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Since we have just finished celebrating Thanksgiving here in the United States, I thought it might be nice to talk a little about how the soldiers celebrated the holiday. And it should be a welcome break from the past weeks' discussions of Tillie's experiences.

There is evidence that there have been days of thanksgiving since the 1600's. The Pilgrims' first winter, in 1620, was a devastating one. But the bountiful harvest they experienced in 1621 was cause for a celebration feast. In 1789 George Washington declared a national day of thanksgiving for the thirteen states, but that was for just that year.

Read Washington's Proclamation here.

Eleven days after the July 4, 1863 surrender of Vicksburg, the White House in Washington, D.C. issued a Proclamation for Thanksgiving, July 15,1863. The date set aside for this particular celebration was Thursday, August 6, 1863. Again, this was just for that particular day.

On October 3, 1863, Lincoln issued a Proclamation of Thanksgiving setting aside the last Thursday in November as a national day of thanksgiving. Read that proclamation.

On October 20, 1864, Lincoln again issued a Proclamation of Thanksgiving setting aside the last Thursday in November as a national day of thanksgiving. If you go to http://grove.ufl.edu/~leo/lincoln2.html you can read that proclamation.

In 1865, letters from Orestes A. Brownson, of New Jersey, state that Thanksgiving was December 7.

There has always been a time of thanksgiving just not on the same day. In 1939, President Roosevelt changed the day to the 4th Thursday in November and declared it a federal holiday.

Having said that let's look at some of the ways that soldiers during the Civil War celebrated Thanksgiving. In 1862, Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, a member of the First New York Artillery, says

"This is Thanksgiving Day in all the loyal states; here in camp it cannot be much observed, especially as we are having a heavy rain. We determined though a week ago to have a good dinner, if such could be got; and gave Major Sanderson carte blanche for our headquarters. The Major came fully up to his reputation as a caterer, and set out a really excellent dinner when one considers our situation, and destitution of proper cooking arrangements. His cook did himself great credit. We had the table spread in the office tent; the furniture of all the messes and the servants of all the officers put in requisition".

"Sanderson got his 'Bill of Fare' up in style, not so long or varied as what he used to furnish at the New York Hotel; nor was the 'Wine List' as extensive, being limited to champagne, which however was both good and abundant. The canvasback ducks were the 'pièce de résistance,' and they were equal to what could be got anywhere, cooked to a turn and served up hot. The soup, too, was quite a success; and boiled mutton is always our cook's strong point. I was fortunate enough to have in my private stores a bottle of sherry for the soup, and currant jelly for the ducks. But here is a copy:"


Fresh oysters, not on the shell.

Green turtle soup, a la tin can.

Leg of mutton, cut in capres [perhaps "cypres," meaning "cut as precisely as possible"].

Roast turkey, a la "Hard Tack," and cranberry sauce.

Sweet potatoes, aux cendres [cooked in the cinders or ashes].

Haricots, farcis aux vents [beans, stuffed with wind].

Riz [rice], a la Dixie.

Pommes de terre [potatoes], a la Smash.

Canvasback ducks, au feu d'enfer [from the fire of hell], and currant jelly.

Lobster salad, rather doubtful.

Mince pies, a l'essence de pommes [of the apple species].

Pumpkin pies, au New England rum.

Almonds - no raisins - apples.

Ginger, "hot in the mouth."

Fruit cake.

Coffee and whiskey (Mitchell, p 10, Nevins, pp 129-130)

In 1864, Colonel Wainwright again wrote about Thanksgiving:

"This is 'Thanksgiving Day' all over the country, the President having appointed it as well as the government of the different states. Great preparations were made in New York City to supply all the soldiers with a turkey dinner, and the papers this week have been full of accounts of the cooking and packing. Unfortunately it did not get down in time for distribution this morning, though the cargoes arrived at City Point last night. Captain Steele tells me that the proportion to this corps will be 14,000 pounds of turkey, one hundred barrels of apples, with cranberry sauce and pies in like quantity. As the officers are to get some as well as the men, teamsters, hospitals, and all, the above amount will have to be divided among about 24,000, giving rather over half-a-pound of turkey, one apple, and a bite of pie to each. When these things are done, it would be much better to confine it to one article and plenty of that"." (Nevins, pp 482-483)

