Not long ago I was searching files of New York papers for 1864, when my
eye caught the headline, “Thanksgiving Dinner for the Army.” I had
shared that feast. The words brought me a vision of a cavalry brigade
in winter quarters before Petersburg; of the three-miles-distant and dim
steeples of the besieged city; of rows and rows of canvas-covered huts
sheltering the infantry corps that stretched interminably away toward
the Army of the James. I fancied I could hear again the great guns of
“Fort Hell” infrequently punctuating the far-away picket-firing.
Rain, rain, and rain! How it fell on red Virginia that November of ’64!
How it wore away alertness! The infantry-men—whom we used to call
“doughboys,” for there was always a pretended feud between the riders
and the trudgers—often seemed going to sleep in the night in their
rain-filled holes far beyond the breastworks, each with its little mound
of earth thrown up toward the beleaguered town. Their night-firing would
slacken almost to cessation for many minutes together. But after the
b-o-o-oom of a great gun it became brisker usually; often so much so as
to suggest that some of Lee’s ragged brigades, their march silenced by
the rain, had pierced our fore-front again, and were “gobbling up” our
boys on picket, and flinging up new rifle-pits on the acres reclaimed
for a night and a day for the tottering Confederacy.
Sometimes the _crack-a-rac-a-rack_ would die down to a slow fire of
dropping shots, and the forts seemed sleeping; and patter, patter,
patter on the veteran canvas we heard the rain, rain, rain, not unlike
the roll of steady musketry very far away.
I think I sit again beside Charley Wilson, my sick “buddy,” and hear his
uneven breathing through all the stamping of the rows of wet horses on
their corduroy floor roofed with leaky pine brush.
That _squ-ush, squ-ush_ is the sound of the stable-guard’s boots as he
paces slowly through the mud, to and fro, with the rain rattling on his
glazed poncho and streaming corded hat. Sometimes he stops to listen to
a frantic brawling of the wagon-train mules, sometimes to the reviving
picket-firing. It crackles up to animation for causes that we can but
guess; then dies down, never to silence, but warns, warns, as the
distant glow of the sky above a volcano warns of the huge waiting forces
that give it forth.
I think I hear Barney Donahoe pulling our latch-string that November
night when we first heard of the great Thanksgiving dinner that was
being collected in New York for the army.
“Byes, did yez hear phwat Sergeant Cunningham was tellin’ av the
Thanksgivin’ turkeys that’s comin’?”
“Come in out of the rain, Barney,” says Charley, feebly.
“Faith, I wish I dar’, but it’s meself is on shtable-guard. Bedad, it’s
a rale fire ye’ve got. Divil a better has ould Jimmy himself (our
colonel). Ye’ve heard tell of the turkeys, then, and the pois?”
“Yes. Bully for the folks at home!” says Charley. “The notion of
turkey next Thursday has done me good already. I was thinking I’d go to
hospital to-morrow, but now I guess I won’t.”
“Hoshpital! Kape clear av the hoshpital, Char-les, dear. Sure, they’d
cut a man’s leg off behind the ears av him for to cure him av
“Is it going to rain all night, Barney?”
“It is, bad ’cess to it; and to-morrow and the day afther, I’m thinkin’.
The blackness av night is outside; be jabers! you could cut it like turf
with a shpade! If it wasn’t for the ould fort flamin’ out wanst in a
whoile, I’d be thinkin’ I’d never an oi in my head, barrin’ the fires in
the tints far an’ near gives a bit of dimness to the dark. Phwat time
“Quarter to twelve, Barney.”
“Troth, then, the relief will be soon coming. I must be thramping the
mud av Virginia to save the Union. Good-night, byes. I come to give
yez the good word. Kape your heart light an’ aisy, Char-les, dear.
D’ye moind the turkeys and the pois? Faith, it’s meself that has the
taste for thim dainties!”
“I don’t believe I’ll be able to eat a mite of the Thanksgiving,” says
Charley, as we hear Barney _squ-ush_ away; “but just to see the brown on
a real old brown home turkey will do me a heap of good.”
“You’ll be all right by Thursday, Charley, I guess; won’t you? It’s
only Sunday night now.”
