A Turkey Apiece by Edward William Thomson
Not long ago I was searching files of New
York papers for 1864, when my eye
caught the headline, "Thanksgiving Dinner
for the Army." I had shared that feast. The
words brought me a vision of a cavalry brigade
in winter quarters before Petersburg; of
the three-miles-distant and dim steeples of the
besieged city; of rows and rows of canvas-covered
huts sheltering the infantry corps that
stretched interminably away toward the Army
of the James. I fancied I could hear again the
great guns of "Fort Hell" infrequently punctuating
the far-away picket-firing.
Rain, rain, and rain! How it fell on red
Virginia that November of '64! How it wore
away alertness! The infantry-men—whom
we used to call "doughboys," for there was
always a pretended feud between the riders and
the trudgers—often seemed going to sleep
in the night in their rain-filled holes far beyond
the breastworks, each with its little mound of
earth thrown up toward the beleaguered town.
Their night-firing would slacken almost to
cessation for many minutes together. But
after the b-o-o-oom of a great gun it became
brisker usually; often so much so as to suggest
that some of Lee's ragged brigades, their march
silenced by the rain, had pierced our fore-front
again, and were "gobbling up" our boys on
picket, and flinging up new rifle-pits on the
acres reclaimed for a night and a day for the
Sometimes the crack-a-rac-a-rack would die
down to a slow fire of dropping shots, and the
forts seemed sleeping; and patter, patter, patter
on the veteran canvas we heard the rain, rain,
rain, not unlike the roll of steady musketry very
I think I sit again beside Charley Wilson, my
sick "buddy," and hear his uneven breathing
through all the stamping of the rows of wet
horses on their corduroy floor roofed with leaky
That squ-ush, squ-ush is the sound of the
stable-guard's boots as he paces slowly through
the mud, to and fro, with the rain rattling on
his glazed poncho and streaming corded hat.
Sometimes he stops to listen to a frantic
brawling of the wagon-train mules, sometimes
to the reviving picket-firing. It crackles up to
animation for causes that we can but guess;
then dies down, never to silence, but warns,
warns, as the distant glow of the sky above a
volcano warns of the huge waiting forces that
give it forth.
I think I hear Barney Donahoe pulling our
latch-string that November night when we first
heard of the great Thanksgiving dinner that
was being collected in New York for the
"Byes, did yez hear phwat Sergeant Cunningham
was tellin' av the Thanksgivin' turkeys
"Come in out of the rain, Barney," says
"Faith, I wish I dar', but it's meself is on
shtable-guard. Bedad, it's a rale fire ye've
got. Divil a better has ould Jimmy himself
(our colonel). Ye've heard tell of the turkeys,
then, and the pois?"
"Yes. Bully for the folks at home!" says
Charley. "The notion of turkey next Thursday
has done me good already. I was thinking I'd
go to hospital to-morrow, but now I guess I
"Hoshpital! Kape clear av the hoshpital,
Char-les, dear. Sure, they'd cut a man's leg
off behind the ears av him for to cure him av
"Is it going to rain all night, Barney?"
"It is, bad 'cess to it; and to-morrow and
the day afther, I'm thinkin'. The blackness
av night is outside; be jabers! you could cut it
like turf with a shpade! If it wasn't for the
ould fort flamin' out wanst in a whoile, I'd be
thinkin' I'd never an oi in my head, barrin' the
fires in the tints far an' near gives a bit of
dimness to the dark. Phwat time is it?"
"Quarter to twelve, Barney."
"Troth, then, the relief will be soon coming.
I must be thramping the mud av Virginia to
save the Union. Good-night, byes. I come to
give yez the good word. Kape your heart light
an' aisy, Char-les, dear. D'ye moind the
turkeys and the pois? Faith, it's meself that
has the taste for thim dainties!"
"I don't believe I'll be able to eat a mite of
the Thanksgiving," says Charley, as we hear
Barney squ-ush away; "but just to see the
brown on a real old brown home turkey will
do me a heap of good."
"You'll be all right by Thursday, Charley, I
guess; won't you? It's only Sunday night
Of course I cannot remember the very words
of that talk in the night, so many years ago.
But the coming of Barney I recollect well, and
the general drift of what was said.
Charley turned on his bed of hay-covered
poles, and I put my hand under his gray blanket
to feel if his legs were well covered by the long
overcoat he lay in. Then I tucked the blanket
well in about his feet and shoulders, pulled his
poncho again to its full length over him, and
sat on a cracker-box looking at our fire for a
long time, while the rain spattered through the
canvas in spray.
My "buddy" Charley, the most popular boy
of Company I, was of my own age,—seventeen,—though
the rolls gave us a year more each, by
way of compliance with the law of enlistment.
