Although Thanksgiving Day did not become a national holiday until President Lincoln proclaimed it so in 1863, the holiday had been celebrated for decades in a majority of the states, most commonly on the fourth Thursday in November. And so it was a common thing for the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac to try as best they could to celebrate the day.
All yearned to supplement their regular diet of hardtack and salt pork. Some visited the sutler and spent a good portion of their meager funds for canned or dessicated fruit, or a treat of cookies or cake. Others foraged for something, anything, to add to their stew pot, often against orders. But the most fortunate ones were those who had received a wooden box from loved ones at home filled with a variety of nutritious foods and sweet confections.
According to Lt. Samuel Fiske, the Fourteenth Connecticut planned their Thanksgiving feast with military precision. Four captains were chosen to supervise the preparations. First, because there was so little cash available, they raided the commissary for anything they could trade with local farmers. Then they commandeered a barge and, along with an eager detail of enlisted men, crossed to the eastern side of the Potomac where they traded their goods for turkeys, chickens, and beef.
Unfortunately, the barge ran aground during the return crossing. The detail spent a cold night in the middle of the river and the feast was delayed until Friday. The meats were roasted plain, without even salt or pepper, in an oven taken by force from the sutler. And as usual, the officers consumed the bulk of the food, while the leftovers went to the enlisted men, who made a large pot of soup—a definite improvement in their diet, if only for a day, but certainly no feast.
Fiction Connection: In An Eye for Glory I expanded and dramatized this Thanksgiving caper to provide a lighter scene between the hard times at Bolivar and Belle Plain and the tragic battle of Fredericksburg.