Civil War Cooking: “There Were Yet Left Some Good Things in Old Virginia”

William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania (Find A Grave)

This historic menu had been on my goal list since finding it in 2020! Recorded in Private William McCarter’s memoirs about his service in the 116th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment (Union Irish Brigade), the menu is semi-complicated, and the history surrounding the meal presents quite a few conundrums. Let’s start with the food and then look at the context.

Private McCarter and another comrade had been assigned to guard the home of a pro-Union man in Stafford County, Virginia, on November 27, 1862. They were offered dinner:

“She then conducted us into a neat, though small, dining room. In its center stood a table, fairly groaning with the weight of the good things upon it. It was covered with a snow white table cloth, the first thing of the kind that I had seen in Virginia. The food was coarse and plain, but plenty. It consisted of small roasted pig, two or three boiled rabbits, hoe-cake, white potatoes and an immense apple pie. To wash all these down, there was an enormous quantity of cider. Oh, what living for soldiers in the field, I thought to myself, in the very heart of the enemy’s country. As my eye scanned the grand and plentiful layout, I felt satisfied there were yet left some good things in Old Virginia.”

The culinary concept gave a good excuse to host a dinner party, and some fellow historians were invited to join in the “good things.” First things first, I had to find rabbit. The local butcher in Fredericksburg supplied that, but I decided against cooking a whole “small pig” and bought a good cut of pork instead. I wanted to keep the food “plain,” but I also wanted it to taste good; I made an herb and garlic marinade for the pork, then tackled how to cook rabbit.

I did my research. There are lots of ways to cook rabbit, but since McCarter said it was boiled, I looked more closely at those recipes. Finding some directions “translated” from an 18th Century English cookery book, I decided to use those directions. Basically, the rabbit is boiled with a lot of onions and fresh herbs, then the onions are used to make a sort of gravy sauce. I managed to clean the rabbit, but contemplating how to cut it up, my culinary courage failed, and I stuck the whole thing in the cooking pot. (At that exact moment, the electricity went out and stayed out for 90 minutes, leaving the arriving company to speculate where we could go start a fire and authentically finish cooking the dinner. Never a dull moment!)

Pork (foreground) and Rabbit (background)

With the power eventually restored, the rest of the meal preparations finished smoothly! I had parboiled the potatoes, smashed them a little, and baked them with light salt and pepper. The hoe-cakes are basically cornmeal pancakes, and they apparently got their name since they could be cooked on a garden hoe. (I opted for a skillet instead of a hoe.) The “immense” apple pie had been previously baked, and fresh apple cider was “imported” from the Shenandoah Valley to complete the historic menu. To finish the scene, I had set the table with a “white tablecloth,” though I gave in and made an autumn centerpiece that probably did not grace the 1862 table.

The historic menu got a vote of approval from all the diners. We decided the rabbit tasted like glorified chicken, a little underwhelming to be honest. (I did make a rabbit stew in the following week and was more flavorful and unique.)

During the evening’s conversation, we turned a “historian’s eye” on the account in McCarter’s writings, trying to decipher the layers of complex history surrounding the dinner. Here are a few things that particularly stood out:

  • First, the owner of the home where these Union soldiers stood guard was “a zealous advocate of the Union’s causes and principles, something rare indeed to find in this part of Virginia.”[i] His name is only recorded as Mr. Turner, but he claimed that his wife and grown children had left him because they were “Redhot Secesh,” in his words.
  • Second, Mr. Turner requested and received guards from the 116th Pennsylvania Infantry to protect his home and property from vandalism. (More about the location of his dwelling in a moment.) Mr. Turner allowed the guard into his house and offered them hospitality.
  • Third, an African American woman cooked the meal at Mr. Turner’s direction. When she invited McCarter and his comrade to dinner, she called them Mr. Lincoln’s men.
  • Fourth, after dinner, the two Union soldiers went to the kitchen to smoke and met the African American families living at Mr. Turner’s home. McCarter asked some questions and later vaguely recorded the stories he heard. Two of the women said they and their children had been enslaved in Louisiana and escaped to freedom in U.S. occupied New Orleans; their husbands had enlisted (or otherwise found employment with the U.S. Army) and they had traveled north with the children. Eventually, they met Mr. Turner who offered them a place of safety and they had lived there for a few months. The other African American woman was older and told McCarter that she had been born enslaved in Georgia and had been sold to Mr. Turner’s father when she was a girl. She said that Mr. Turner allowed her to read and write, and that though she was still legally enslaved, she had nowhere else she wanted to go and that she felt part of the Turner family.

In summary, here is an account of a Union loyalist who enslaves at least one person but had also made some sort of arrangement to protect two freed-women and their children while their husbands were with the U.S. Army. History is never simple?

