Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Charles Devens (1877–1881): Attorney General

Charles Devens was born in 1820 in Charlestown, Massachusetts. He attended the Boston Latin School and Harvard College, graduating from the latter in 1838. After studies at Harvard Law School and gaining acceptance to the bar in 1840, Devens set up a private practice.

From 1848 to 1849, Devens served in the Massachusetts state senate, a stint he followed by working as the U.S. marshal for the district of Massachusetts (1849-1853). Devens then returned to private practice and, for a short while, became Worcester’s city solicitor (1856-1858).

When the Civil War began, Devens volunteered for military service and was commissioned as a major in the Third Battalion of Massachusetts Rifles before becoming, in 1861, commander of the Fifteenth Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. He was involved in numerous battles and was ultimately promoted to the rank of major general.

During Reconstruction, Devens served as second-in-command to the general in charge of the Southeastern Department. In 1866, he left the military and returned to his law practice, but he abandoned his practice once again in 1867 to serve first as justice of the superior court of Massachusetts and then, in 1873, as justice on the state supreme court.

In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes tapped Devens to be his attorney general. Devens served for the entirety of Hayes’s four-year term, returning to Massachusetts in 1881. He resumed his post as judge of the superior court and held that position until his death in 1891.