By Carolyn Ravenscroft
Of the 235 Duxbury men who went off to fight in the Civil War, only a smattering of personal information remains. It is relatively easy to find birth and death dates, whom they married and sometimes, if you are very lucky, an address or occupation comes to light. But clues to their personalities, their idiosyncrasies or their relationships with family and friends are elusive. Occasionally, however, a letter surfaces that allows us “know” a soldier a bit better and understand more fully what these young men were thinking. One such letter, written by Aurelius Soule of the 18th Massachusetts, Company E, was recently donated to the Drew Archival Library of the DRHS by Bart Jackson. The letter had been passed down through the family and we are thrilled to have it back in Duxbury.
Aurelius Soule was born into a tight-knit Duxbury clan. His father, Capt. Thomas Soule (1795-1864) married a cousin, Deborah Delano Sampson (1809-1880). The couple had six children, Aurelius, born in 1833, being the oldest. Whether Capt. Thomas Soule was a master mariner aboard one of Duxbury’s many transatlantic merchant vessels, or merely captained a coastal fishing boat is unknown. What we do know is Aurelius did not follow in his father’s footsteps. The 1850 and 1860 US Censuses both indicate he was a shoemaker, a very common occupation for those living in the economically depressed Duxbury of time. In 1857 Aurelius married Emeline Cushman Thomas of East Bridgewater. The young couple was living in Hanson at the time of their marriage. Interestingly, the 1860 US Census shows them living apart, he in Duxbury with his parents and siblings, she “living out” as a servant in a Plymouth inn. The reason for the separation, whether there was discord in the marriage or merely an economic imperative, may forever remain a mystery.
In 1861, 27 year-old Aurelius joined Company E (often called the “Duxbury Company”) of the 18th Massachusetts with 54 of his friends, relatives and neighbors, including his brother, Joseph Alcide Soule (b. 1842). By September the 18th Mass was camped just outside Washington, D.C. at Arlington Heights, Virginia. It is from here, on stationery illustrated with a panoramic view of the capital, that Aurelius wrote one of his first letters home to his mother. The letter is full of Aurelius’s unique phonetic spelling and lack of punctuation, but the sentiments expressed reveal him to be of a thoughtful nature.
Aurelius, like so many other young soldiers far from loved ones, was homesick but he was also determined to make the best of things. He understood that the cost of his service may be his own life, writing, “they expect to have one hard battle and if we are in it we shall stand a good chance to get killed some of us but thist doant worry me any i hante got to die but once and i doant know but I mite as well die now as any time.” Surely words a mother, even one who was proud her son was fighting for the Union, was loathe to hear. He was also very clear about his opinion of Washington, calling it “the nastyest place that ever i got into the streets are full of hogs that go where they have a mind to and the mud is about a foot thick.” Lincoln he described as not “anything more than a man and not a very handsome one at that.”
Two interesting stories are also relayed in the letter. One describes a fellow soldier who “dremt he was shooting Jef Davis and fired his gun off and shot four toes off of one of his feet.” The other tells of the disturbing, but all too common possibility that money being sent home was being stolen. In this particular case the thief appears to be fellow Duxbury resident, A. Weston, who apparently “took the money and spent it in Boston and then told that there was none.”
Aurelius most likely sent many more letters to his family during the war, describing all he saw, but he never made it home to tell his tales to his mother in person. Despite having survived many of the major battles, including those fought on the Peninsula in the spring and summer of 1862, Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg, he died in a hospital at Beverly Ford, VA on February 28, 1864 of illness. It is both an honor and pleasure to be able to preserve his words for posterity.