The Political Battle for Duxbury Soldier’s Bounties

A Civil War recruitment banner offering a bounty for enlistment

A Civil War recruitment banner offering a bounty for enlistment

One of the more perplexing episodes in Duxbury’s Civil War history (and a lengthy one at that) was the matter of the bounties that were promised to the first group of Duxbury men who enlisted in May 1861. Periodically, when calls for troops went out from the Federal government, quotas were allotted to each state and, in turn, to each town according to population. A town’s failure to meet a quota was problematic in a number of ways, not the least of which being the damage done to the town’s sense of honor and patriotism.

The best incentive at the time to encourage enlistments in order to meet quotas was to offer a bounty. This was the case with the 55 men from Duxbury who enlisted under the call of May 3, 1861 from President Lincoln for soldiers to serve three-year terms. These men eventually formed the majority of Company E of the 18th Massachusetts Infantry which was sometimes known as the “Duxbury Company.” Each was promised $100 for signing up (about $2,500 in today’s money) in addition to their usual soldier’s pay.

It was not until April 1863 that the Town of Duxbury followed through on this promise. The intervening two years of controversy and legal wrangling caused much consternation for the soldiers at the front.

The surviving documentation on the matter is almost entirely from the point of view of the soldiers. The Duxbury Rural and Historical Society holds a collection of letters written to Gershom B. Weston (King Caesar’s oldest son) who was a prominent Duxbury citizen, an organizer of recruitment meetings, and supporter of the soldiers. Having personally recruited most of these men, he took it upon himself to see that their needs were met. The letters earnestly thank Weston for his efforts on their behalf and repeatedly inquire as to progress on the matter of the bounties.

What we do not have is documentation shedding light on exactly what was happening here at home with regard to the matter. Research is ongoing and evidence may crop up at some point in town records to indicate specifically why the bounties were withheld. However, based on the soldiers’ letters, it is possible to thresh out most of the story.

Gershom B. Weston (1799-1869)

Gershom B. Weston (1799-1869)

The Duxbury Company spent three months training here in Massachusetts and left the Bay State by train with the 18th Massachusetts on August 26, 1861. A few days before departing, a committee of Duxbury soldiers (Henry Alden, John Glover and Lebbeus Harris) voiced their concern not only that they had not received their bounties, but also that they had not received any pay at all. In a letter to Gershom B. Weston they included a power of attorney letter signed by all the Duxbury members of the company. “This to us as we are now situated is a matter of vital importance (more especially to those of us who have families)…We apply to you under these circumstances to aid us all in your power, knowing full well the interest you have ever manifested in the well being of the company and which you may rest assured is fully appreciated by us.”[1]

Surely, it would have eased the minds of many a Duxbury soldier if they could have seen the matter resolved before they left for the seat of war. Unfortunately, it was not. The committee (with Lebbeus Harris replaced by Jacob Burgess) writes a second time in November 1861 while encamped in Arlington, Virginia. “We have come to the conclusion that if the Town deems it not advisable to pay us within thirty days…we desire you to employ some suitable lawyer in our behalf and have him commence a suit against them–We are prompted to this action from no sentiments of ingratitude or ill-will towards the Town, but on the contrary feel deeply grateful for all that they have hitherto done, but still, many of us…are driven by stern necessity…”[2]

While the argument against granting the bounties is not currently clear, we do have some strong indications as to the personal politics which led to the situation. These were laid out by Private David C. Meechan of the “Duxbury Company” in his journal as follows:

The town voted us one hundred dollars each as a bounty for enlisting. We did not ask it. Mr. Gershom B. Weston, in his large-hearted, whole-souled, liberal, patriotic spirit had engineered the vote of the town to grant the bounty. After we got to the front, out of sight, some of Mr. Weston’s political enemies called a meeting to rescind said vote, or set it aside. He advised us to collect the money by legal process as he did not believe the majority of the good people of the town desired that we should be defrauded out of what we had a right to expect.[3]

“Large-hearted” and “patriotic” as Gershom B. Weston may have been, he did indeed have many enemies in town. He was a complex character–kind and charitable but also bombastic and aggressive. He had been creating controversy in town for decades. It is therefore not surprising, though unfortunate, that his enemies sought to defeat him at the expense of Duxbury soldiers.