While discussing this historical situation, it was difficult to find a balance of skepticism and belief. From some of the language that McCarter wrote, it seems like he drew a conclusion that “slavery wasn’t so bad” and that leads to questioning if he accurately recorded the details of the situation and conversation or if he was seeing what he wanted to see. Unfortunately, he did not record precise details about the freed-women and how or why they made an arrangement with Mr. Turner. They said they were free, so they believed that and must have felt they were treated fairly. But how did Mr. Turner view the situation and was he paying them to do work for him or was he expecting work for “room and board”?

It would be helpful to have a few other accounts of this scenario to see what is the same and what is different according to multiple documents and primary sources. With this in mind, I did some research after the dinner party. I started with the 1860 Census Record and the 1860 Slave Schedule (census of enslaved persons) for Stafford County. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much success other than determining that there were several Turner families in Stafford County. The Slave Schedule didn’t yield results either. The list of claims to the Southern Claims Commission did not readily give answers; there is a claim submitted by Ann Smith and her daughter Bettie Turner who are both identified as Black women who had purchased their freedom by the time of the Civil War and who resided in the area where the Union II Corps encamped. At this time, I do not think their claim is connected to the account in McCarter’s writings, but it’s an interesting primary source that I do intend to look at more closely this winter.

Since the usual starting points weren’t working, I turned back to McCarter’s writings. He was specific about the location of the house where he met Mr. Turner and the three African American women:

“Our principal [picket] posts on this occasion were on the edge of the river, immediately opposite Fredericksburg…. The picket line extended for a quarter of a mile above the ill-fated city. Our picket relief headquarters was in an old, unoccupied frame house on the top of a bluff overlooking the Rappahannock, nearly opposite Fredericksburg, and a mile or so south of Roundtop Mountain. About 300 yards back from this building stood a neat, large farmhouse surrounded by tall trees…. The house and indeed all around it bore the marks of good care.”[ii]

Armed with this information, I headed to the Virginiana Room at the public library in downtown Fredericksburg which houses a large repository of historical and genealogical resources. Again, I had little success with the going through family files for Stafford County, but I got better luck checking historic building records.

A house called “Hickory Hill” was listed as the residence of the Turner Family during the Civil War. (Still no first names for the Turners.) According to Jerrilynn Eby’s book They Called Stafford Home: The Development of Stafford County, Virginia from 1600 until 1865, the house had five rooms, a three flight stairway, and an eight foot wide hallway; also, this book says that a Mrs. Turner lived there but was not friendly to Union soldiers. The house notably had tall hickory trees around it, giving its name and possibly a clue that might link it to McCarter’s account. The Historic Review of Stafford County says that Hickory Hill was/is located “off Route 600, 2 miles northeast of Route 218. If Google Maps has not failed me, then it is possible that Hickory Hill was the location that McCarter went to guard, though the distance may have been a little further from the river area than he recalled. (While McCarter is a fairly reliable writer, he did get some things provably wrong with other locations.)

It’s still a bit of a mystery, and I have to leave this blog post and this cooking series with the idea that there is more research to do. It would be wonderful to get a better understanding of Mr. Turner and his loyalist perspective and unravel a clearer story about the three African American women living there in 1862. However, I can report with clarity that the dinner the unnamed woman cooked for the Union guards was excellent fare…and perhaps a good meal recreated from a primary source is the just the beginning of the next adventure and research finds.


[i] William McCarter, edited by Kevin E. O’Brien, My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry (Cambridge, Da Capo Press, 1996). Page 111.

[ii] Pages 110-111.

5 Responses to Civil War Cooking: “There Were Yet Left Some Good Things in Old Virginia”

  1. That’s right. It is inconceivable that a slave owner might treat a slave with any degree of decency. But, if McCarter had said Turner daily abused his slaves, I expect you would have seen little need to confirm his account. In truth, there were and still are some anecdotal evidence that some owners treated their slaves with some measure of decency and some slaves did indeed feel a sense of loyalty to their owners. Hard to imagine today, but this is not the only such account.

    1. Tom, I agree. There are such accounts, and like all accounts, they deserve study. I don’t find it impossible to believe that Turner may have treated enslaved people with relative kindness, and I am particularly intrigued by the story of the women from Louisiana, how exactly they ended up Stafford, and what happened to them in the following months. It seems like he offered them some sort of protection which would probably have been preferrable to living in a contraband camp; I would like to think that he did so out of kindness, and I would love to find more details.

  2. Turner is a name that can have Irish roots. Who knows, could ancestry have influenced the commanding officer to provide support… Great pictures of a delicious meal equal to McMaster’s description. After the Union army stole half of what they could find in Fredericksburg, (things still turning up today – I think a stolen church relic was recently returned,) I’m sure there were those who sought vengence on Turner, hope the guy came out alright. And I hope McMaster wrote things with an 1863 date, as December 1862 was a rough one for the Union Irish.

    1. Thank you Pat Young for providing an appreciated update on McCarter (not McMaster, sorry.) I didn’t read other’s comments before submitting my own. Sorry for that.

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