Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving in Camp, 1861.

During the winter of 1861-62, the 13th Mass were encamped at Williamsport, Maryland, picketing the Potomac River, acting Provost Guard at Hagerstown and Williamsport, and protecting shipping along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.  Things were relatively quiet for the regiment that first winter and there was time for the boys to prepare a Thanksgiving celebration in camp.

Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts had declared Thursday, November 21st Thanksgiving Day. The transplanted New Englanders planned accordingly to celebrate New England style in Maryland.

The festivities proved novel to the locals as reported in the Hagerstown Herald & Torchlight:

“13th Massachusetts Regiment – Its Thanksgiving Day. Thursday last having been the day designated by the Governor of Massachusetts for Thanksgiving, the soldiers of the 13th Regiment from that State, now encamped near Williamsport, paid their respects to the day in an old-fashioned frolic.  Thanksgiving day originated with our Pilgrim forefathers, and was held in commemoration of their landing upon Plymouth rock, in 1620.  It was an appropriate and special recognition of the Providence of God, in bringing them safely through the perils of a long and adventurous voyage; and in New England it is still associated with such reminiscence, although they are gradually receding from public attention, and the day partakes more of the modern sentiment as it prevails with us.  This innovation upon time-honored custom the brave sons of old Massachusetts now in our midst fully illustrated by devoting the day to a grand festival, which terminated at night in a joyous dance upon a large platform erected for the purpose in their camp.  We understand that the Regiment was paid off on the previous day, which, in addition to the presents of pumpkin pie, turkeys, &c. received from home, enabled its members to do the occasion ample justice. It was a curious sight, however, to behold these descendants of the old pilgrim fathers celebrating a Thanksgiving day within full view of Virginia, the land of Secesh, and the “mother of statesmen,” but they came from their far-off homes as the defenders of the stars and stripes, and we honor them as friends and loyal citizens, while we despise the traitors who have dishonored that flag and rendered necessary the presence of an armed soldiery upon the soil of Washington County.”

     It was indeed a ‘big thing’ as the boys termed it.  The weather was splendid, with clear skies and moderate temperatures.  “The air was filled with shouts and emulations of mirth.”  Mule races, baseball games, and a greased pig chase made the day memorable.  Photographer George Crosby of Marlboro,Mass., had his photography studio in full swing, providing many soldiers the opportunity to have a likeness made and sent to loved ones waiting back home.  The evening was topped off with a dance in which ladies from the town of Williamsport were encouraged to attend.  Of course there were plenty of turkeys; many provided by the vigilant folks back home in Massachusetts.  Edwin Rice of the band, (pictured left) wrote to his sister:

“Thanksgiving passed off very well with us.  The stuff which was sent to the Band from Marlboro we took downtown to a hotel and put some more with it and had a first rate dinner.  We had the Adjt., (Bradlee) Capt. Pratt of Co E, Lieut. Frost, Co E, Lieut. Richardson of Co G.  The Lieut. Col. and Chaplain were invited but could not be present.  We bought all the extras besides what was sent to us, and we had to pay a dollar a plate for what there was there, 24 of us.  As there was nothing said about the price, we paid the bill and took away what was not eaten.”

The Westboro Transcript reported from a correspondent’s letter home: 

“Turkeys and chickens graced every mess pan and to give you something of an idea of the extent of our feasting I will state that Co. F. had 22 turkeys and 14 chickens, these were all stuffed and cooked by our neighbors of Williamsport.  This I think is about a fair sample of the whole, though Co. E of Roxbury was more fortunate than the rest of us in having had an excellent dinner all ready for the table brought to them by some of their friends in Roxbury; the weight of the whole I believe was about 1500 pounds.”

Chaplain Gaylord, (pictured right) an eloquent orator, preached a sermon on temperance to those who would attend, then a baseball game kicked off the festivities.  Teams were made up of three men selected from each company.  The right wing played the left wing, a member of Company K boasting in a letter home before the game,  that the left wing was sure to win.  I’m not sure which team won this particular match but the game must have been a hoot to watch.

In  a previous baseball game the officers of the regiment divided into two teams and played against each other.  Private John B. Noyes reported: “Col. Batchelder (left) tumbled over several times in dodging the ball which was well aimed at him.”  Batchelder commanded the regiment when Col. Leonard was away at Headquarters.  Noyes also mentions Adjt. Bradlee’s propensity for ‘lying’ which was evident even on the playing field.  Bradlee tried to convince Batchelder he’d struck out at bat, when he clearly had not.   After the ball game the boys had a mule race which was reported to be a success.

Private Noyes relates how he spent the day:  

  “And now for Thanksgiving.  Of course it was a holiday.  Some spent it one way, some another.  Co. E. had a dinner at the Globe, for their friends at home sent them Turkeys, plum puddings &c.  Other companies fared differently.  In my company one mess dined together down town.  No others of that mess could get out of the lines on passes.  Never the less by hook, or by crook four of our mess dined together at the Eagle.  Six others in 3 different parties got out of the lines & rendezvoused at Parker’s.  I was one.  We had the parlor of the establishment which was the front 2nd story room, the gayest looking room I have yet seen in Md. We invited in one of our men who was stationed at the Eagle on guard.  We had no cranberry sauce.  That was because we had plenty of others such as peach, apple & pear; for one of the Co. had cranberry sauce in his box which came from home a couple of hours before dinner time.  I did’nt have the folks at home at the table; that was impossible, we however made ourselves at home, if we could not bring you to us.  A roast turkey & chicken, a la Massachusetts graced the board, into which we soon made inroads with fixed knives and forks.  Floating island succeeded the main staple of the dinner.  To that home made pudding & mince pies.  We could not proceed to the sardines and nuts we had at hand, but turned our attention to, - dulce est despere in loco – champagne, and cigars.  After dinner we sauntered round the streets, and finally five of us rode up to camp in a hack !!  and were landed at our tents.  Perhaps others may have had as good a dinner as I did, but they did not drive up to camp in that luxurious style.” 

     Noyes said his party arrived in camp in time to watch the greased pig chase.  Several members of the regiment chipped in and bought a small Maryland greyhound pig which was shaved and greased with animal fat.  A crowd of laughing spectators gathered on the parade ground “with an anticipation of an hour’s fun” as private Clarence Bell recalled.  At the word ‘go’ the pig was turned loose and the eager contestants followed. The race had hardly begun when a crafty Englishman of Company D charged in front of the crowd and seized the little piglet by the hind legs and lifted the squealing animal off the ground for all to see.  It was over all too soon; the winner had filled his hands with flour before stepping up to the starting line.  It was a sure thing for the Briton.   Many protested, but the Englishman loved an argument, his only handicap as private Bell remembers is that with the piglet tucked under one arm, he only had one arm with which to gesticulate.  There being no set rules in a pig race the winner was allowed to keep the prize more for his superior wit than his skill.  And so the race was a disappointment.

     Dress parade followed the greased pig chase, then dinner time, but of course everyone had already feasted on turkey.  In the evening came the ball for which the dance platform had been constructed.  A small sprinkling of ladies from Williamsport attended; a very small sprinkling indeed, in fact only six ladies attended.  “There were very few girls in Williamsport,” wrote Noyes.  But as he concluded, “The ball did not amount to a great deal, though it well rounded off a very pleasant day.”

   Wishing all who read this a Happy Thanksgiving.

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