Thanksgiving at Camp Vermont, Just Outside Washington
November 23, 1862. In the summer of 1862, when President Lincoln called for 300,000 nine-months men, William Hale Foster, a young machinist who had worked at the gun factory in Windsor, Vermont, answered the call and enlisted in the 12th Vermont Regiment. Mustered in at Brattleboro in October, Foster and his comrades soon found themselves in Northern Virginia, helping defend Washington, DC. By late November, they were settling in for a few weeks beside a creek south of Alexandria, in a place they called “Camp Vermont.” There they built “houses” of stone, wood, and canvas, to protect themselves from the November rains. Although Lincoln would not declare a uniform national date for Thanksgiving until 1863, the last Thursday in November was a well-established tradition. In letters to his wife, Foster articulated the mood in camp that week.
Camp Vt. Nov 24th 1862
Ever Dear Maria
. . . We have been very busy all day on our house. Two or three days more of good weather will finish it so that we can move in. We have got the cook’s house all done except covering, including a large fire place to cook in. Thanksgiving has really begun here in this company. There arrived here tonight from West Windsor . . . one barrel and boxes besides from other places. The boxes from W.W. were about the size of boot boxes so you may guess there was something for somebody. The boys in this tent got a large quantity, so I guess I shall have something for Thanksgiving as they are very generous. I will try and name a few things that came to friends. . . . There was a half cheese, four or five pounds of butter, about two gal. of applesauce, a baked chicken, a lot of small cakes and one large one, about three pints of butternut meats, six pounds of Maple sugar, a few chestnuts and a number of other little things too numerous to mention. As far as I have heard it all came through without hurting the least thing. . .
. . . A few moments after I put up my pen last night the order came to get ready to march as soon as possible .. . . The 13th, 14th, and 15th [Regiments] were ordered to march and did start about 10 last night. We were ordered to get ready as Col. B[lunt] might conclude to have the 12th go when he got back. He did not order us out and I do not think he will at present. It commenced raining about the time the regiments started. It did not rain very hard but it rained . . . all night. We were thankful that we had our tents to sleep in instead of being on the march. Where the troops have gone I do not know — probably towards Manassas but I must close this in order to get it into the mail and I guess you had rather have a short letter than none at all. Hoping you will have a good Thanksgiving as possible in my absence. I subscribe myself your loving husband
Camp Vt. Va Nov 27
Ever dear Maria
It is Thanksgiving evening. Nearly all our regiment are out on picket. They went this morning. I was left behind because they thought I could do more good here at work on our house. . . . I have wished several times today that I could step in and see you getting dinner all together. I do not care so much about it on account of the dinner as I do to see the loved ones about the home circle. There is not one in that circle but what I would give the best Thanksgiving dinner I ever saw for the privilege of shaking by the hand or imprinting a kiss of friendship or love upon a smiling upturned face. When I get home we will have a Thanksgiving together whether we have anything to eat or not. It will be such a Thanksgiving as we never passed together and I hope we never shall pass again. That is I hope we shall pass thousands just as happy as that will be, but I hope we shall not have to be separated nine months to bring them about.
Foster had not told Maria that, in fact, he was excused from picket duty because of illness. He would soon be sent to a military hospital, and then discharged from the Army in February 1863.
William Foster lived to share many more Thanksgiving dinners with Maria, until her death in 1905. He died in 1922, leaving behind many children and grandchildren.
– Submitted by Carrie Brown, Independent Scholar, Curator, and Consultant. Dr. Brown gratefully acknowledges the heirs of William Hale Foster, Bonnie Stewart, and Peter Laren for providing access to his letters.