William T. Davis (1822-1907) is known locally as a historian of the Old Colony. His three histories of Plymouth are invaluable resources on the settlement and growth of the town. Writing history was something he did in retirement and his accomplished career included much more. I am most interested in the influential role he played in Plymouth and Boston during the Civil War.
At the beginning of the Civil War, Davis was Chairman of the Plymouth Board of Selectmen. He was also a successful attorney, banker and merchant. Throughout the war, Davis was an instrumental leader on the home front. He was actively engaged in recruiting Plymouth soldiers, seeing that funds were raised to help supply them, and worked with state and federal officials endeavoring to ensure that Plymouth men were appropriately equipped.
When Plymouth’s first militia company, the “Standish Guards,” left the town on April 16, 1861, Davis went with them to Boston and consulted with Governor Andrew. The two apparently had a close and constructive relationship. Davis made a donation to the Commonwealth’s emergency war fund of $20,000 from the Plymouth Bank (of which Davis was president). Davis claims this was the first such donation made to the Commonwealth by any bank. The amount would be in the millions today.
After the first Massachusetts regiments (the so-called Minutemen of ’61) had been rushed south, the Governor asked Davis to journey to Maryland, Washington City and Virginia to make an inspection of the Bay State units and report on their condition. Davis found them to be adequately situated and supplied but was concerned about the exposed condition of the capital. He returned home to Plymouth to help recruit a second company of volunteers, the “Plymouth Rock Guards.”
Davis pushed a number of measures through town government to support the soldiers, including a vote to allocate town funds to support the families of Plymouth men who went to war. The resolution read, in part, “…It is our pleasure, as well as our duty, to see to it that our brave volunteers be encouraged by the knowledge that the welfare of those near and dear to them is made the care of their fellow-citizens who remain at home.”
Davis personally purchased supplies for Plymouth recruits including cloth for uniforms. He would later write, “For some weeks my house looked like a clothing store, with cases packing and unpacking, and applicants for work coming and going with bundles of garments either cut out or made up.” He said that in early May, the ladies of the town met daily in Leyden Hall on Main Street (no longer standing) to sew uniforms for the Plymouth Rock Guards. Those original uniforms, interestingly enough, consisted of a grey shell jacket, grey trousers and grey kepi, all trimmed with red.
Davis’s efforts were not limited to the home front. Over the course of the war, he spent a great deal of time in Washington DC, seeking out Plymouth men in hospitals. He doesn’t quite say as much, but it seems clear that Davis felt a large degree of responsibility for the men he had personally recruited. He brought them letters from home, boxes of food and tried to help them in any way he could. He wrote that during one visit to a Washington Hospital,
…While passing through one of the wards I heard my name called by an occupant of one of the beds…I found a young man whom I had enlisted in Plymouth a few months before as a recruit….He was now very sick with typhoid fever, and in his anxiety to be discharged, was so depressed in spirits that the surgeon said his recovery was hopeless, unless his discharge was secured…I told him that I would see what I could do, and jumping into a horse car, rode at once to the war department…
Waiting in line to see Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Davis was slightly unnerved by the fact that the entreaties of those in line ahead of him seemed to be rapidly turned down. But when his turn came, he made his petition succinctly and, we might imagine, with an attorney’s acumen. In a short time he returned to the hospital with news, “to gladden the young fellow’s heart.”
Of his work to aid Plymouth’s soldiers, Davis wrote, “I have often seen the pallid cheeks of a soldier furrowed with pain, light up with a smile as he opened his eyes and found standing by his bedside a messenger from home.”
 William H. Osborne, The History of the Twenty-Ninth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, (1877), p. 37.
 Davis, Plymouth Memories of an Octogenarian, (1907), p. 413.
 Davis, p. 411.