Cannonball

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Bay State soldiers celebrate Thanksgiving

Col. Edward W. Hinks commanded the 19th Massachusetts Infantry, which was among the scores of Union regiments that traveled through York County to Washington, D.C. in the autumn of 1861 as the new Eastern Theater Federal army coalesced. The regiment would stay in service for three years, losing some 300 men.
My friend Tyrone Cornbower from work is a fellow member of the York Civil War Round Table. He is a Civil War reenactor who plays the fife at local events. Ty tipped me off a few weeks ago to an unusual Thanksgiving story that I thought I would share with the Cannonball readership. This event took place in November 1861, the first Thanksgiving away from home for these soldiers, and they tried to make it as pleasant an experience as they possibly could.
This anecdote is taken from regimental history of the 19th Massachusetts Infantry, a regiment that earlier in the year had traveled through York County on the Northern Central Railway to Baltimore (on August 30), before being taken to Washington, D.C. The soldiers had “tasted the elephant” at the disastrous Battle of Ball’s Bluff in October, and now, as Thanksgiving approached, they were in the process of constructing Camp Benton near Poolesville, Maryland.


“Work upon this hospital was hurried, in order that it might be in readiness for a ball on Thanksgiving night. It was the first Thanksgiving the regiment had spent in camp and a jollification was planned. As Col. Hinks was very popular with the people of Baltimore, where he had been stationed with the Eighth Massachusetts Regiment during the three months service, invitations were sent to the Baltimorians to attend, and between thirty and forty ladies traveled the seventy-five miles necessary to be present.
The space between the uprights of the frame of the building had been arranged so that it corresponded with the flies of the officers tents. The building was unfinished when Thanksgiving arrived, so the skeleton frame was temporarily covered with the tent flies and the space floored over, making a large and commodious ball room
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During Thanksgiving Day there were many sports inaugurated. There was a sack race, shinning the greased pole, on which was place a bottle of “Commissary” and a ten dollar bill; a greased pig race and many other sports, in all of which Sergt. “Billy” McGinnis was the central figure. After about ten feet of the greased pole had been wiped on the trousers of some half dozen of the men, the articles on the tops were awarded to Sergt. McGinnis, who had climbed the highest.
The “ball room” was not ready for occupancy until very late in the afternoon, and, as a consequence, the dinner, which was to be served in it, was quite cold when the time came to eat it and most of the men were shivering and disgruntled. In the evening, the regimental band furnished the music for dancing, and the fete was contiriued until a late hour, “taps” being suspended by special order.
There were not enough ladies to go round, however, and some of the officers had to be content with other officers for partners, some from the Twentieth Massachusetts having been invited. During the evening, Sergt. McGinnis was called in and danced a jig, receiving great applause.
A few days after Thanksgiving had passed, the boys had a very jolly auction sale of the things which had been left over.”
Waitt, Ernest L., History of the Nineteenth Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1861-1865, pages 38-39.