I’ve always been fascinated with stories of how soldiers marked Thanksgiving and Christmas. Those being holidays with religious backdrops, lacking the civic tones seen with some other holidays, the observances tend to move individuals away from soldierly thoughts. Thanksgiving, in particular, asks the soldier to think about what he (or now days, she) is thankful for. Away from home; in deplorable conditions; performing difficult, if not dangerous, work… what’s to be thankful for? But in my experience, soldiers always find a way to reconcile the holiday with their situation.
Consider the Federal troops garrisoning coastal outposts in South Carolina and Georgia in the autumn of 1862. They were posted to some backwater theater. More of their comrades fell victim to disease than bullets. They’d suffered through a summer and fall of setbacks in the field. And the winter months promised no respite. But men of the posted to Fort Pulaski found a way to reconcile their situation with the observance of Thanksgiving that November, as the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery historian recalled:
The day of national Thanksgiving – first made national by President Lincoln – one of the good, unforeseen results of the war, was joyfully hailed in the army as it was at our homes. For its observance, and to enjoy a day of relaxation from the stern duties of war, a program was arranged for a “Grand Thanksgiving Fete and Festival, given by the Officers of the Garrison of Fort Pulaski, Ga., Nov. 27, 1862.”
Invitations were sent to different parts of the Department, and especially to Hilton Head. The day was propitious and cool. Three steamers conveying guests from Hilton Head reached the fort at noon, and found a cheering reception. At the entrance of the fort was an arch with the emblazoned word “Welcome.”….
Over the sally-port was the name “Mitchell,” suitably draped, and near by the names “Brannan” and “Terry.”….
Over the officers’ quarters and the doors of the casemates were mottoes, wreaths, arches, and stars; and the walls were festooned. All needful preparations had been made for “a feast of reason and flow of soul.”
In addition to the feast, the garrison conducted “festive exercises, amusements, and enjoyments“:
Target Practice. – three competitors from each company. Distance 200 yards. Best string in three shots each. First prize – Gold Medal, valued at $25. Second prize – Silver Medal, valued at $15. Third prize – Bronze Medal, valued at $10.
Rowing Match. – Distance one mile around a stake-boat and return. First prize – Purse of $10. Second prize – purse of $5. Third prize – Purse of $2.50.
Hurdle Sack Race. – 100 yards and return; over three hurdles 50 yards apart and 18 inches high. First prize – Purse of $10. Second prize – Purse of $5.
Wheelbarrow Race. – Competitors blindfolded, trundling a wheelbarrow once across Terre-plein. First prize – Purse of $10. Second prize – Purse of $5.
Meal Feat. – Exclusively for Contrabands; hands tied behind the back, and to seize with the teeth a $5 gold piece dropped in a tub of meal. Six competitors to be allowed five minutes each to accomplish the feat. Prize, $5.
Greased Polk. – Pole to be 15 feet high. Prize, $10.
Greased Pig. – To be seized and held by the tail. Three competitors from each company. Prize, pig.
Burlesque Dress Parade. – Each Company will be allowed to enter an equal number of competitors for each prize.
The chronicler mentioned the most applause came for the sack race and meal feat. “When one of the wolly-headed contraband boys raised the $5 from the flour, the cheers rent the air.” He also observed, “The mock dress-parade was inimitably comic”
The festivities included a proper dress parade, in proper uniform, by the garrison. And later that evening a ball. The 3rd Rhode Island Minstrel Band and 48th New York band played at intervals throughout the day and into the evening.
… The officer’s table, near a hundred feet in length, was on the terre-plein. Company G [3rd Rhode Island] had a superb table in their quarters – four casemates – lighted with four chandeliers; while the walls were decorated with wreaths and illuminated with mottoes; “Maj. Gen. Burnside, the R.I. hero;” “Maj.Gen. George B. McClellan (likeness) Commander-in-Chief of the U.S.A.;” “Colonel N.W. Brown. – the father of the Regiment – we mourn his loss;” “3rd R.I.H.A.., Co. G., Slocum Avengers;” “Lieut. Blanding, the star of the R.I. Boys,” “Gov. Sprague (seal of the State).” It may be guessed that the spoils of Bluffton aided in setting out the tables and furnishing the quarters. The piano as well as the minstrel band performed for the “light fantastic toe.” Oyster suppers, pies, lemonade – if nothing more spirited – kept up the evening cheer and rounded out the rare Thanksgiving-day.
But there was more than just feasting and festivities for Thanksgiving Day that year. While the soldiers were reconciling their thankfulness with service far removed from their homes, there were many experiencing a Thanksgiving for the first time. Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton, the Military Governor of the Department of the South, issued a proclamation in that regard. And that proclamation deserves separate, focused treatment… which I’ll save for a post of its own. For now, let us consider all the activities of that day in 1862 as the soldiers observed Thanksgiving.
And let us also consider us, now 154 years removed from those festivities, the place where the soldiers celebrated. We can visit that place today and walk the battlefield that was turned into garrison. And we can look upon the places where these games and the feast took place. We can be thankful that Fort Pulaski survived Hurricane Matthew, though requiring repairs, for future generations.
(Citations from 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, pages 125-6.)