From a Pennsylvania farm in the hills he came
forth to the field early in that black fall of '64,
strong, tall, and merry, fit to ride for the nation's
life,—a mighty wielder of an axe, "bold, cautious,
true, and my loving comrade."
We were "the kids" to Company I. To
"buddy" with Charley I gave up my share of
the hut I had helped to build as old Bader's
"pard." Then the "kids" set about the construction
of a new residence, which stood
farther from the parade ground than any hut
in the row except the big cabin of "old
Brownie," the "greasy cook," who called us
to "bean—oh!" with so resonant a shout,
and majestically served out our rations of pork,
"salt horse," coffee long-boiled and sickeningly
sweet, hardtack, and the daily loaf of a singularly
My "buddy" and I slept on opposite sides
of our winter residence. The bedsteads were
made of poles laid lengthwise and lifted about
two feet from the ground. These were covered
thinly with hay from the bales that were regularly
delivered for horse-fodder. There was a
space of about two feet between bedsteads,
and under them we kept our saddles and saddlecloths.
Our floor was of earth, with a few flour-barrel
staves and cracker-box sides laid down
for rugs. We had each an easy-chair in the
form of a cracker-box, besides a stout soap-box
for guests. Our carbines and sabres hung
crossed on pegs over the mantel-piece, above
our Bibles and the precious daguerreotypes of
the dear folks at home. When we happened to
have enough wood for a bright fire, we felt
much snugger than you might suppose.
Before ever that dark November began,
Charley had been suffering from one of those
wasting diseases that so often clung to and
carried off the strongest men of both armies.
Sharing the soldiers' inveterate prejudice against
hospitals attended by young doctors, who, the
men believed, were addicted to much surgery for
the sake of practice, my poor "buddy" strove
to do his regular duties. He paraded with the
sick before the regimental doctor as seldom as
possible. He was favored by the sergeants and
helped in every way by the men, and so
continued to stay with the company at that
wet season when drill and parades were
The idea of a Thanksgiving dinner for half a
million men by sea and land fascinated Charley's
imagination, and cheered him mightily. But
I could not see that his strength increased, as
he often alleged.
"Ned, you bet I'll be on hand when them
turkeys are served out," he would say. "You
won't need to carry my Thanksgiving dinner up
from Brownie's. Say, ain't it bully for the folks
at home to be giving us a Thanksgiving like
this? Turkeys, sausages, mince-pies! They
say there's going to be apples and celery for
"S'pose you'll be able to eat, Charley?"
"Able! Of course I'll be able! I'll be just
as spry as you be on Thanksgiving. See if I
don't carry my own turkey all right. Yes, by
gum, if it weighs twenty pounds!"
"There won't be a turkey apiece."
"No, eh? Well, that's what I figure on.
Half a turkey, anyhow. Got to be; besides
chickens, hams, sausages, and all that kind of
fixin's. You heard what Bill Sylvester's girl
wrote from Philamadink-a-daisy-oh? No, eh?
Well, he come in a-purpose to read me the
letter. Says there's going to be three or four
hundred thousand turkeys, besides them fixin's!
Sherman's boys can't get any; they're marched
too far away, out of reach. The Shenandoah boys'll
get some, and Butler's crowd, and us chaps,
and the blockading squadrons. Bill's girl says
so. We'll get the whole lot between us. Four
hundred thousand turkeys! Of course there'll
be a turkey apiece; there's got to be, if there's
any sense in arithmetic. Oh, I'll be choosin'
between breast-meat and hind-legs on Thanksgiving,—you
bet your sweet life on that!"
This expectation that there would be a turkey
a-piece was not shared by Company I; but no
one denied it in Charley's hearing. The boy
held it as sick people often do fantastic notions,
and all fell into the humor of strengthening the
reasoning on which he went.
It was clear that no appetite for turkey
moved my poor "buddy," but that his brain
was busy with the "whole-turkey-a-piece" idea
as one significant of the immense liberality of
the folks at home, and their absorbing interest
in the army.
"Where's there any nation that ever was
that would get to work and fix up four hundred
thousand turkeys for the boys?" he often
remarked, with ecstatic patriotism.
I have often wondered why "Bill Sylvester's
girl" gave that flourishing account of the preparations
for our Thanksgiving dinner. It was
only on searching the newspaper files recently
that I surmised her sources of information.
Newspapers seldom reached our regiment until
they were several weeks old, and then they were
not much read, at least by me. Now I know
how enthusiastic the papers of November, '64,
were on the great feast for the army.