Daniel Chisholm, whose Pennsylvania regiment was part of the Irish Brigade (1st Division, II Corps, Army of the Potomac), wrote about his Thanksgiving in 1864:

"Friday, Novr 25th

"To day the sanitary Committee sent us [a little late] geese, chickens and apples. Jacob Allamon and I are bunking together, we got for our share a
goose leg and a chicken leg, we cooked them in a quart tin cup and put in some drop dumpling, made the dumpling by mixing a little flour and water in a
cup and dropped it in. I enjoyed that dinner as well as the good old home dinners".

"Saturday, Novr 26th

"A little more sanitary [commission] to day in the shape of a turkey leg. We went in on the drop dumplings again." (Menge and Shimrak, pp 50-51)

All soldiers weren't so 'fortunate' to have a Thanksgiving meal as was the case of James Barrett, a member of the First Vermont Cavalry. While near Stevensburg, Virginia in 1863, Barrett wrote in a letter:

"Our regiment is taking a little rest to-day for the first time in a long while. Would you like to know how the boys of our division spent their time on Thanksgiving Day? Well, sometime before daylight "Boots and Saddles" were sounded, and soon we had breakfast, and were in line ready for a march. Where we were to go we were unable to "reckon," but before sunrise our division was on the road leading to the Rapidan River under command of Gen. Custer, Gen. Kilpatrick being absent on account of the death of his wife.

When we arrived near the Rapidan our brigade was formed en masse, and Gen.Custer, standing upon a caisson, read to us a telegram which had just been received, bringing the news of General Grant's late victories. When he had finished reading, we gave three Cavalry cheers and a tiger. We were then within range of fifty pieces of rebel artillery (so says a rebel prisoner), but the fog and smoke almost screened us from view to those upon the opposite side of the river. The rebels soon gathered at the top of their breastwork to find out the cause of so much noise, for they were not aware of our being so near them until we gave the cheers. At this time, we were between Raccoon and Morton Fords, when the enemy opened upon us with a few pieces of artillery. Whilst, our brigade was moving down towards Morton's Ford, the 1st Brigade was moving just to our left up from the same ford to Raccoon Ford. This made the "show" that the rebels say Meade made to cross at these fords. But I can say that there was not a regiment of Infantry within miles of us. Gen. Custer made a feint of immediately crossing the river, and in fact we boys expected a hard fight, and to try our hand in a charge. Quite sharp skirmishing was kept up all day at both fords and the artillery was kept in position all day and all night. The regiments were kept in line except ours; we went on picket. This is the way we enjoyed Thanksgiving day." (Wickman, pp 156-157)

So depending on where the soldiers were at the time, they may or may not have been able to celebrate Thanksgiving.

Portions of the above were taken from the following Internet sites:

University of Notre Dame's 1865 Calendar

The Thanksgiving Story

If you're interested in seeing how much you know about Thanksgiving, take a Thanksgiving quiz.

Menge, W. Springer and J. August Shimrak, ed., The Civil War Notebook of Daniel Chisholm: A Chronicle of Daily Life in the union Army 1864-1865. New York, Orion Books, 1989. (Quoted in Patricia Mitchell's Civil War Celebrations)

Mitchell, Patricia B., Civil War Celebrations. Chatham,VA, Sims-Mitchell House Bed & Breakfast, 1998.

Nevins, Allan, ed., A Diary of Battle: The Personal Journals of Colonel Charles S. Wainwright 1861-1865. Reprinted, 1962, Stan Clark Military Books. .(Quoted in Patricia Mitchell's Civil War Celebrations)

Wickman, Donald H. ed., Letters to Vermont, From Her Civil War Soldier Correspondents to the Home Press. Bennington, VT, Images from the Past, 1998.

Hope you've enjoyed seeing how the soldiers celebrated or didn't celebrate Thanksgiving. When things are going badly for us it is always good to look at someone else's situation. we sometimes will find that ours isn't so bad after all.

© 2006 Winifred Ledoux