by Carolyn Ravenscroft
“Cheer up Emma, it will all seem better when he comes home…”
Harriet J. Fish to Emma Cushing Paulding, July 15, 1861
On a late summer day in 1861, 17 year old John Southworth of Duxbury enlisted in the 18th Massachusetts Infantry, Company E. He was not alone, accompanying him were a number of young men from town, including his brother, 20 year old Walter. John and Walter, like many in Duxbury at the time, were shoemakers. The glory days of Duxbury’s shipbuilding era was a generation past and many took to making shoes, or cordwaining, as an occupation. John’s father, James, was alternately listed as a farmer or shoemaker in the US Census Records, indicating that the Southworths owned a sustainable farm in South Duxbury but required the additional income shoemaking could provide.
The Southworths belonged to a large network of families that had lived in Duxbury since its founding. When John marched off to war he left behind his parents, James and Lucy, as well as a number of siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. One such relation was young Emma Cushing Paulding (b. 1843), the daughter of one of the last successful shipbuilders in town, William Paulding. As first cousins living in a small town, Emma and John had grown up together and it is through their Civil War correspondence that we are able to glimpse the kind, wistful and serious-minded man John Southworth was.
As a member of the 18th Massachusetts, John Southworth’s tenure was three years, during which he witnessed many of the most notable battles of the Civil War, including Gettysburg. His letters describe the cold, miserable conditions men on the picket lines had to endure, the long marches without any rest, and the fear of facing battle. In one letter he described the suicide of a fellow soldier who was so desolate he would rather die than face another day of war. John also writes of coming home and his wish to see his parents, to go on a sleigh ride and to attend dances once again. Through his letters it is obvious he and his cousin Emma shared a familiarity and friendship, and perhaps, although they were cousins, a bit of romance. Many of John’s correspondents had left off writing him and he was always grateful to receive word from Emma.
Unfortunately, John Southworth did not survive the War. He died in Andersonville Prison in Georgia during the summer of 1864. In his last letter to Emma, written on April 10th, only a few short months before his death he wrote the following:
“You say I don’t think enough of myself, ah yes I do Emma, I think I am as good as anybody…But I don’t know as I am good enough to go with a girl. I think they are a higher grade of human beings than men. They don’t take part in the abominable, diabolical war. I can’t say anything bad enough about it…I’m afraid of shot and shell, I have had too many of them sing around my head already and I never want to hear another one fired at them, don’t know how dreadful they sound.”
Although John did not make it home, his brother Walter did, marrying a local girl named Emma Chandler and raising a family in Duxbury. As for Emma, a few years after the War, she married George Bartlett Bates of Kingston, MA and had five children. She died in 1930 at the age of 87.
John Southworth alludes to a diary he kept as a soldier. We can only suppose it was lost while he was a prisoner. The six letters that Emma Paulding kept, however, allow us to know John Southworth and his experience, if only a bit. If you would like to read his letters, they have been transcribed by Dylan Kornberg as part of his Duxbury High School internship and are available at the Drew Archival Library.