The Case of the Missing Turkey – Thanksgiving 1861

Throughout the encampments built upon the ridge tops and within the deep swales surrounding the Union capital of Washington, DC, soldiers sat down to an often improvised Thanksgiving feast. For days prior to November 28, 1861, soldiers eagerly awaited the mail and crowded into Washington’s Express offices.

Commemorated across many Northern states prior to the Civil War, Thanksgiving 1861 created an opportunity to stop and reflect on the past months events. Two years later, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday.

In this first autumn at war, nearly every train pulling into the city that November were full of packages and boxes with clothing, supplies, but especially food. Family and friends across the North shipped off necessities and delicacies alike to their Union soldiers.

A depot of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad at Washington, DC (NARA)

In the encampment of the 96th Pennsylvania, called Camp Pottsville, the regiment’s adjutant awaited like the rest. “It looks a little dubious whether we will have the pleasure of putting that turkey upon our mahogany on Thanksgiving Day,” wrote Mathias Edgar Richards, in a letter written to his sister on November 21. Richards had apparently been promised a Thanksgiving package from his family back in eastern Pennsylvania.

His doubt came from the human crush he witnessed at the Adams Express office in the nation’s capital. “You almost have to fight they say before you can get your packages,” he wrote. “No matter, if we have not the turkey we will ‘make believe’ we are eating turkey.”

Thanksgiving came and went in the regiment’s temporary home two miles from Alexandria, Virginia, and there was no sight of Adjutant Richard’s turkey. It was a dreary day to give thanks. “It rained a little about noon,” wrote a corporal in Company G. In Company B of Pine Grove, Captain Peter Filbert had a “quarrel with the officer of the day,” after which another officer threatened to court martial anyone who disobeyed his commands.

The following day, the regiment packed up and moved into a new campground close to Four Mile Run, north and west of Alexandria. They called it Camp Franklin.

Alexandria, Virginia with Union Army encampments, 1861 (LOC)

Adjutant Richards decided, as the bird still refused to make an appearance, to “adjourn Thanksgiving dinner until the turkey comes.” They waited. And waited.

On December 10, Adjutant Richards wrote home again to his sister to note that “I have not received ‘that’ box yet.” By this time, he and his messmates did not seem interested in the turkey, other than for their amusement in the struggle to find the package.

“By the bye, that turkey will be nice and tender when it does come, and nobody will burst a blood vessel in the attempt to carve it,” he said jokingly. The package apparently had been lost in a new surge of packages pouring into war-time Washington that now had close to 100,000 Union soldiers encamped in a wide arc around the city.

“The fact is there is such a rush of trunks, boxes, and bundles that all the warehouses of the Express Co. are overcrowded and piled upon each other to such an extent that it is difficult to pick out anything,” he wrote.

His search went on, and in the meantime Adjutant Richards busied himself with the duties of his position. He wrote daily reports on the health of the regiment and recorded the daily roll call. The unit began training in earnest, now including their firearms. Daily drills by squad, company, regiment, and brigade were now common.

And still the ordeal of the missing Thanksgiving turkey went on. Then on December 11, “that” package arrived.

“Everything was in good condition except the turkey, which had become moldy,” Richards wrote to his father. Amusingly, he added, “I sent it down to an Englishman in one of our Companies who seems always hungry and he actually ate the whole turkey mold and all – clean. The mold was pretty thick in some places, too.”

Richards and his fellow officers were astonished that he survived and in seemingly perfect health. The anonymous “Englishman” sarcastically remarked that “it was the best meal since [I] crossed the Atlantic.”

This was the same soldier that Richards claimed had undertaken a substantial feat earlier in their encampment. “We sent the same man last week with the bread wagon, and between here and Alexandria about 3 ½ miles he ate 9 loaves before they stopped him,” he noted, before writing: “Small children are not safe in his neighborhood.”

Bringing supplies to winter quarters (NYPL)

Adjutant Richards’ missing turkey became part of the legend of the regiment, one that entertained the officers of the 96th Pennsylvania for the rest of the war and for years afterward.

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