Of course I cannot remember the very words of that talk in the night, so
many years ago. But the coming of Barney I recollect well, and the
general drift of what was said.
Charley turned on his bed of hay-covered poles, and I put my hand under
his gray blanket to feel if his legs were well covered by the long
overcoat he lay in. Then I tucked the blanket well in about his feet
and shoulders, pulled his poncho again to its full length over him, and
sat on a cracker-box looking at our fire for a long time, while the rain
spattered through the canvas in spray.
My “buddy” Charley, the most popular boy of Company I, was of my own
age,—seventeen,—though the rolls gave us a year more each, by way of
compliance with the law of enlistment. From a Pennsylvania farm in the
hills he came forth to the field early in that black fall of ’64,
strong, tall, and merry, fit to ride for the nation’s life,—a mighty
wielder of an axe, “bold, cautious, true, and my loving comrade.”
We were “the kids” to Company I. To “buddy” with Charley I gave up my
share of the hut I had helped to build as old Bader’s “pard.” Then the
“kids” set about the construction of a new residence, which stood
farther from the parade ground than any hut in the row except the big
cabin of “old Brownie,” the “greasy cook,” who called us to “bean—oh!”
with so resonant a shout, and majestically served out our rations of
pork, “salt horse,” coffee long-boiled and sickeningly sweet, hardtack,
and the daily loaf of a singularly despondent-looking bread.
My “buddy” and I slept on opposite sides of our winter residence. The
bedsteads were made of poles laid lengthwise and lifted about two feet
from the ground. These were covered thinly with hay from the bales that
were regularly delivered for horse-fodder. There was a space of about
two feet between our bedsteads, and under them we kept our saddles and
Our floor was of earth, with a few flour-barrel staves and cracker-box
sides laid down for rugs. We had each an easy-chair in the form of a
cracker-box, besides a stout soap-box for guests. Our carbines and
sabres hung crossed on pegs over the mantel-piece, above our Bibles and
the precious daguerreotypes of the dear folks at home. When we happened
to have enough wood for a bright fire, we felt much snugger than you
Before ever that dark November began, Charley had been suffering from
one of those wasting diseases that so often clung to and carried off the
strongest men of both armies. Sharing the soldiers’ inveterate prejudice
against hospitals attended by young doctors, who, the men believed, were
addicted to much surgery for the sake of practice, my poor “buddy”
strove to do his regular duties. He paraded with the sick before the
regimental doctor as seldom as possible. He was favored by the
sergeants and helped in every way by the men, and so continued to stay
with the company at that wet season when drill and parades were
The idea of a Thanksgiving dinner for half a million men by sea and land
fascinated Charley’s imagination, and cheered him mightily. But I could
not see that his strength increased, as he often alleged.
“Ned, you bet I’ll be on hand when them turkeys are served out,” he
would say. “You won’t need to carry my Thanksgiving dinner up from
Brownie’s. Say, ain’t it bully for the folks at home to be giving us a
Thanksgiving like this? Turkeys, sausages, mince-pies! They say there’s
going to be apples and celery for all hands!”
“S’pose you’ll be able to eat, Charley?”
“Able! Of course I’ll be able! I’ll be just as spry as you be on
Thanksgiving. See if I don’t carry my own turkey all right. Yes, by
gum, if it weighs twenty pounds!”
“There won’t be a turkey apiece.”
“No, eh? Well, that’s what I figure on. Half a turkey, anyhow. Got to
be; besides chickens, hams, sausages, and all that kind of fixin’s. You
heard what Bill Sylvester’s girl wrote from Philamadink-a-daisy-oh? No,
eh? Well, he come in a-purpose to read me the letter. Says there’s
going to be three or four hundred thousand turkeys, besides them
fixin’s! Sherman’s boys can’t get any; they’re marched too far away, out
of reach. The Shenandoah boys’ll get some, and Butler’s crowd, and us
chaps, and the blockading squadrons. Bill’s girl says so. We’ll get
the whole lot between us. Four hundred thousand turkeys! Of course
there’ll be a turkey apiece; there’s got to be, if there’s any sense in
arithmetic. Oh, I’ll be choosin’ between breast-meat and hind-legs on
Thanksgiving,—you bet your sweet life on that!”