A letter from the committee later in November acknowledged a response from Weston and thanked him for his “assurances that our request shall meet with your immediate and prompt attention.” In his letter to the soldiers (which does not survive) Weston apparently explained the vote rescinding the bounties. Addressing this, the committee wrote of the opposition:

…They doubtless acted as they deemed at the time just and right, but which we from our standpoint deem mean and contemptible–from what quarter opposition to our views…came from, we know not but can readily imagine…There are in all communities…numerous little great men, whose mission, backed by their own inclinations, is to do the dirty work of other men…We only desire for one short week they could be with us and for 48 hours out of the week stand with us at the outposts momentarily expecting attack, constantly on the alert…and, when relieved, seeking the softest and driest piece of ground for a couch, a log for a pillow, a musket for a companion, your covering but a simple blanket and God’s firmament…[4]

Gershom Weston did indeed pursue the matter, hiring an attorney. The Selectmen refused to grant the bounties and the matter went to court. The soldiers’ committee replied in January 1862, “We desire it prosecuted in the most efficient manner possible…” Arrangements were made to take up a collection in the company and forward to Weston some cash for the attorney’s fees. By July 1862, the matter was still dragging on through the court system. The committee replied that they were “fully satisfied with the course pursued.”

In August 1862, a new wave of recruits were enlisted from Duxbury, some 90 soldiers who joined the 4th Massachusetts and the 38th Massachusetts and were shipped to Louisiana. These new recruits received their bounties almost immediately from the Town, which we can imagine might have been frustrating to those in the 18th Massachusetts still waiting for theirs. Apparently, the bounties for the new soldiers were backed by private money and therefore not withheld by the Town.[5]

Private David C. Meechan (1838-1909) lived in Ashdod and served with the 18th Massachusetts, Company E

Private David C. Meechan (1838-1909) lived in Ashdod and served with the 18th Massachusetts, Company E

In January 1863, Private David C. Meechan was appointed by the members of the Duxbury Company to act, in his words, as “clerk to conduct the correspondence appertaining to our lawsuit on behalf of our company.” By that time, the 18th Massachusetts had been through a great deal–most recently the Battle of Fredericksburg in which the unit took terribly heavy casualties. Meechan wrote to Weston:

You will no doubt think it strange and perhaps ludicrous 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, and the members of our Committee having all left us, it is on these considerations and in 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 over camps fires…you are spoken of as the only man who has ever tried to assist us in getting our just claims from the Town…[6]

Meechan wrote again to Weston in March 1863 noting, “Your last kind letter was received with universal rejoicing…” indicating that some significant development had taken place in the case.  Finally, Meechan acknowledges in a letter dated April 7th, 1863, that he has received from Weston, “the pleasing intelligence that you have succeeded in obtaining the amount due to us by the Town.” Indeed, the Duxbury Annual Report notes that in 1863, $5,500 was paid out of the town treasury representing the bounties for the 55 soldiers (or their heirs) of the 18th Massachusetts.[7]

At the end of 1863, Private Meechan wrote Gershom Weston to update him on the hard times and suffering they had seen in recent months. The few remaining Duxbury soldiers in the 18th Massachusetts were looking forward to the end of their term in six months time. They were being asked to re-enlist, but Meechan said few were inclined to do so:

…So great has been the impatience to get home once more…the honor of being a good soldier and doing one’s duty has been all swallowed up in the brutal treatment we have received that I think it is asking too much of men to again enter the same horror of horrors…We would be glad to see some of those loyal gentlemen who refused to pay us our honest dues from the Town shoulder their muskets and come to our assistance. I must close…You are our only recognized benefactor and we shall never forget your many acts of kindness to us…In behalf of the Company and myself, Yours in sincere friendship, David C. Meechan.[8]

[1] Letter from a Committee to G.B. Weston, Esq., August 23, 1861, Alden B. Weston Collection, Drew Archives of the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society
[2] Letter from a Committee to G.B. Weston, Esq., November 10, 1861, Alden B. Weston Collection, Drew Archives of the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society
[3] David Crossley Meechan and Evelyn Alden Ryerson Hathaway, “Big Davey the Brave,” memoir and journal, p. 20
[4] Letter from a Committee to G.B. Weston, Esq., November 10, 1861, Alden B. Weston Collection, Drew Archives of the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society
[5] Henry B. Maglathlin, Company I, Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, (1863), p. 26
[6] David C. Meechan to G.B. Weston, Esq., January 16, 1863, Alden B. Weston Collection, Drew Archives of the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society
[7] Annual Report of the Receipt and Expenditures of the Town of Duxbury, 1864, p. 5
[8] David C. Meechan to G.B. Weston, Esq., December 29, 1863, Alden B. Weston Collection, Drew Archives of the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society

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