Christmas for the “Duxbury Company,” 1861

Members of the 18th Massachusetts. Photo taken at Hall's Hill, Virginia. On the right is Duxbury native, First Sergeant Preston Soule.

By Christmas 1861, roughly 65 men from Duxbury had enlisted to serve in the Union Army. Almost all of these were in the 18th Massachusetts Infantry, Company E (sometimes known as the “Duxbury Company”).

Earlier that fall, the 18th Mass, along with the other regiments of their brigade, set up camp at Hall’s Hill, Virginia on a farm belonging to a man named Basil Hall. The farm is now a built-up neighborhood known as High View Park in Arlington.

The regiment was just one of many in the Army of the Potomac, a huge fighting force that was pieced together over the course of that fall by its commander, General George B. McClellan. The army (eventually 150,000 men) was camped all around the outskirts of Arlington, Virginia, covering many square miles. They remained there, drilling, drilling and marching the occasional reconnaissance, for about six months from fall through winter.

It is interesting to read the differing accounts of the winter camps of some of the regiments. The 22nd Massachusetts, for instance, which was in the same brigade and camped very near the 18th, had relatively comfortable winter quarters. Their colonel permitted them to dig “cellars” of sorts, build walls of wood and mud, and place their tents (which were quite large at this stage) atop these structures as roofs. Add to this a pot belly stove and a chimney and the men remained fairly cozy.

Unfortunately, the men of the 18th were not so lucky. Their commander, Colonel James Barnes of  Boston, forbade them to break military regulation and would not allow them to build make-shift shelters. Consequently, the Duxbury boys in the 18th Massachusetts had a tough winter.

A member of the 18th, Private Thomas Mann of Norfolk, later wrote a memoir. In it he records that it was a mystery as to why Colonel Barnes was so strict with regard to their camp. “…Why ‘Jimmy Barnes’ wintered his troops in bare tents, with only the ground for a floor, on the crown of a bleak hill, remains a question to this day. The colonel was a proud man, as well as a martinet–proud of the discipline of his regiment–and it was thought by some that the bleak winter quarters were a part of this discipline.”

Private David Meechan of Duxbury later wrote of that winter, “We began to suffer from the cold as the ground was frozen most of the time, and I remember I made my letters shorter on account of numb fingers, in a tent, [writing] on a hardtack box cover.”

"Harpers Weekly" cover by Winslow Homer depicting boxes arriving in camp, Christmas 1861

This rough situation was brightened with the approach of Christmas. According to Mann, boxes from home were plentiful and the contents shared among “messes” (groups of men assigned to the same tent). The 18th Massachusetts was fond of “round ball,” a pre-cursor to baseball, and they played at every available opportunity. And poker was, Mann says, like a “religion” for the soldiers in the 18th Massachusetts. No doubt plenty of round ball and card games were enjoyed on Christmas Day 1861.

Company E, the Duxbury Company, was fortunate enough to have a healthy “company fund,” according to Private Meechan, provided mostly by their company commander, Captain Thomas Weston of Middleborough. The men of Company E were sometimes treated to a good dinner through the company fund during that winter. Although Meechan does not specifically mention such a dinner on Christmas day, it seems likely that the captain would pick that date for such an expenditure as was the case in other regiments.

So, the Duxbury boys and the rest of the 18th Mass had it a little tougher than most soldiers in the Army of the Potomac that Christmas. But they were well supplied by their loved ones at home. And probably grateful for small blessings.