Saturday, December 26, 2009

Egg Nog Parties in Hancock, Maryland

There is little mention of the Christmas Holidays in the winter camp of the 13th Mass in 1861.  Boxes of delicacies from home were likely sent to the soldiers at the front but it wasn't a "big thing" in camp like Thanksgiving, which had been celebrated November 22nd with day-long festivities.  Instead the soldiers' letters home talk of the skirmishing along the Potomac River and their efforts to keep warm in the cold, snowy weather.  Stonewall Jackson was making things lively with two expeditions sent from Winchester, Va. to destroy Dam No. 5 of the C & O Canal.  (December 7-8; and Dec. 18-22).  The only real hints of Christmas and New Years celebrations come from the resourceful John B. Noyes, who made his way into the high society of the town of Hancock, Maryland.  

photo: The town of Hancock, Maryland looks much today as it did in the 1860's.  This photo was given me by Mr. Wayne Keefer, secretary and Board of Trustees member of the Hancock Historical Society.

November 23rd, companies A, B, E & H, were detached from the rest of the regiment (thereby missing Stonewall's excitement at Dam No. 5).  They left camp at Williamsport and marched (in two days) 25 miles west to the town of Hancock, Maryland on the banks of the Potomac.  Here they stayed through January 2nd.  The little town occupies the thinnest part of the state and the borders of Pennsylvania and Virginia are just a couple of miles apart.  Noyes estimated the population at 800 inhabitants.  "This is one of the busiest places in this part of Maryland and is the centre of business for Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia for many miles around. On the opposite side of the Potomac runs the Baltimore and Ohio RR of which so much is said in the papers."  So wrote John Noyes.

The neat appearance of the 13th Mass soldiers brought them unique opportunities.  They were fastidious about their hygiene and dress.  "Houses are open to us which are closed to other soldiers," Noyes wrote.

The Henderson family in particular, welcomed Noyes and others into their home.  Through them he met the Brosius family, (the sister of Mrs. H.) and Miss Kirke of Pennsylvania.  The Henderson's owned several prosperous  stores in the region; a large one in Hancock, one in Virginia, and one in Pennsylvania.  Light duty and relaxed regulations allowed 24 year old Noyes and other members of Company B, Private Harry Sanborn, age 22, and private Joseph Chandler, age 32, specifically, to share in the local holiday festivities which seemed to be in full swing.   Egg nog parties were the entertainment of choice.  Noyes described the Henderson family to his brother:

"I have no better friends anywhere than those there made. [Hancock]   Indeed I was almost a part of Mr. Henderson's family.  His wife and children treated me as a relation, and I exerted myself to make them as happy as they made me.  At their house I made many friends, at whose houses I was always welcome to eat, meet & sleep.  There I made taffy, egg nog, and myself at home.  Even their children, 2, 6, & 8 years old respectively, were excellent company, much better than that of some young ladies I have met in the course of my life.  At egg nog parties what games of blind man's buff* I have engaged in with what pretty girls and promising young men.  Brother Chandler of Lexington used to be with me a great deal and Sanborn whom I introduced to you at Fort Independence.  These kind people, who loved to be hospitable, told me they didn't know how they should get along when we were gone.  I know the young ones will miss me very much. At Kirke's in Pennsylvania, where I used to take tea occasionally I used to hear the piano, strange music to my ears.  Addie Kirke was an excellent performer & got up excellent suppers.  Nor did she send me home on my 3 1/2 mile walk without a glass of excellent wine."

Maryland Fare
It might be fun to take a look at the types of foods served on these occasions.  In another letter John describes for his Aunt Rebecca, the fare seen at the boards of private families in Maryland.

"Apple butter is very common sauce here.  It may be quaker apple sauce, but of this I am doubtful.  It is boiled a good many hours & will keep for years.  Quince and Peach butter probably derive their name from a like mode of cooking. Apple sauce is different from apple butter, so I understand; and peach butter is different from peach preserve, which last is here invariably eaten with the most delicious cream.  Citron+ is also eaten in the same manner & it is truly delicious.

Sausage is sausage the country over, probably so called from the fact that sour sage is used in its make. Now sausage is not hog pudding, here called "pudding," although it looks just like it. looks just like sausage, but tastes a great deal better, being made of the liver of the hog.  High livers justly prefer this pudding to the common sausage.