This expectation that there would be a turkey apiece was not shared by
Company I; but no one denied it in Charley’s hearing. The boy held it
as sick people often do fantastic notions, and all fell into the humor
of strengthening the reasoning on which he went.
It was clear that no appetite for turkey moved my poor “buddy,” but that
his brain was busy with the “whole-turkey-a-piece” idea as one
significant of the immense liberality of the folks at home, and their
absorbing interest in the army.
“Where’s there any nation that ever was that would get to work and fix
up four hundred thousand turkeys for the boys?” he often remarked, with
I have often wondered why “Bill Sylvester’s girl” gave that flourishing
account of the preparations for our Thanksgiving dinner. It was only on
searching the newspaper files recently that I surmised her sources of
information. Newspapers seldom reached our regiment until they were
several weeks old, and then they were not much read, at least by me.
Now I know how enthusiastic the papers of November, ’64, were on the
great feast for the army.
For instance, on the morning of that Thanksgiving day, the 24th of
November, the New York Tribune said editorially:—
“Forty thousand turkeys, eighty thousand turkeys, one hundred and sixty
thousand turkeys, nobody knows how many turkeys have been sent to our
soldiers. Such masses of breast-meat and such mountains of stuffing;
drumsticks enough to fit out three or four Grand Armies, a perfect
promontory of pope’s noses, a mighty aggregate of wings. The gifts of
their lordships to the supper which Grangousier spread to welcome
Gargantua were nothing to those which our good people at home send to
their friends in the field; and no doubt every soldier, if his dinner
does not set him thinking too intently of that home, will prove himself
a valiant trencherman.”
Across the vast encampment before Petersburg a biting wind blew that
Thanksgiving day. It came through every cranny of our hut; it bellied
the canvas on one side and tightened it on the other; it pressed flat
down the smoke from a hundred thousand mud chimneys, and swept away so
quickly the little coals which fell on the canvas that they had not time
to burn through.
When I went out towards noon, for perhaps the twentieth time that day,
to learn whether our commissary wagons had returned from City Point with
the turkeys, the muddy parade ground was dotted with groups of shivering
men, all looking anxiously for the feast’s arrival. Officers frequently
came out, to exchange a few cheery words with their men, from the tall,
close hedge of withering pines stuck on end that enclosed the officers’
quarters on the opposite side of the parade ground.
No turkeys at twelve o’clock! None at one! Two, three, four, five
o’clock passed by, and still nothing had been heard of our absent
wagons. Charley was too weak to get out that day, but he cheerfully
scouted the idea that a turkey for each man would not arrive sooner or
The rest of us dined and supped on “commissary.” It was not good
commissary either, for Brownie, the “greasy cook,” had gone on leave to
visit a “doughboy” cousin of the Sixth Corps.
“You’ll have turkey for dinner, boys,” he had said, on serving out
breakfast. “If you’re wanting coffee, Tom can make it.” Thus we had to
dine and sup on the amateur productions of the cook’s mate.
A multitude of woful rumors concerning the absent turkeys flew round
that evening. The “Johnnies,” we heard, had raided round the army, and
captured the fowls! Butler’s colored troops had got all the turkeys,
and had been feeding on fowl for two days! The officers had “gobbled”
the whole consignment for their own use! The whole story of the
Thanksgiving dinner was a newspaper hoax! Nothing was too incredible for
men so bitterly disappointed.
Brownie returned before “lights out” sounded, and reported facetiously
that the “doughboys” he had visited were feeding full of turkey and all
manner of fixings. There were so many wagons waiting at City Point that
the roads round there were blocked for miles. We could not fail to get
our turkeys to-morrow. With this expectation we went, pretty happy, to
“There’ll be a turkey apiece, you’ll see, Ned,” said Charley, in a
confident, weak voice, as I turned in. “We’ll all have a bully
The morrow broke as bleak as the preceding day, and without a sign of
turkey for our brigade. But about twelve o’clock a great shouting came
from the parade ground.
“The turkeys have come!” cried Charley, trying to rise. “Never mind
picking out a big one for me; any one will do. I don’t believe I can
eat a bite, but I want to see it. My ain’t it kind of the folks at
I ran out and found his surmise as to the return of the wagons correct.
