by Carolyn Ravenscroft, Archivist
Endless marches, barely edible rations, unsanitary camp conditions and the horrors of battle are only some of the travails that come to mind when we think of the soldier’s life during the Civil War. In contrast, the home front conjures up images of warm hearths and good food. But for many Northern families the war years presented hardships equal to those experienced by the men fighting in the South. As a community already suffering a depressed economy, the citizens of Duxbury often fared worse than others.
Life in Duxbury from the point of view of a struggling, working class citizen is illustrated in the correspondence of Eden Sampson. Sampson wrote numerous letters to his son, Sgt. Horace E. Sampson (see earlier blog post) detailing the unemployment, illnesses and scandals faced by his neighbors.
By the time the Civil War began in 1861, Duxbury had long since lost its luster as a shipbuilding mecca. While there was work to be had, the wages were often low—too low in some instances to pay for the inflation that resulted from the war. Sampson was lucky in that he found employment as a carpenter in the Eagle Cotton Gin Company in Bridgewater, Massachusetts during the war. He worked long hours with a gang of other men, most of whom boarded together. Other members of the family found work as housekeepers and shopkeepers in and around Boston. One relation, Hattie Vadakim, became a factory worker 130 miles away in Easthampton, MA. According to Sampson, earning wages far from home was the only way to survive as Duxbury was “all peace and poverty…and always will [be]. It will do for fishermen and shoemakers to live there, that is all it is fit for. There is nobody left there, what is will starve this winter.”
In early 1864 Duxbury had an even larger problem with which to deal—diphtheria. Several in town had died from the illness in the latter months of 1863. Then, from January to April 1864, diphtheria seemed to rage, killing 21 people in Duxbury. Most of them were young children. There was no known cure for the disease at the time and most succumbed within ten days of contracting it. Diphtheria often caused a patient to seemingly choke to death as their airways became blocked. In a particularly sad case, Eden Sampson described Thomas Chandler’s son begging his father to shoot him and “put and end to his suffering.” Horace Sampson’s good friends, William Swift and his young wife, Mary, died in February 1864. Swift had just found a job for the winter building a fort when he was taken ill. Smallpox reared its head as well. When Eden Sampson came home from Bridgewater for a visit he was driven off and had to spend nights in the “old shop” as the family was afraid he was infected.
While it must have been difficult for Sgt. Sampson to hear such distressing news from home, his father also had a knack for spreading local gossip that could only have made his son chuckle. Eden Sampson found other people to be loose lipped, i.e. “Duxbury is the same old place, they don’t have business enough to keep them from [talking] about others,” but he also never seemed to shy away from a good story. The most sordid tale of the war years involved a Duxbury native, Rev. Charles Briggs Thomas. Rev. Thomas had been leading a Unitarian parish in Chicago when he involved himself with the wife of one of his parishioners. Eden Sampson did not hold back when he described the debacle:
“Charles B. Thomas is in Duxbury. Had to leave a salary of 3500 per year with 12 hours’ notice or have his damned brains blew out of him, that has put a [curse] on him for life. So much for troubling another man’s wife. He took a pistol and called on him and told him to leave the city.”
Other lurid gossip promulgated by Sampson involved the marital strife of Jane and Alden Cushman (she was locked out of the house after a fight), the split of Alfred Rogers and his wife (she went to “keep house” for Don Winsor) and the probable divorce of John Alden and his wife. Perhaps the most humorous story came from Horace Sampson’s sister, Ellen. She regaled her brother with the story of a fight between Capt. Briggs Thomas (the father of the aforementioned Rev. Charles Briggs Thomas) and Philip Chandler. The two men came to blows in the Union Store after an argument. According to an eye-witness, Chandler “double up his fist and placed it pretty near the Capt’s nose, he not liking the smell of it, grabbed him by the throat.”
While soldiers facing the battlefield may have longed for the comforts of home and fantasized about easier times, those left behind, like Eden Sampson, often had to struggle to survive. Their letters to the front are as important in illustrating the ramifications of the Civil War as any soldier’s correspondence. If you would like to read more from Eden Sampson, his letters are part of the Cushman Family Collection at the Drew Archival Library.