Our meats are not so common here as with us at home.  This may be from the fact that people here live more on what they raise on their farms.  Still you may get a round of beef, if you busy yourself about it.  Chicken is the staple here.  You may have roast or fried.  You will have it for breakfast, dinner or supper.  Happen in as you may you are welcomed to chicken.  Ham is also found here now adays fresh pork fried.  Thus at Mr. Kirke's in Pennsylvania I always have for high tea, fresh pork and fried chicken.  Buckwheats are an institution here.  They are eaten at any and every meal.  [with butter or syrup].

I do not know whether squashes are rare here, or whether it is or is not turnip time.  At any rate I haven't seen any squash or turnip here or even cranberry.  Instead you would very likely see hominy.  "Hominy," you will say "I declare!"  No, not what we call hominy but hulled corn.  For it does not pay for hulled corn venders to travel in these sparsely settled regions.  Hominy is eaten without sugar or milk and may answer to our samp.**  You would also see "slaugh," that is something made up of cabbage, cut up fine, and served hot or cold, an excellent condiment extremely common here.  Pickles honey, and blackberry jam might be on the table also.  You might perhaps also see Dutch Pudding which I have heard spoken of often.

In the Eve'g. while calling on a lady or gentleman you are likely to be treated to apples and ginger bread and chestnuts & a glass of currant wine or blackbury cordial."

A Description of Some Holiday Festivities
A few excerpts from letters home describe the incredibly charmed life Noyes led while at Hancock.

He wrote December 27th, to his Father:
"A Merry Christmas to you all, or, as they say here "a Christmas gift."  I was invited to Mr. Henderson's Christmas Eve & assisted in their raising a Christmas tree. Being requested urgently to remain one night, so as to hear high mass at the Catholic Church, which last I wanted to do very much, I accepted the invitation and slept on a feather bed for the first time since leaving home.  I found no difficulty in going to sleep I assure you. Breakfast at the house of course.  In the afternoon with Chandler and the orderly I called on the Kirke's, which calling included tea.  A pleasant time was had there but no egg nog, the sine qua non of Christmas.  Tonight I may have some."

He wrote his sister Martha on January 4th:
"My last days in Hancock were passed quite as pleasantly as the first.  In fact I may be considered as having had a six weeks vacation, with just enough to do to keep my hand in.  Toward the last we had no drill or dress parade.  In the morning we answered to our names and looked out for the guard detail.  During the day we stayed in quarters, or discussed the news at the various stores about town.  Little did we seek the eve'g roll call if we wanted to be elsewhere than in quarters. Little did we care for "taps" either.  Thursday Evening the 31st, New Year's Eve, was the occasion for a taffy party at Mr. Hendersons.  I had a hand in making the egg nog myself, as also the taffy, and it was none the worse for that.  We played different games, among them blind man's buff and crooked pear tree.  At Eleven o'clock I was obliged to leave to stand guard from eleven to one at Post 5, a bridge which leads out of the town.  My friends watched the old year out and the new year in.  Seated before a comfortable wood fire I deemed it no hardship to be on guard from eleven o'clock at night Dec. 31st '61 to 1 AM Jan'y. 1, '62.

Here abouts a great many people see the new year in especially the Methodists who have what is called a watch meeting.  A great many people were about the town, & I was scarcely left alone at my post for a moment.  The New Year rose warm to greet us; mud in the streets ere long to be dried up by a driving wind.  A happy new year you were probably wishing all your friends, I wished "New Year's gift" to those I wished to catch.  I didn't know but Mothers was "a Merry new year" to me far away from home in order to balance the "happy Christmas" she sent me in her last letter.  I had a happy Christmas and a merry new year.  The new year merry in spite of the fact that I was to leave warm friends on the next day.  I came off guard at 9 AM and laid my plans for the spending of the day.  I proposed to dine in Pennsylvania, at Kirke's, sup in Maryland & Pennsylvania at Brosius's & close the day at Henderson's; but as fate would have it I received a note from Mrs. Henderson requesting Sanborn, Chandler and my humble self to take "high tea" with her.  This invitation was not to be disregarded.  I accordingly was obliged to decline the pressing invitations I received to dine in Penn. and reached town at 3 o'clock just in time to go to "high tea."

