Voice from the Past – Thanksgiving Sensations

Happy Thanksgiving!
The following account of an 1861 Thanksgiving dinner amongst the Union army comes from a letter written by Wilder Dwight of the 2nd Massachusettes Infantry:

Camp near Seneca, November 20, 1861.
I have just come in from a walk through the camp at night. The cooks are busy over to-morrow’s dinner. Picking and dressing turkeys, and preparing the large, glowing ovens for roasting. The irregularity is overlooked, in view of the occasion. The preparations are so vast that the dinner will be cooking nearly all night. I shall be able to give you the statistics to-morrow. To-night I only know that it looks as if an army were to be fed with turkey, and another one with plum-pudding. The scene is a busy and gay one. I have also been to see my sick charges. Incongruous seenes for such close association! but’we happen to have both pictures at once in camp. Still, I think we grow better, and have only thankfulness and hope for to-morrow.

Thursday, half past two o’clock.

Letter-writing after Thanksgiving dinner! What an absurdity! Yet here goes. I must rise on the wings of imagination, invoking also the exhilaration of champagne, to give you a glance at our day. The morning rose red and glorious. The camp was gay, and the men all jovial and willing. Last evening I published an order reciting the Governor’s Thanksgiving order, and General Banks’s order, and telling the Second Massachusetts that “Thanksgiving day would be observed and kept by the officers and men of this regiment. There will be religious services at ten o’clock, to be followed by the usual Thanksgiving dinner. It is hoped that the officers and men of the regiment will unite in reviving all the memories and associations which belong to the time-honored home festival of New England, and in public thanksgiving and praise for all the blessings which have followed them since they left the homes which this festival recalls.”

Such was my programme. At ten o’clock the sun was bright, and the morning like summer. We had a service. The reading of the Proclamation, the singing of praise by a full, deep-toned choir, a jubilant, patriotic awakening, exhortation from our chaplain, then a gay march by the band, which followed the benediction, hastened the steps of the companies as they returned to their quarters. I then immediately got into the saddle and rode off to see the Adjutant and Captains Savage and Mudge, whom I sent yesterday to the hospitable shelter of houses up at Darnestown. Found them all well and happy, and recovering. Came back, visited the kitchens. Turkeys and plum-pudding smoked and fragranced from them. Tables were built by some of the companies. A New England turkey-shooting was going on. Companies B and C bore off the crown of victory and the turkeys. I then went over to Colonel Andrews. Then I came back to half an hour’s business, and so to dinner. A brisk, appetizing morning. But before I speak of our own dinner, let me give you the statistics, the startling statistics of our regimental dinner. Hear it: —

Turkeys. 95 10½ lbs. Weight 997½ lbs
Geese. 76 8½ lbs. Weight 646 lbs
Chickens. 73 Weight 164¼ lbs
Plum-Puddings. 95 Weight 1179 lbs.

In other words, about half a ton of turkey, nearly as much goose and chicken, and more than half a ton of plum-pudding. There’s richness, as Mr. Squeers would say. The statement shows at once, presumed digestion, appetite, and courage. It is hopeful, — or will it prove the rashness of despair? But then our own dinner, included in this general statement, was as follows: –
A twenty-pound turkey, etc., and a vast plum-pudding, and no end of apple-pies, etc. I ought to add, that many of the companies had their nuts and raisins and apples. What luxury! We sat down, a small party, — the Chaplain, the Doctor, the Chaplain of the Twelfth, and myself. Tony, or Antonio Olivadoes, our ambitions and clever cook, was radiant over the fire. He had spent most of the night in culinary constancy to his puddings and pies. He invoked attention to his turkey. “Well now, Major, considerin’ the want o’ conveniences and fixins, I think it ‘ll taste kind o’ good”; and so it did. I opened a bottle of champagne, a present, and gave my toast, ‘Luck and absent friends.’ So we drank it, and it cheered our somewhat narrow circle. The men are now playing ball, and it will not be long before dress-parade and company duty will replace our Thanksgiving sensations. Never mind, we’ve had a good time, and a good time under a few difficulties, which, I think, only sweetened our pleasure. Such is our Thanksgiving chronicle. I like to sit and fancy your home dinner, and to preside, in imagination, over the boiled turkey at the foot of the table. I hope our next Thanksgiving we may be all together; but if not, at least we can hope to be all as thankful as now. Tony, the cook, just puts his head into my tent, with conscious achievement in his eye: “Well, Major how you like de dinner? I was up all night, — five minutes chopping wood, five minutes cooking, — I did hope it would be nice.” I have just tickled his vanity, and he goes.
I think I may have a letter from you to-night, but this goes by the mail now. God bless you all at home, and good by.

: Dwight, Wilder. “Letter from Wilder Dwight, November 20, 1861,” in Life and Letters of Wilder Dwight : Lieut.-Col. Second Mass. Inf. Vols (Boston: Ticknor & Co., 1891).

Image Credit: Harpers Weekly, November 27, 1858.

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