turned to fiction. His novel, Malbone, was badly received.
Higginson's wife died in 1877. His second wife, Mary Thatcher, was one of the many authors he had encouraged. Two daughters were born to the couple. Profits from his Young Folks' History of the United States (1875) enabled the family to move to Cambridge. Here Higginson wrote his Larger History of the United States (1885).
Two years after Emily Dickinson's death, Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd began preparing her poems and letters for publication. Higginson's reputation won Emily Dickinson a large and appreciative readership. But for his efforts, one of America's greatest poets might have gone unrecognized. Higginson continued as an active writer and leader until his death on May 9, 1911.
Further Reading on Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Three fine biographies of Higginson appeared in the 1960s: Anna Mary Wells, Dear Preceptor (1963); Howard N. Meyer, Colonel of the Black Regiment (1967); and Tilden G. Edelstein, Strange Enthusiasm (1968). A collection of Higginson's autobiographical essays, Cheerful Yesterdays, originally published in 1898, was reissued in 1968.
Additional Biography Sources
Higginson, Thomas Wentworth, Army life in a Black regiment, Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1982; New York: W.W. Norton, 1984.
Tuttleton, James W., Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978.