Civil War Cooking: “Anxious To Have A Chicken Pie” For Thanksgiving

“Thanksgiving in Camp” – Winslow Homer. Published in 1862. (National Gallery of Art)

Happy Thanksgiving!

Time travel through the 13th Vermont Infantry Regiment’s regimental history for a Thanksgiving camp scene from 1861:

On our return from Union Mills and Bull Run, where we had been for two weeks doing picket duty, the boys began to receive boxes from home containing chicken pies, roasted and stuffed chickens and turkeys, mince pies, fruit cake, butter and cheese, etc. where were Thanksgiving dinners sent from our homes.

These were welcomed dainties and came in due season, and in pretty good condition, some of the boxes had been roughly handled and contents considerably mixed up, but nothing was wasted, though jammed and a little stale, but all good.

These palatable edibles brought fresh to mind the scenes of the old New England Thanksgiving Dinner and those who gathered around the well laden tables at home, and our eyes moistened, and for the moment we wished ourselves back mingling with our acquaintances in the merry making and festivities of the season.

We had Thanksgiving dinners though a little later than usual, but on the installment plan. The boys in each tent that had been so fortunate as to receive a box, a special spread was made, and if any comrade had been forgotten or a promised box had not arrived, such were sought out and invited in, and so from day to day as boxes arrived from Washington and Alexandria, brought to our camp by our regimental teams, we continued our feasting while in Camp Vermont.[i]

John K. Cross

The 13th Vermonters wrote A LOT about food in their regimental collection, and several of them mentioned chicken pie for Thanksgiving and in multiple years of the Civil War. For example, John Kimball Cross wrote about 1862 Thanksgiving (I think; it’s hard to pin the year in his reminiscence section):

“The day before Thanksgiving being anxious to have a chicken pie went out among the nearby farmers and tried to buy some chickens but none were sold, but the next day a number of good sized chicken pies were served up in good old Vermont style, and we were satisfied, but the natives were mad and came to camp, but no one had seen or heard of chickens though feathers in plenty could be seen about camp. The most of these nearby farmers were rebels and we had but little respect for them or their chickens.[ii]

Clearly, chicken pies in “good old Vermont style” were important to these soldiers, but what was Vermont chicken pie? Was it different than “regular” chicken pie? I decided to investigate…and found a recipe featured on a Vermont history cooking blog, The Brave Little Plate. The recipe had been printed in a 1948 cookbook. However, the recipe claimed to be from an older relative who had written it in her wedding recipe book in 1860. I felt fairly confident that this would be an accurate Vermont chicken pie for the Civil War era.

Instead of a bottom and top crust, this Vermont chicken pie only had a topping, and it was basically a layer of biscuit. The original recipe called for a rather plain stewed chicken and gravy. I made one pie with veggies and one pie in the 1860s style, topping both with the biscuit-like dough.

The pies turned out beautifully, perhaps fit for a Thanksgiving table. I shared one with the Mackowski family, and rumor has it that young Maxwell quickly became a fan of the biscuit topping! It was certainly easier to prepare than two rolled pie crusts, and chicken pie is just splendid comfort food. Now, the 13th Vermont’s mystery chicken pie has been “rediscovered”, and believe me, I’m keeping the recipe.

Whether you have chicken pie or not, I hope your Thanksgiving Day has many “palatable edibles” and no feathers cluttering your camp! Cheers.


[i] Ralph O. Sturtevant, Pictorial history Thirteenth Regiment Vermont Volunteers, War of 1861-1865, Published in 1910, Accessed through Page 94.
by Sturtevant, Ralph Orson, 1838-1910

[ii] Ibid., Page 497.

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