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.
Private Noyes relates how he spent the day:
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.