Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving in Washington, 1861

While Thanksgiving was not yet universally observed throughout the country, it was widely observed in many Northern states on November 28, 1861.  As Union soldiers in camps along both sides of the Potomac enjoyed Thanksgiving feasts in camp, Washingtonians, including the First Family, marked the holiday at home with family and friends.  (For a great description of Thanksgiving in several Washington area army camps in 1861, please see this posting on All Quiet Along the Potomac.)

Although Thanksgiving was not a Federal holiday, President Lincoln issued a proclamation on November 27, 1861 giving federal workers the next day off to participate in Washington and Georgetown's observance of Thanksgiving:  "The Municipal authorities of Washington and Georgetown in this District, have appointed tomorrow, the 28th, instant, as a day of thanksgiving, the several Departments will on that occasion be closed, in order that officers of the government may partake in the Ceremonies."

The weather on Thanksgiving was unusually warm, though rainy. Most Washington businesses, including the Centre Market, shut down for the Thanksgiving observance.   The Centre Market did stay open late the previous evening for last minute shoppers procuring items to place on their dinner table.  Horatio Nelson Taft, a Patent Office examiner, noted in his diary that turkeys were very scarce and "we shall have rather slim Thanksgiving without one."  The going price for turkeys was 14 cents per pound in Washington markets.
The Washington National Republican did note that while most businessmen and "churchgoing people" of Washington suspended commercial activity, "we could not fail in noticing the fact that all the restaurants were in full blast, dealing out their poisonous drugs to soldiers and citizens... as large numbers of them were seen drunk on the public streets."  Ironically enough, The Washington National Republican published an edition on Thanksgiving day while the Washington Evening Star chose not to publish a paper that day in observance of Thanksgiving.

At the Executive Mansion, the Lincolns hosted a Thanksgiving meal with several guests, including the President's longtime friend Joshua Speed and his wife who were visiting from Kentucky.  Other dinner guests at the White House included General Sumner, General Banks, Assistant Secretary of State Frederick Seward, and Colonel Ramsney, the Commandant of the Washington Arsenal (now Ft. McNair).  A guest described champagne being served with the meal, but noted that Lincoln, as was customary for him, did not partake in the champagne.

Thanksgiving Proclamation Issued by the Mayor of Washington and published in The Washington National Republican. (Library of congress)

This photograph of Lincoln was taken sometime between March and June 1861.  Lincoln signed the photograph for Fanny Speed, the wife of his close friend Joshua Speed, and presented it her on Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 1861 when the Speeds dined with the Lincolns.

Clinton, Catherine.  Mrs. Lincoln:  A Life. Harper Collins:  2003.
Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861, 1865, (available online from Library of Congress)
The New York Herald, November 29, 1861
Washington National Republican, November 25, 1861.
Washington National Republican, November 29, 1861.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Company K, 23rd New York Infantry Procures Thanksgiving Dinner

Late November 1861 found Company K of the 23rd New York Infantry encamped on Upton's Hill near Seven Corners. The 23rd was organized in Elmira, New York in May 1861 and was nicknamed the "Southern Tier Rifles," due to the part of  New York state from which it hailed.  The regiment arrived in Washington on July 7th and initially camped at Meridian Hill.  In August, the 23rd was assigned picket and reconnaissance duties in the areas of Falls Church and Ball's Cross Roads (Ballston).  Company K soon saw its first action during a skirmishes at Ball's Cross Roads  and on Munson's Hill in late August.  Although the Confederates pulled back in force to Centreville at the end of September, small skirmishes still were regularly occurring in the area

Just before Thanksgiving, Company K was sent on a reconnoitering expedition.  The men of Company K "skirred the country round" for miles in search of rebels to capture, but did not find any. Although their primary quarry remained elusive, these New Yorkers were "determined that their steel should taste blood."  To that end, they carried out "a number of brilliant and successful, though bloody charges, upon the farm yards and hen roosts" before returning to camp.  As a result of this engagement, "a large number of feathered rebels were captured."

Needless to say, Company K had all the fowls, including turkeys, that they needed on Thanksgiving Day.

Members of the 23rd New York Infantry pose in camp. (Library of Congress)

Company K would serve in the Defenses of Washington, D.C. until March 1862 when it took to the field.  The 123rd was mustered out of service on May 22, 1863 after having participated in a number of major battles including 2nd Bull Run, South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.

Hughes, William E.  The Civil War Papers of Lt. Colonel Newton. Colby.
Washington National Republican, November 30, 1861

Friday, November 18, 2011

Nov 20, 1861:Thousands Attend Grand Review at Baileys Crossroads

One of the most memorable events to occur in Northern Virginia during the Civil War was not a battle, but a display of military pageantry on a scale never seen before in North America. General George B. McClellan's 70,000 man Grand Review of the Army of the Potomac occurred at the then rural Baileys Crossroads 150 years ago this Sunday (November 20th).

McClellan, a superb organizer and the hope of the nation, was charged with molding a green Union army that had been routed at First Bull Run into a cohesive fighting force. As he whipped the beaten army into a respectable fighting force, McClellan held several military reviews in the fall of 1861 culminating with the famed Grand Review.

McClellan observing his army's Grand Review on November 20, 1861.  "Little Mac," who certainly knew how to make an entrance, arrived to the review accompanied by  a 1,800 strong cavalry escort.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

U.S. Marine Corps Barracks

Today's 236th birthday of the  U.S. Marine Corps is an auspicious time to examine the role that the detachment at the U.S. Marine Corps Barracks in Washington played during the Civil War.  Ironically, the Marines' most famous action during the "recent unpleasantries," actually occurred two years before the war's outbreak  when Marines summoned from Washington put down John Brown's Harpers Ferry insurrection.

Harper's Weekly June 1861 engraving of "The United States Marines and Marine Barracks at Washington."

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Armistice Day and Civil War Veterans

Ninety years ago, on Armistice Day, November 11, 1921,  thousands  gathered in Washington and Arlington National Cemetery for the  the funeral procession and burial of an unknown American soldier "known but to God" who had fallen in France during the Great War.  Veterans of three  wars-- the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and the World War-- marched in the procession.  Gray-haired veterans of the Union and Confederate armies now marched in honor of their sons and grandsons who had fallen in the War to End All Wars..

Joseph Lonsway, a 85 year-old Civil War veteran and then oldest living Medal of Honor recipient, with General John J. Pershing at the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery on Armistice Day 1921.