Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving 1862 in the Defenses of Washington Near Chain Bridge

This week as we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving, I wanted to offer readers a brief look into how Union soldiers defending the nation's capital spent the holiday in 1862.  One hundred and fifty years ago, the area around the strategic crossing of the Potomac at Chain Bridge was home to several regiments.  Camp life offered little excitement, and the men spent their days drilling, performing picket duty, or working on the forts and earthworks.  Thanksgiving provided the soldiers with a welcome respite from the daily grind in front of Washington.

The 118th New York, nicknamed the "Adirondack Regiment," was composed of three-year volunteers from Clinton, Essex, and Warren Counties.  Organized in Plattsburgh, the regiment left for Maryland in early September 1862, but by November 1862 had moved to the area around Ft. Ethan Allen and Chain Bridge.  Governor Edwin Morgan of New York proclaimed Thursday, November 27, as a day of thanksgiving, and the men of the 118th New York took the time to observe the holiday like their friends and family back home.

The soldiers surely were thankful for the "[f]ine and warm" weather on the twenty-seventh.  (Cunningham 34.)  Only the week before the New Yorkers had endured cold, rainy conditions that left 1st Lieutenant John Cunningham "quite wet and 'shivery.'"  (Cunningham 34.)  The regimental chaplain led the boys of the 118th in a service of thanksgiving.  Cunningham and the others also enjoyed a relatively hearty meal.  As the young officer wrote in his diary, "[f]or dinner had bread, salt beef, fried bread, pickles, coffee, cheese and more bread, with bread and molasses for dessert."  (Cunningham 34.)  The entire day left Cunningham "happy and thankful."  (Cunningham 34.)

"Thanksgiving in Camp," Harper's Weekly, Nov. 29, 1862, by Winslow Homer (courtesy of Wikipedia)
The 127th Pennsylvania, known popularly as the "Dauhpin County Regiment," consisted of nine-month volunteers from Dauphin, Lebanon, and Adams Counties.  The regiment headed to Washington in August 1862 and soon took up a position not far from Ft. Ethan Allen and Chain Bridge.  In October, the regiment moved briefly to another spot about three miles from Ft. Ethan Allen, before receiving orders to return closer to the fort.  Col. William Jennings of the 127th christened this place "Camp Dauphin."  According to a history of the 127th Pennsylvania, the camp "was pleasantly located in a young peach orchard, on level, or slightly sloping ground, and was an ideal spot." (History of the 127th Regiment 154.)  The soldiers thought that this location would serve as their home for the winter and began to construct log cabins there.

Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin, like his counterpart from New York, issued a proclamation declaring November 27th as a day of thanksgiving.  On November 26, Lt. Col. Hiram C. Alleman issued a special order "directing" that the next day "should be observed in strict accordance with the Proclamation of Gov. Curtin."  (Pa. Daily Telegraph, Nov. 29, 1862.)  The order was read to the men at evening dress parade. 

Rev. John Gregg, the regimental chaplain, described how the regiment began Thanksgiving Day in a letter to the Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph of Harrisburg on November 27:
We had a ceremony this morning at 10 o'clock, which was not only interesting, but highly appropriate to the occasion.  The regiment was formed on parade ground, and the Colonel designated company B to escort the colors.  The regiment was then formed into a hollow square, the Governor's Proclamation was read by [the adjutant], and a prayer suitable to the occasion was offered by the Chaplain.  After singing the doxology, and executing some military manoeuvres, both the religious and military exercises closed.  (Pa. Daily Telegraph, Nov. 29, 1862.)
Gregg added that the regiment "had neither company or battalion drill during the day, and the boys enjoyed themselves to their heart's content."  (Pa. Daily Telegraph, Nov. 29, 1862.)  Whether liquor was consumed, the reverend did not say!  Gregg took the opportunity to tell readers that "[t]he health of the men is improving and the boys generally seem to be in good spirits."  He was also "glad to inform the friends of religion, that most of those who profess faith in Christ, have formed themselves into a Christian body. . . ."  (Pa. Daily Telegraph, Nov. 29, 1862.)  Gregg "hope[d] that much good will be accomplished by the united efforts of the members of this body, composed as it is of members of the many Christian denominations represented in this regiment."  (Pa. Daily Telegraph, Nov. 29, 1862.) 

The 127th Pennsylvania would soon leave the defenses of Washington and march to join the Army of the Potomac along the Rappahannock.  As part of the Second Corps, the regiment fought at the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13 and suffered more than a hundred casualties.

These recollections of Thanksgiving in camp near Chain Bridge demonstrate the central role that religion played in observing the holiday 150 years ago.  (The separation of church and state seemed a bit less of a concern then too.)  Of course, the soldiers also looked on the day as an opportunity to relax and indulge, just as we do today.  And so, as we prepare to enjoy turkey with all the fixings, I'd like to wish all of my readers a Happy Thanksgiving!

Editorial Note to Readers

I just wanted to let everyone know that due to an increasingly intense and unpredictable work schedule between now and Christmas, the frequency of posts is about to drop.  I'll make my best efforts to get something up in a few weeks, starting with a follow-up on that Chain Bridge blockhouse story.


Committee of the Regimental Ass'n. of the 127th Pa., History of the 127th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers (1902); John L. Cunningham, Three Years with the Adirondack Regiment (1920); New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center, "118th Infantry Regiment: Civil War: Adirondack Regiment;"  N.Y. Times, Oct. 2, 1862; Pa. Daily Telegraph, Nov. 29, 1862; George E. Reed (ed.), Pennsylvania Archives, Fourth Series, Vol. VIII: Papers of the Governors, 1858-1871 (1902); Richard A. Sauers, Advance the Colors: Pennsylvania Civil War Battle Flags, Vol. II (1991).


Walk Forrest Walk said...

I wish you & you family a very Happy Thanksgiving. I made my first walk since surgery (July 27) and therapy on left foot. 2.2 miles is not a lot but I made a promise to myself that my goal was to be walking by Thanksgiving. One step at a time. So enjoy your post. Again, Happy Thanksgiving Ron.
"Jim from Michigan"

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks, Jim and same to you! And glad to hear you are making progress! Thanks for reading.

Unknown said...

This is a great Blog. I was thinking about writing something for my blog about what my ancestor might have experienced during their first Thanksgiving in the army, but the time just slipped away before I could do it. You covered the holiday superbly.
Thank you,

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks, Bill! I am glad you liked the post. I always like to write the Thanksgiving ones. Let me know about your blog--I'd be interested in checking it out.