Thanksgiving, 150 years ago

Theodore Lyman's map of the army's position on Nov. 26, 1863
Theodore Lyman’s map of the army’s position on Nov. 26, 1863

“Thanksgiving day, when the fat turkey is served in state,” said Theodore Lyman, a member of Gen. George Gordon Meade’s staff. “And this [was the day] appointed for our flank move on Orange Court House….”

One hundred and fifty years ago, Thanksgiving fell on November 26. For the Army of the Potomac, though, the day was marked not by turkey and stuffing but by a long day of marching. Meade set the army in motion for what would eventually be known as the Mine Run campaign.

“Thanksgiving Day was approaching, and many of our boys were expecting the arrival of boxes from home crammed with goodies and substantials dear to the hearts and stomachs of hungry soldiers,” said Warren Lee Goss of the 2nd Massachusetts Artillery.

“But delight turned to disappointment the 26th, Thanksgiving Day, before they had their breakfast, when they were ordered to pack up immediately,” wrote the historian of the 151st New York. “Falling in line, they marched and marched, with no suggestion of the feast which is synonymous of that day!”

Rev. A. M. Stewart, chaplain of the 102nd Pennsylvania, lamented the day’s turn of events.

For the day appointed as a National Thanksgiving, we had, in our regiment, varied and definite arrangements for sermons, speeches, addresses, anthems sung, and a collection taken for benevolent purposes. The military powers had, however, ordered our exercises on that day differently. From early dawn until far into the night, we were on a long, long, wearying march across the Rapidan.

“[Y]ou can easily imagine what our Thanksgiving was, marching through mud, and not stopping to get anything to eat until 11 o’clock at night,” wrote Charles Harvey Brewster of the 10th Massachusetts wrote in a December 9 letter home.

Brewster and his comrades managed to raid some of the meager farms they passed along the way in an effort to scrounge up some dinner. “One of the turkies I told you we brought back with us has gone where good turkies go and [the] other is fattening for the same fate,” he admitted. “I reckon we enjoyed him full as well as you did, even if we did not have all the surroundings as you did.”

Three members of the 151st New York reported a similar bounty. According to the regimental historian, they

fell quietly out of ranks into a piece of the woods and set about getting something to eat. Having collected on the way flour, milks, tea, and little apples, we fried our pork, hour hard tack, our apples, made flour gravy and our tea, then sat on a log and enjoyed or Thanksgiving dinner. We sorted out our silverware then hurried on, and overtook the regiment while it was waiting for a pontoon bridge to be laid across the Rapidan.

Most soldiers, however, were not so lucky. Lt. Col. Mason Tyler of the 37th Massachusetts, had a Thanksgiving feast that was more typical: “Our Thanksgiving dinner was bread and butter.” For James Bowen, a soldier in the regiment, “Thanksgiving Dinner” consisted of coffee and hardtack. “The most sumptuous repast could not have been more welcome,” he admitted.

Rev. Stewart was less generous. Years later, still embittered by the experience, he complained about the lost opportunity to duly recognize the day:

The late Thanksgiving Day was devoted by the executive of the nation, and accepted by the people, as holy to the Lord. The hearts of thousands among our brave soldiers turned fondly, lovingly homeward, in anticipation of that day’s exercises. Yet was the advance of our army ordered to commence at the dawn of that day, nor was a moment allowed the soldier for his thanksgiving, save under the fatigues of a long and wearying march.

A few days later, on November 28—150 years ago today—the army waited for an attack order that didn’t come. That might’ve been reason enough to give thanks, but for some of the men of the 2nd Rhode Island, the day turned into their belated Thanksgiving. According to Elisha Hunt Rhodes,

Our mess servant found a house, and what was better, a turkey. This they roasted, and with sweet potatoes and new bread and butter they appeared to us about 2 P.M…. The good things were spread upon a rubber blanket and we gathered around. The Chaplain began to say grace when bang went a gun, and a shell from the enemy howled over our heads. The Chaplain did not falter but went on with his prayer….

When more artillery began to fall, “we took the rubber blanket by its corners and moved under a knoll where we enjoyed our feast,” Rhodes wrote. “Our Batteries soon got to work and our dinner was eaten while the Artillery duel went on.”

Meade’s foray south of the Rapidan lasted only a few more days, and then he withdrew the army back to the area around Culpepper to encamp for the winter. That Mine Run did not erupt into an all-out bloodbath, then, might have been reason enough for thanks. But the nation also had Grant’s fresh victories around Chattanooga to be thankful for. And, as Lincoln had pointed out in his October 3 Thanksgiving proclamation, the nation had many other “extraordinary” blessings to be grateful for—”notwithstanding the waste [of life] that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field,” he qualified; “and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.”

We continue to enjoy those extraordinary blessings. Let’s not forget the men who gave up their Thanksgivings so that we could have ours.

3 Responses to Thanksgiving, 150 years ago

  1. From the fellows who bled for George Washington on up to the ones who will eat a Thanksgiving dinner at the mess hall today, before there was an official Thanksgiving, and now–may they all be remembered and blessed. As historians, we carry their honor and put it before the public every day. Thanks be given for this vocation.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!

%d bloggers like this: