BY World's Editorials Writers
Thursday, November 22, 2012
11/22/12 at 4:50 AM
Officially, this is America's 149th Thanksgiving as a national holiday. We know from our history books, however, that this traditional day of thanks reaches back much further.
In 1621, the Pilgrims at Plymouth celebrated a bountiful harvest alongside the Native American Wampanoags. In 1789, President George Washington proclaimed a day of thanks for the new constitutional government, the same one that in 1863 teetered on the edge of extinction. Yet, in 1862, a year before President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving an official national holiday, 25 states and three territories already celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday.
The reverence with which the holiday was held was never more apparent than in the letters that many Union soldiers wrote home around the time of the holiday in 1862. The emotions wrought by the deprivations of war and their mutual longing for home flowed from soldiers' pens as they prepared for one of the deadliest battles of the four-year war.
Do not suppose that because I have not answered your letter before that I have forgot you.... The truth is I have been so busy that I could not find time. We were sent out scouting last week.... Oh I dread these terrible marches. They take hold of me awfully.
I have been about half sick for three days and if we are sent scouting tomorrow it will use me up. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, a day that I have always been taught to respect and observe, but tomorrow, God alone knows where I shall be. Perhaps on the battlefield.
- Union Capt. Charles E. A. Bartlett
Bartlett did not see action the following day, Nov. 27, 1862, but within two weeks his Company K of the 6th Regiment of Massachusetts would fight alongside 106,000 of his Union brothers at Fredericksburg, Va., reportedly one of the largest engagements of troops in the war and one of the most lopsided of the great battles.
The fierce three-day battle that started Dec. 13 took the lives of 1,284 Union soldiers and wounded 9,600 more. Although the 72,500 Confederate troops, led by Gen. Robert E. Lee, prevailed, they also lost 608 men and had 4,116 wounded.
This is the first Thanksgiving day that I ever spent away from home. I can picture in my mind how you looked sitting around the table. I keep a hoping and so time passes quickly by. It is noon before we know it and then night.
Please give my love to all the friends. I think of you all often and want to see you and have a good long talk. I should enjoy it so. Good Bye.
- Union Pvt. George W. Harwood
The homesick farm boy wrote that simple Thanksgiving day message to his family back in Needham, Mass. Harwood had spent the day at Camp Forbes in Falmouth Va., not knowing when his Company C, in the 44th Massachusetts Regiment, would be summoned.
Harwood survived Fredericksburg. His letter, along with those from several soldiers who perished, are featured in a current exhibit at the Needham County Historical Society.
Our fare consisted of salt pork and hard tack, seasoned by listening to (Massachusetts) Gov. John A. Andrew's Thanksgiving proclamation, which was read to us by our adjutant but that did not make us relish our ration any better. It was the driest Thanksgiving that I ever had.
- Union Pvt. John A. Fay, Brooks Station, Mass.
For the young soldier James Himrod, the day was far better than most that he had seen.
"As for myself I enjoyed myself on Thanksgiving Day very much," Himrod said in a Nov. 30 letter to his niece. "There were 18 of us joined together in getting up a dinner as much like home Thanksgiving dinner as we could muster under the circumstances. And, we were successful, beyond my expectations." Himrod spoke of a menu that included roast beef and chicken pot pie but no turkey, apple and raisin pies, and bread pudding.
But even 150 years later it is the letter from quartermaster Henry J. Howe from New York that brings home the meaning of Thanksgiving and the importance of family and friends on this American holiday.
Dear Brother and Sister,
Today is "Thanksgiving Day." I wonder what you all are doing about dinner time. I suppose you will be eating chicken pie or something of the sort. I expected to eat my dinner in New York State instead of in Virginia. The day is very fine and clear. I hope you have as beautiful a day in Otisco. Everything is quiet down here.
What do you think my Thanksgiving dinner will be? I will tell you. It will be fresh beef soup and crackers. I really hope that I may be able to eat Thanksgiving dinner for the year 1863 around my father's table in the old kitchen in Otisco.
Howe's wish did not come true. He did not leave the war until September 1864, but the war never left him. For the balance of his long life he gathered with his family and friends each year, as we, in 2012, will do, to celebrate a cherished day of thanks on this beloved American holiday.