The “Division” of Duxbury: Soldiering and Temperance

by Carolyn Ravenscroft, Archivist

800px-The_Drunkard's_Progress_-_ColorThe Confederate army was not the only enemy being fought during the Civil War. For some, demon alcohol was an even bigger foe. Having a drink or two or three in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century was a daily occurrence by almost all men, women and even children. Consumption of alcohol was, by some estimates, at a staggering 7 gallons per capita in 1830.[1]  However, there were a number of factors during the antebellum period that led people away from liquor and toward the temperance movement. The religious revival of the Second Great Awakening, the growing women’s movement and industrialization all stressed sobriety, albeit for different reasons.

Duxbury had been a bastion of teetotalers as early as the 1820’s with the establishment of the local Methodist Episcopal Church. Members of the Unitarian First Parish Church were also turning away from drink, in 1834 Rev. Josiah Moore delivered a temperance lecture to his congregation.[2] Duxbury’s Universalist minister, Daniel Livermore, was an advocate of temperance as well. Some of the town’s leading citizens were temperance men. Gershom Bradford Weston was one of those who joined the Miles Standish branch, or “division,” of the Sons of Temperance, an organization requiring members to sign a pledge promising to abstain from all alcohol, not just hard liquor. Division meetings were held at Sprague Hall located on Washington Street, just across from Snug Harbor. Female temperance advocates in Duxbury could become members of the Martha Washington Relief Society, or simply attend division meetings as guests or “lady visitors” alongside the men. Women could not become full members in Sons of Temperance until 1866.

When moral suasion did not work, laws were enacted to assist the errant drinker in making the right decision. In 1838 Massachusetts became the first state to prohibit the sale of alcohol with its “15 Gallon Law.”  This law, which disallowed the sale of quantities under 15 gallons, meant that individuals could no longer purchase a drink across a bar or a bottle of liquor (wealthier folks who could afford to purchase in large amounts were unaffected). The law was repealed by the state in 1840 but towns could opt to keep it on their books. By the time the Civil War commenced, Massachusetts had become virtually a “dry” state. A prohibitory law forbidding the sale of liquor other than for “medicinal, mechanical or manufacturing purposes,” had been passed in 1855.[3] The law, however, as one Duxbury Sons of Temperance member bemoaned, was not always enforced.[4]

For many of the local Duxbury men who chose to enlist in the Union Army, The Miles Standish Division of the Sons of Temperance played an important role. The division’s quarters in Sprague Hall, then known as Temperance Hall, as served as the primary recruiting office. References to both the “the division” in Duxbury and intolerance for drunkenness amongst fellow soldiers can be found in letters of the time.  Harriet Fish commented in a letter to her cousin, “don’t the Division grow thin. I guess it does now that the soldiers have gone.”[5] Pvt. John Southworth wrote of his disgust for comrades who were perpetually drunk and promised his cousin Emma that he would never drink,

You asked me if I ever drank any liquor out here. I don’t meddle with it. Emma, if I had at home, I should stop it here for I have seen so much of it here that despise the very smell and sight of it. Some of the men have been beastly drunk since they got their new uniforms. I have seen some of them all mud where they had been too drunk to stand up and so rolled in the mud. I never want to see another drop of any kind of liquor without it is for medicine.[6]

Letter by Gershom B. Weston to the Duxbury men of the 18th Massachusetts

Letter by Gershom B. Weston to the Duxbury men of the 18th Massachusetts

Perhaps the most telling piece of correspondence regarding the influence of the Sons of Temperance and how its cause was intertwined with the life of Duxbury citizens during the war is a letter written by Gershom Bradford Weston on behalf of Duxbury’s division to the men of the 18th Massachusetts, Company E.[7]  While Weston and those at home were enjoying warmth and comfort, they were not “unmindful of our absent Bros…nor the temptations by which they are surrounded.” Weston equated the struggle for which the men were fighting with the cause of temperance and reminded the soldiers not to “dishonor or disgrace by your disloyalty to the principles you have pledged your sacred honor to keep” and to defend, not only the flag of the republic, but also “the banner of total Abstinence.” As this letter was written the same week as John Southworth’s above, apparently not all Duxbury soldiers were faithful to the cause of temperance, if they ever had been.


[1] Information on the quantity of alcohol consumption varies, but all sources agree that by 1830 the average American over age 15 was drinking an enormous amount – one estimate is as high as 7 gallons per year (4.3 gallons of hard liquor and 2.8 were beer, cider, or wine). For more information on alcohol consumption in the US and temperance, see Ken Burns’ Prohibition clip “Nation of Drunkards” See also,
[2] Charlotte Bradford (Duxbury, MA) to Elizabeth H. Bradford (Lowell, MA) Feb. 23, 1834 in DAL.MSS.021 Bradford Family Collection, Drew Archival Library of the DRHS.
[3] The law was originally passed in 1852 but was deemed unconstitutional. With revisions it was reenacted in 1855 and stayed in force until 1868. Massachusetts continued to create, amend and repeal prohibitory laws throughout the latter part of the 19th century. See “Total Abstinence” in Charles Anderson Dana, et al, ‪The American Cyclopaedia: A Popular Dictionary of General Knowledge, Volume 15 ‪(Google eBook) and Henry Stephen Clubb, The Maine Liquor Law: Its Origin, History, and Results, Including a Life of Hon. Neal Dow (Published by Pub. for the Maine Law Statistical Society, by Fowler and Wells, 1856).
[4] Letter from Son of Temperance, Duxbury, March 14, 1862 in Journal of the American Temperance Union: and New York Prohibitionist, Vol. 26-29, (American Temperance Society: New York, 1862), p. 51.
[5] H[arriet] J. Fish to Emma Paulding, July 15, 1861 in DAL.SMS.004 Emma Paulding Collection, Drew Archival Library of the DRHS.
[6] John Southworth to Emma Paulding, Jan. 7 [1862] DAL.SMS.004 Emma Paulding Collection, Drew Archival Library of the DRHS.
[7] G.B. Weston on behalf of the Division to Duxbury Volunteers, Jan. 1, 1862, DAL.SMS. 057, Sons of Temperance Letter, Drew Archival Library of the DRHS.

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