“I told Mr. Weston I was more than willing to enlist, but I could not see my way clear to leave my wife in the condition in which she was…He was so enthusiastic, and so thoroughly in earnest, and so anxious to secure the other young men, my friends, that he gave a solemn promise. If I would go to war, he would look after my family in my absence, and see that they had everything necessary for their comfort…I want to say right here and now that the Hon. Gershom B. Weston kept his pledge to me faithfully, fully and honorably.”
Pvt. David C. Meechan of Duxbury
When the Civil War began on April 12, 1861, Gershom B. Weston, eldest son of the late shipbuilder “King Caesar,” took it upon himself to lead recruiting efforts in Duxbury. As one of the scions of Duxbury’s largest mercantile empire, Weston was a prominent and influential figure. He was also a highly controversial one.
Weston led a successful political career as Town Selectman, State Representative and State Senator before the war. He made an unsuccessful bid for a seat in Congress as a member of the Free Soil Party, losing by just 150 votes. He was an ardent temperance and antislavery activist and strongly in favor of a war to end slavery.
Weston’s earnest antislavery efforts and his family’s business interests are strangely paradoxical. The Weston shipping firm managed for decades by his father, Ezra Weston II, made most of its considerable fortune by shipping cotton from the American South. King Caesar might have been described as a “Cotton Whig,” a conservative member of the Whig party with interests in the textiles industry and therefore an economic supporter of slavery. Gershom Weston seems to have broken from his father in this regard and might have been described as a “Conscience Whig” opposed to slavery, except for the fact that, even after King Caesar’s death in 1842, Weston and his brothers continued to be heavily invested in the cotton trade.
How Weston might have reconciled this paradox is unknown. But one thing is clear. His antislavery efforts stirred tremendous controversy in Duxbury. He caused a great rift in town in 1851 when he invited abolitionist Theodore Parker to speak at the First Parish Church. Duxbury’s minister, Rev. Josiah Moore, declared Parker’s views “unchristian” and would not consent to his speaking in the church. A large portion of the congregation shared Moore’s views. The disagreement led to contentious public meetings and years of bitterness.
By the time the Civil War broke out, Weston was too old to serve as a soldier. Instead, he viewed it as his duty to busily recruit men from Duxbury once it began. The recruits included two of his sons who served in the army and navy. Weston was particularly energetic in recruiting Duxbury’s first group who went off to war, 52 men who formed the majority of Company E of the 18th Massachusetts regiment. He managed to secure a vote of town meeting to grant each man a $100 bounty. However, after the boys went off to war, as Private David Meechan put it, “some of Mr. Weston’s political enemies called a meeting to rescind said vote.” The soldiers of the 18th therefore had to sue the town to secure their promised bounty. Their agent at home in prosecuting this case was Gershom B. Weston.
As this unfortunate disagreement wore on, Private David Meechan was elected by his fellow soldiers to carry on correspondence with Gershom B. Weston back in Duxbury to determine how their case was proceeding. One letter Meechan writes is telling of the way the Duxbury soldiers felt about Weston:
Sir, you will no doubt think it strange…my writing to you, but knowing as I do the lively interest you have always taken in our Company and the earnest desire you have always manifested in the promotion of our well being…it is on these considerations and on behalf of the remaining few of our Duxbury boys that I have taken the liberty to address you…Your name is mentioned on many a bivouac when we are grouped about our Camp fires and our thoughts revert to home…you are spoken of as the only man who has ever tried to assist us…
Weston helped to organize shipments of supplies and food to Duxbury boys at the front. In one case he paid to have the body of a Duxbury soldier returned home. Soldiers at the front sometimes referred to him as “Uncle Gersh” and knew that they could appeal to him for help.