Gen. Alonzo Draper, one of the great lost leaders of the late 19th century, organized shoemakers in their fight for living wages and distinguished himself on the battlefield during the Civil War.
Born in Brattleboro, Vt., in September 1835, he traveled in his youth with Grizzly Adams as his assistant. He later moved to Lynn, Mass., which offered plenty of jobs in the shoe industry.
There, Draper became a leader in the Lynn Mechanic’s Association, a forerunner of today’s modern labor unions. He also published and edited the New England Mechanic, a progressive newspaper.
In the late 1850s, modern equipment had allowed the shoe factories to produce more shoes than needed. With an economic slump under way, factory owners forced workers to take repeated wage cuts.
In 1860, discontent with low pay boiled over and prompted one of the first widespread organized strikes in New England. The New England Shoemakers Strike started in Lynn in February, and quickly spread to nearby cities.
A Man of Some Little Education
On Feb. 16, 1860, the New York Times published this description of Alonzo Draper, who it credited as a leader of the strike.
Mr. Draper is a man of some little education, and has at times taught writing, book-keeping and, we believe, French. He is also a man of ambition, and is understood to have been very anxious for a seat in the Legislature, which he came near securing a year or two ago, having obtained the votes of a large number of shoemakers.
By March, women workers joined in the walkout. By April, the factory owners relented and offered raises, though they refused to officially recognize the union. That would take more years of organizing effort.
Draper’s leadership came into full view, however, when the Civil War broke out. He turned his attention to the cause of liberating slaves. He used his organizing skills to begin enlisting men in the 14th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry from Lynn and nearby cities.
By August 1863, Draper sought and received a post leading the North Carolina Colored Volunteers. He did it after pleading his case in support of freeing and educating slaves. His organizing skills again paid off, as he actively recruited slaves and former slaves to join the unit.
The recruitment of colored volunteers was a controversial move by Union forces, as it made clear to the Confederacy there would be no peace without abolishing slavery.
Draper defended his men against the insults and racism from Union soldiers. He promoted efforts to teach the former slaves to read. Though Draper was criticized for his aggressive attacks on southern guerillas, he rose through the ranks. Before he turned 30 he achieved the rank of brevet brigadier general, a promotion given for bravery. He also got command of a brigade.
Upon entering Richmond near the end of the war, Draper witnessed the freeing of slaves being held for sale.
“I became so overcome with tears that I could not stand up under the pressure of such fullness of joy in my own heart,” he wrote of that moment.
We’ll never know what he might have gone on to accomplish in life. At the end of the war, Draper remained in the army. He died three days before his 30th birthday, killed by an accidental gunshot.
This story was updated in 2022.
Images: Colored troops By Julius Jääskeläinen – Company E of the 4th United States “Colored" Infantry Regiment, at Fort Lincoln, Washington, D.C. c. 1864., CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=97861766.