Of Note: Trust Your Gut: A Civil War Soldier’s Thanksgiving

This guest post is by Andrea J. Briggs, an archivist in the Manuscript Division.

Thanksgiving Day 1864, “dawned beautifully upon the civilians and soldiers,” wrote Lieutenant Samuel E. Nichols of the Union Army’s 37th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers. “Starting wildly from our slumbers at the unearthly sound of ‘Reveille’… we found ourselves with an appetite adequate for the occasion and fully equal to that usually demanded on that auspicious and chicken stuffed day. Breakfast passed with a reasonable consumption of food adapted to the day, reserving our main and reliable forces of capacity for the terrible onset upon turkeydom in general at about 2 o’clock p.m.”[1]

First page of letter Dear Folks at Home, I will tell you how I passed Thanksgiving, with the hope that I can get the same indulgence from you. The morning of the 24th day of November, 1864, dawned beautifully upon the civilians and soldiers occupying that lovely country seat, Winchester, Va. Starting wildly from our slumbers at the unearthly sound of “Reveille,” which is sounded within a few rods of these headquarters, we found ourselves with an appetite adequate for

First page of letter, Samuel E. Nichols to his family, November 27, 1864. Samuel E. Nichols Correspondence, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Campaign life was often unpredictable, especially for soldiers on the move – and Nichols understood this well. Still encamped at Winchester, Virginia, two months after the Union victory there in September 1864, Nichols and his fellow soldiers welcomed the relative peace that followed such a battle, but knew one should never get too comfortable.

In his letter home, Nichols recounted that the regiment attended to their duties as usual throughout the morning, but “something seemed to whisper to [him] all the forenoon, ‘Sam, you better get your dinner early or you may lose it.’ You may rest assured,” Nichols insisted, “that I always hearken to such messages from the spirit land.”

This spark of intuition, perhaps aided by Nichols’ growing appetite after a light breakfast and “a reasonable amount of beer,” led him to call for dinner an hour earlier than planned. “At one o’clock, therefore, I dined in company with three of my companions… we all ate a sufficiency and had a good time.”

Head and shoulders portrait . Printed at bottom: SAMUEL EDMUND NICHOLS. DURING THE WAR

Portrait of Samuel E. Nichols, circa 1861-1865, from “Your Soldier Boy Samuel,” arranged by Charles Sterling Underhill, 1929. Samuel E. Nichols Correspondence, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

But no sooner had Nichols finished eating than the commanding officer of the regiment received an order to have his command “in readiness to move at a moment’s notice,” and then another, not five minutes later, to move the entire regiment out. “In about ten minutes we were moving at quick step,” Nichols wrote. “We marched nearly east, without halting till 6 o’clock, when we received orders to countermarch and report to Winchester, which we did, reaching there about 9 o’clock and some later.”

“We were hungry, I tell you,” Nichols remarked. It was a good thing that Nichols had trusted his gut – and his instincts – earlier in the day, or else he and his friends might have missed their Thanksgiving feast entirely.

You can read more about Samuel Edmund Nichols’s experiences during the Civil War in the Manuscript Division’s collection of his correspondence where he documents his regiment’s military operations and imparts his observations on the war and army life with a keen eye.

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[1] Letter, Samuel E. Nichols to his family, November 27, 1864. Samuel E. Nichols Correspondence, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

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