They were filing into the enclosure around the quartermaster’s tent.
Nothing but an order that the men should keep to company quarters
prevented the whole regiment helping to unload the delicacies of the
Soon foraging parties went from each company to the quartermaster’s
enclosure. Company I sent six men. They returned, grinning, in about
half an hour, with one box on one man’s shoulders.
It was carried to Sergeant Cunningham’s cabin, the nearest to the parade
ground, the most distant from that of “the kids,” in which Charley lay
waiting. We crowded round the hut with some sinking of enthusiasm.
There was no cover on the box except a bit of cotton in which some of
the consignment had probably been wrapped. Brownie whisked this off,
and those nearest Cunningham’s door saw disclosed—two small turkeys, a
chicken, four rather disorganized pies, two handsome bologna sausages,
and six very red apples.
We were nearly seventy men. The comical side of the case struck the
boys instantly. Their disappointment was so extreme as to be absurd.
There might be two ounces of feast to each, if the whole were equally
All hands laughed; not a man swore. The idea of an equal distribution
seemed to have no place in that company. One proposed that all should
toss up for the lot. Another suggested drawing lots; a third that we
should set the Thanksgiving dinner at one end of the parade ground and
run a race for it, “grab who can.”
At this Barney Donahue spoke up.
“Begorra, yez can race for wan turkey av yez loike. But the other wan
is goin’ to Char-les Wilson!”
There was not a dissenting voice. Charley was altogether the most
popular member of Company I, and every man knew how he had clung to the
turkey apiece idea.
“Never let on a word,” said Sergeant Cunningham. “He’ll think there’s a
turkey for every man!”
The biggest bird, the least demoralized pie, a bologna sausage, and the
whole six apples were placed in the cloth that had covered the box. I
was told to carry the display to my poor “buddy.”
As I marched down the row of tents a tremendous yelling arose from the
crowd round Cunningham’s tent. I turned to look behind. Some man with a
riotous impulse had seized the box and flung its contents in the air
over the thickest of the crowd. Next moment the turkey was seized by
half a dozen hands. As many more helped to tear it to pieces. Barney
Donahoe ran past me with a leg, and two laughing men after him. Those
who secured larger portions took a bite as quickly as possible, and
yielded the rest to clutching hands. The bologna sausage was shared in
like fashion, but I never heard of any one who got a taste of the pies.
“Here’s your turkey, Charley,” said I, entering with my burden.
“Where’s yours, Ned?”
“I’ve got my turkey all right enough at Cunningham’s tent.”
“Didn’t I tell you there’d be a turkey apiece?” he cried gleefully, as I
unrolled the lot. “And sausages, apples, a whole pie—oh, say, ain’t
they bully folks up home!”
“They are,” said I. “I believe we’d have had a bigger Thanksgiving yet
if it wasn’t such a trouble getting it distributed.”
“You’d better believe it! They’d do anything in the world for the
army,” he said, lying back.
“Can’t you eat a bite, buddy?”
“No; I’m not a mite hungry. But I’ll look at it. It won’t spoil before
to-morrow. Then you can share it all out among the boys.”
Looking at the turkey, the sick lad fell asleep. Barney Donahoe softly
opened our door, stooped his head under the lintel, and gazed a few
moments at the quiet face turned to the Thanksgiving turkey. Man after
man followed to gaze on the company’s favorite, and on the fowl which,
they knew, tangibly symbolized to him the immense love of the nation for
the flower of its manhood in the field. Indeed, the people had
forwarded an enormous Thanksgiving feast; but it was impossible to
distribute it evenly, and we were one of the regiments that came short.
Grotesque, that scene? Group after group of hungry, dirty soldiers,
gazing solemnly, lovingly, at a lone brown turkey and a pallid sleeping
boy! Very grotesque. But Charley had his Thanksgiving dinner, and the
men of Company I, perhaps, enjoyed a profounder satisfaction than if
they had feasted more materially.
I never saw Charley after that Thanksgiving day. Before the afternoon
was half gone the doctor sent an ambulance for him, and insisted that he
should go to City Point. By Christmas his wasted body had lain for
three weeks in the red Virginia soil.