By some measure, the first “official” Thanksgiving occurred in 1863. In accordance with a proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln, the holiday fell on the last Thursday of November. This first official national observance took place on November 26. The date did not pass without notice within the ranks of Federal troops on Morris and Folly Islands, or other places in the Department of the South.
With several New England regiments on hand, traditions ran strong. And those traditions brought thoughts of home, even with the spartan conditions of the combat zone. The 3rd New Hampshire’s diarist recorded:
Thanksgiving Day arrived, 26 Nov. How the time had sped! Would we ever go home? Would we be in New Hampshire next Thanksgiving? We hoped so; and long before that, too. The day opened cool. Beans for breakfast! How’s that, ye homestayers? Did ye get better in New Hampshire? The bakery did its part, and yielded us soft bread; and we had hard-tack pudding, duff, etc., for dinner. Everything on the island was paraded at :30 p.m., the Third New Hampshire holding the place of honor, on the right…. The procession was by regiment closed in mass, and in close columns by brigades, and was headed by the Fourth New Hampshire Band. The Band played “Old Hundred” as Gen. Terry and Staff rode up. Then Chaplain Willis of the Seventh New Hampshire prayed. How we wished our own Chaplain had been present to participate! The Band played “Pleyel’s Hymn.” Benediction and dismissal followed. The parade was an excellent one, and all felt well satisfied with it. Capt. Randlett gave a dinner to the regiment, and the colored troops had a greased pole. Pay-rolls were being signed that day.
Other New Englanders were less festive. The 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery’s men on the north end of Morris Island did not hold any parades or listen to much music:
Thanksgiving Day, but no home-circle, no family gatherings, no dear church worship, no overflowing store, no ample table, no domestic gratulations and sweet reunions – only the tented field, the fiery siege, the vigilant watch, the privations, severities and perils of war; but thankful we all were that we had a country too noble to be sacrificed to slavery, and that we had hearts to defend it.
The 127th New York mixed in some other activities with Thanksgiving:
The best shots in the regiment at 2 p.m. indulged in target shooting for cash prizes of $10.00, $7.00, $5.00, etc., and also for a $9.00 pair of boots, and some excellent shooting was done. Private Shotwell, of F, ranking as the best shot. This, with the issue of whiskey and quinine ration after supper, constituted the men’s observance of the day.
Yes, one might say Private Shotwell was destined to shoot well.
Recently departed from Morris Island, the 7th Connecticut Infantry celebrated on St. Helena Island. The day started cold but turned pleasant by noon. After an address by the regimental commander Colonel Joseph Hawley, reading of the President’s proclamation, and a sermon by the chaplain, the regiment broke into companies for dinner.
There were soups, roast pig, roast beef, boiled salt beef, all sorts of vegetables and fruit, puddings and coffee. Then came games, running, leaping, sack and wheel-barrow races, a boat race for prizes and music by the regimental band.
Further south, the 97th Pennsylvania at Fernandina, Florida observed the holiday along with some of the local civilians. The proceedings took somewhat a patriotic flavor:
The troops and citizens were assembled, at 10 a.m., in front of the Baptist Church, where a platform had been erected…. The services were opened by introductory remarks, and followed by an appropriate prayer, by Rev. William Kennedy, of the United States Christian Commission. Music by the string band, recently organized, at Fort Clinch, principally by the members of Company A and other companies. Song, “America,” sung by the ladies of the assemblage. Reading proclamation and accompanying remarks…. Song, “Star Spangled Banner.” Remarks, by Edward Cavendy, acting volunteer Lieutenant, commanding gunboat Flambeau. … Song “Red, White and Blue.” …. Song “Hail Columbia.” … Song “Old Hundred.” Closing remarks and benediction, by Rev. Mr. Beard, of the U.S. Christian Commission. The exercises were most interesting. All the remarks were well timed and forcibly eloquent and enthusiastically received by the assembly. During the proceedings, the best order prevailed. The string band, which interspersed the exercises, also gave some beautiful performances in the afternoon, at Col. Guss’ head-quarters, and several serenades in the evening.
Thus the third Thanksgiving Day of the Civil War passed for the men of the Department of the South.
(Citations from Daniel Eldredge, The Third New Hampshire and All About It, Boston: E.B. Stillings and Company, 1893, page 409-10; Frederic Denison, Shot and Shell: The Third Rhode Island Heavy Artillery Regiment in the Rebellion, 1861-1865, Providence, R.I.: Third Rhode Island Artillery Veterans Association, 1879, page 204; Franklin McGrath, The History of the 127th New York Volunteers “Monitors”, unpublished, page 82; Stephen Walkley, History of the Seventh Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, not published, page 116; Isaiah Price, The History of the Ninety-Seventh Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry during the War of the Rebellion, 1861-65, Philadelphia, 1875, page 222.)