Civil War Cookin’: Did A Thanksgiving Meal Save This Man’s Life?

Jane Stuart Woolsey volunteered as a hospital nurse with the U.S. Sanitary Commission during the Civil War. Later, she wrote about her experiences and memories, offering a glimpse into a Union hospital, and in one of the chapters, details about holiday celebrations.

There’s a vivid account of a Thanksgiving menu and how the holiday cheer (and food) had a cheering effect on one particular patient. I hope you find this story appropriate, heartwarming, and thought-provoking, and now we’ll let the eyewitness tell the tale: 

Jane S. Woolsey helped create a special Thanksgiving meal for a tired soldier.

We kept all the holidays at the Hospital; feasts and fasts. The fasts were observed, not literally, but with chapel services. The feast we were more exact about; fire-balls on Fourth of July, roast beef, pudding, and holly boughs at Christmas; but Thanksgiving was the best of all. There was a sermon the blessings of the time; there was always enough to be thankful about, in the darkest days; and “Rally round the Flag, Boys,” and “My Country ’tis of thee,” and then the turkeys with their lovely gizzards chopped up in hot gravy, the mashed potatoes and onions stewed in milk, the cranberry sauce, the pickles, the fruit-pies and puddings and iced-cakes trimmed with pink lightning, and the oyster supper in the evening, crowning all. It was wonderful how little harm came of these feasts. Almost unlimited permission to join in them was given by the surgeons, and I have reason to suspect that generous portions were smuggled in by their comrades to the water-gruel patients; but there seemed to be a charm in the home holiday strong enough to divert the pie-crust and stuffing from their natural consequences [to recovering soldiers’ health].

Poor Sergeant S——— didn’t think he cared about any Thanksgiving. What was Thanksgiving to him? Now if he were at home and could have it all quiet and nice with his friends, – but the mess-hall and the crowd and the quantities of things and the smell and the noise, – and then he didn’t believe there would be a single bit of celery, or even cranberry sauce. Poor Sergeant S. had come to the field full of right zeal and spirit at first, giving up a salary of a thousand dollars for thirteen dollars a month “and the country,” but he was utterly broken down with over-marching, exposure, and long sickness. Wouldn’t he like to have his dinner brought in to him? “No. He didn’t want any dinner. What had he to do with Thanksgiving?”

In the great wings of the central building were many little rooms set apart for patients. To very ill, or nervous and sensitive men their quiet and cheeriness were a great blessing. Each room had one or two white beds for patients and one for an attendant, each its little open fireplace and crackling wood-fire, and high, wide window letting in the sweet sunshine and the sight of the sailing clouds, the pleasant fields, the far-off, gleaming river. Sergeant S. had one of these rooms. At dinner time he was enticed for a moment into one next door, and when he came back, his little table was set out for dinner with a white cloth, a fresh damask napkin folded over the block of bread, a change of hot china plates, the Superintendent’s silver fork and spoon, a covered dish with turkey, another with vegetables, a little bowl of cranberry sauce and a crisp spray of celery in a tall flowerglass. The poor Sergeant melted and came to again, forgot his vapors and ate every crumb of his little feast. I think he got better from that day….

Happy Thanksgiving!


Woolsey, Jane Stuart, Hospital Days: Reminiscences of a Civil War Nurse. (2007) Roseville, MN: Edinborough Press. Pages 63-64.

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