Thanksgiving 1863: A “vivid contrast” between home and the front

In 1863, Thanksgiving fell on November 26. That morning, as the rest of the country was preparing for roast turkey and fat puddings and homemade pies, the Army of the Potomac, encamped around Brandy Station, Virginia, rumbled to life for the start of what would be the Mine Run Campaign. I’ve written in the past about that “frosty, bracing Thanksgiving morning,” as one soldier described it.

I am reminded of an account from a soldier, published in Paul Stephen Beaudry’s The Forgotten Regiment, that speaks to that contrast between the comforts of home and the responsibilities of duty:

On Thanksgiving day, when friends at home were returning thanks to the Giver of all good for the blessings of health and prosperity, we commenced our forward movement, and after toiling all day in Virginia mud, crossed the river and bivouacked for the night in a thicket near its banks. While stay-at-home patriots were regaling themselves with roast turkey and chicken-pie and other necessary etcetera, at the same time very wisely speculating upon the chances of war, we partook in a dinner of hardtack and coffee, seated upon terra firma and within uncomfortable proximity of the aroma of dead horses and decomposed mules. We felt that there was a vivid contrast between the circumstances surrounding the citizen and those of the soldier on this day, but duty pointed us to work across the Rapidan.

Osceola Lewis, a member of the 138th Pennsylvania, said, “The only consolation the soldier had under such circumstances, was to believe that the enemy would be speedily met and defeated—the rebellion suppressed before the coming Christmas—to imagine that the war would actually be ended by this, the last battle….” Of course, the battle along Mine Run never fully erupted, and so the army did not even get that consolation Lewis and fellows like him had hoped for.

This year, while many of us prepare to enjoy feasts of our own, let us remember those men—and the men and women currently in uniform, far from home because their own duty points them elsewhere on our behalf.

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