Hurry Up and Wait: Duxbury’s First Enlistments

The 18th Massachusetts regimental monument at Gettysburg. Photo by Jenn Goellnitz.

The old army adage, “hurry up and wait,” applied to everything from dinner call to formations for battle during the Civil War. The first group of men to enlist from Duxbury apparently learned this rule from the moment they tried to sign up. Rushing to join, 52 men from Duxbury enlisted on May 23, 1861. But they were not mustered into the 18th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry until August 24, 1861. This begs two questions: What were they doing during the three-month interval? And why did they have to wait so long?

Across Massachusetts in late April and early May 1861, just weeks after fighting began at Fort Sumter, there were thousands of would-be soldiers flocking to Boston, eager to enlist. Local leaders throughout the Commonwealth, usually men who had held commissions in the state militia, organized their own companies (roughly 100 men). These companies reported to the Governor, expecting to be assigned to a regiment (a unit consisting of ten companies or roughly 1,000 men).

This was all well and good. The one hitch: by late April, Massachusetts had already supplied its quota of soldiers for three months service. Four Massachusetts regiments had left the Bay State. The War Department would accept no further regiments from Massachusetts.

William Schouler, the Adjutant General of Massachusetts whose responsibility it was to organize and supply new regiments, wrote of the frustration during May 1861. “At this time there were, in Massachusetts, upwards of ten thousand men organized into companies…They now pressed forward to the State authorities to be accepted and organized as volunteers for three years. The Governor could not accept them; could not muster them; could not encourage them further than with kind words until answers were received from Washington…Days passed on…companies held to their organizations, paraded the streets…No orders came; delay and disappointment marked the hour; men could not understand why the government would not accept their services.”

Governor John Andrew repeatedly asked Secretary of War Simon Cameron to permit the formation of additional regiments from Massachusetts. Finally, Andrew received word on May 22, 1861 that Massachusetts would be permitted, as a special favor, to raise six regiments for three years of service. The flood gates were opened and thousands of men enlisted the very next day, May 23.

Among them were our 52 Duxbury boys. These were the first from this town to answer the call. Unfortunately, there are probably more questions than answers regarding how and when this group came together. We know that 32 of them were shoemakers, 6 were mariners, 6 were farmers and the remaining 8 a variety occupations. They ranged in age from 18 to 48 (Private John Alden, a mariner, at age 48, was the oldest man to serve from Duxbury). Their average age was 26. These Duxbury men made up the majority of a company that would eventually become Company E of the 18th Massachusetts.

Records bear out that these 52 enlisted on May 23, 1861. But evidently, they were not among the 6,000 or so lucky recruits to be admitted to those six new regiments. There were simply too many companies vying for too few slots and the Duxbury company got squeezed out. Now they again had to wait until the War Department released another call for additional regiments. Hurry up and wait!

During the summer of 1861, as they waited, Duxbury’s first enlisted soldiers were in a sort of limbo. They had signed up, but had not been mustered into a regiment, which meant their service had not officially begun. They would not be mustered into the 18th Massachusetts until the end of August.

The staff here at the DRHS has spent a good amount of time researching and wondering what these men were up to during the summer. It was not initially clear exactly when these men reported to Boston for training. Our archivist, Carolyn Ravenscroft, has turned up several key primary source documents that shed light on the question. One of these documents is part of a collection of letters that belonged to Emma C. Paulding of Duxbury. In this collection are letters written by one of these first Duxbury recruits, Private John Southworth, as well as letters by Emma’s cousin, Harriet Fish.

On July 16, 1861, Harriet Fish wrote to Emma Paulding (who both had friends among the recruits), “…Has the Duxbury Company gone yet? If you see the Southworth boys [John and Walter Southworth who had both enlisted] oh, give my thanks to them for that serenade although I did not hear them…” We can only wonder what the serenade was all about. But, more importantly, this letter would seem to indicate that the Duxbury company was at home during June and July, awaiting the call.

A day later, Harriet wrote, “…I have heard since I commenced this that the Duxbury Company have gone. I expect it was very hard indeed for you to part with Pud (or Harrison I should have said [Harrison Wadsworth]) but cheer up Emma it will all seem the better when he comes home…” Given this, we must assume that the Duxbury company was called up in mid-July to begin training. Another important primary source regarding the formation of the Duxbury company, the diary of David Meechan, will be discussed by Carolyn in our next post.

The companies that would become the 18th regiment gathered at a training camp at Readville (a section of Hyde Park, Boston) over the course of July and August and busily began to drill. Company E, after about a month at Readville, was mustered in on August 24, 1861.  Their company commander was Captain Thomas Weston of Middleborough.  Their 1st Sergeant (the highest ranking non-commissioned officer) was Joseph E. Simmons, a 22 year-old shoemaker from Duxbury. On August 26, 1861 the 18th Massachusetts was called to Washington and departed by rail.

Finally, after about two months of waiting and one month of drilling, Duxbury’s first recruits were headed off to war.

[Sources: Emma C. Paulding Papers, archives of the DRHS; James L. Bowen, Massachusetts in the War, (1888) p. 281-282; William Schouler, Massachusetts in the Civil War, (1868) p. 164-165.]