High tea here is equivalent to a tall dinner, and at the table of course all the luxuries of all seasons were bountifully dispensed.  Lieut. Johnson of the 39th Ill. & Mr. Miller the telegraph operator over the river were at dinner, who afterwards enlightened us somewhats on military movements.  I intended to spend the Eve'g. at the Brosius's, but as Miss Mary and Johnny Brosius were at Henderson's I concluded to accept Mrs. Henderson's invitation to spend the Eve'g. there.  Accordingly I went to the barracks and packed my valuables in readiness to march at 4 o'clock the next morning.  I found at Mrs. Henderson's on my return, Army [Armistead] and Bob Zwingle, Alph Byers, J. Brosius, Misses Brosius, Kirke, Thomas, and the two Miss Byers, "right pretty girls I reckon."  With Chandler and Sanborn we formed a very cozy party.  Great was the fun we had playing blind man's buff.  Right excellent was the egg nog we drank.  One of the ladies gave me a Philippine almond. Neither she nor I could get caught at the entertainment til as we were leaving I innocently offered her my arm which she took.  "Philippine" I of course remarked.++

The party broke up about midnight.  I afterward went to Henderson's store where Zwingle sleeps and had my cigar case filled up to last for the morrow.  There is no end to Hancock hospitality so far as I am concerned."

On Jan. 8th, John wrote his brother Charles:
"Vacation ends and mine came to a sudden close on January 2d, & I had scarcely time to allow my friend Armistead Zwingle, who had been with me at Henderson's last egg nog party, to fill my cigar case with the best cigars in Hancock, celebrated for its good cigars, at 12 1/2 PM of January 1st, and to get a few hours sleep, before I went on board a Canal boat about 10 AM January 2d, bound for Williamsport."

This concludes a rare look inside the private homes and private celebrations of Christmas & New Years as experienced by a few lucky soldiers with some of the leading citizens of Hancock, Maryland in the winter of 1861-62.  Here's wishing all who read this a "New Year's Gift!"

*Blind man's bluff or Blind man's buff is a children's game played in a spacious enclosed area, such as a large room, in which one player, designated as It, is either blindfolded or closes his or her eyes. The It player gropes around blindly and attempts to touch the other players without being able to see them, while the other players scatter and try to avoid and hide from the It player, sometimes teasing him/her to make  him/her change direction.  The game is a variant of tag.

+Citron is a yellow thick skinned fruit resembling a lime or lemon but larger and less acid.  The candied rind is used as a confection in fruit-cake.

**Samp is dried corn kernals stamped and chopped until broken but not as fine as meal.

++Philopena or (French) Philippine
Noyes is referencing a game here.  "Philippine" is the popular name for a nut with two kernals or the joined kernals of nuts.  It was also a game originating in Germany.  When a young lady cracking almonds chances to find two kernals in one shell, she shares them with a beau; and whichever calls out 'philopena' or 'philippine,' on their next meeting is entitled to receive a present from the other.


  1. I enjoyed reading this post on the 13th Massachusetts in Hancock,Md. I use to live in Cumberland and would have to travel past Hancock and it is a nice little town.

  2. Brad - What a GREAT post! Maybe I missed it: what was Noyes's rank? It's amazing - from my own research into other soldiers - how officers had some nice "in town" accomodations/billets during the war. And equally nice families to host them, sometimes. And what an inetersting contrast in foodstuffs from a Mass. man used to buying at the market and Maryland families used to raising their own. Terrific! Jim

  3. Jim, officers yes, but this was the 13th Mass. "Better to go as a private in the 13th, than as an officer in some other regiments" so it had been stated by several of the men in the ranks.

    Harvard educated Noyes, was a private in Company B. He missed out on a corporal's commission when at Ft. Independence, he was trying to get an officer's commission in a new organization. That company was never formed, as the state fulfillment of troops was acquired before the new organization could be formed. Noyes went to the front a private.

    His father was George Noyes, a professor of divinity at Harvard, whose translation of the book of Job is still in print. Noyes eventually gained a commission in the 28th Mass, an Irish Unit.