For instance, on the morning of that Thanksgiving
day, the 24th of November, the New
York Tribune said editorially:—
"Forty thousand turkeys, eighty thousand
turkeys, one hundred and sixty thousand turkeys,
nobody knows how many turkeys have been sent
to our soldiers. Such masses of breast-meat and
such mountains of stuffing; drumsticks enough to
fit out three or four Grand Armies, a perfect promontory
of pope's noses, a mighty aggregate of
wings. The gifts of their lordships to the supper
which Grangousier spread to welcome Gargantua
were nothing to those which our good people at
home send to their friends in the field; and no
doubt every soldier, if his dinner does not set him
thinking too intently of that home, will prove himself
a valiant trencherman."
Across the vast encampment before Petersburg
a biting wind blew that Thanksgiving day.
It came through every cranny of our hut; it
bellied the canvas on one side and tightened it
on the other; it pressed flat down the smoke
from a hundred thousand mud chimneys, and
swept away so quickly the little coals which fell
on the canvas that they had not time to burn
When I went out towards noon, for perhaps
the twentieth time that day, to learn whether
our commissary wagons had returned from
City Point with the turkeys, the muddy parade
ground was dotted with groups of shivering
men, all looking anxiously for the feast's arrival.
Officers frequently came out, to exchange a
few cheery words with their men, from the tall,
close hedge of withering pines stuck on end
that enclosed the officers' quarters on the
opposite side of the parade ground.
No turkeys at twelve o'clock! None at one!
Two, three, four, five o'clock passed by, and
still nothing had been heard of our absent
wagons. Charley was too weak to get out
that day, but he cheerfully scouted the idea
that a turkey for each man would not arrive
sooner or later.
The rest of us dined and supped on "commissary."
It was not good commissary either,
for Brownie, the "greasy cook," had gone on
leave to visit a "doughboy" cousin of the Sixth
"You'll have turkey for dinner, boys," he
had said, on serving out breakfast. "If you're
wanting coffee, Tom can make it." Thus we
had to dine and sup on the amateur productions
of the cook's mate.
A multitude of woful rumors concerning
the absent turkeys flew round that evening. The
"Johnnies," we heard, had raided round the
army, and captured the fowls! Butler's colored
troops had got all the turkeys, and had
been feeding on fowl for two days! The
officers had "gobbled" the whole consignment
for their own use! The whole story of the
Thanksgiving dinner was a newspaper hoax!
Nothing was too incredible for men so bitterly
Brownie returned before "lights out" sounded,
and reported facetiously that the "doughboys"
he had visited were feeding full of turkey and
all manner of fixings. There were so many
wagons waiting at City Point that the roads
round there were blocked for miles. We could
not fail to get our turkeys to-morrow. With
this expectation we went, pretty happy, to
"There'll be a turkey apiece, you'll see,
Ned," said Charley, in a confident, weak voice, as
I turned in. "We'll all have a bully Thanksgiving
The morrow broke as bleak as the preceding
day, and without a sign of turkey for our
brigade. But about twelve o'clock a great
shouting came from the parade ground.
"The turkeys have come!" cried Charley,
trying to rise. "Never mind picking out a
big one for me; any one will do. I don't
believe I can eat a bite, but I want to see it.
My! ain't it kind of the folks at home!"
I ran out and found his surmise as to the
return of the wagons correct. They were
filing into the enclosure around the quartermaster's
tent. Nothing but an order that the
men should keep to company quarters prevented
the whole regiment helping to unload the
delicacies of the season.
Soon foraging parties went from each company
to the quartermaster's enclosure. Company
I sent six men. They returned, grinning, in
about half an hour, with one box on one man's
It was carried to Sergeant Cunningham's
cabin, the nearest to the parade ground, the
most distant from that of "the kids," in which
Charley lay waiting. We crowded round the
hut with some sinking of enthusiasm. There
was no cover on the box except a bit of cotton
in which some of the consignment had probably
been wrapped. Brownie whisked this
off, and those nearest Cunningham's door saw
disclosed—two small turkeys, a chicken, four
rather disorganized pies, two handsome bologna
sausages, and six very red apples.
We were nearly seventy men. The comical
side of the case struck the boys instantly.
Their disappointment was so extreme as to be
absurd. There might be two ounces of feast
to each, if the whole were equally shared.
All hands laughed; not a man swore. The
idea of an equal distribution seemed to have no
place in that company. One proposed that all
should toss up for the lot. Another suggested
drawing lots; a third that we should set the
Thanksgiving dinner at one end of the parade
ground and run a race for it, "grab who can."
At this Barney Donahoe spoke up.
"Begorra, yez can race for wan turkey av
yez loike. But the other wan is goin' to
There was not a dissenting voice. Charley
was altogether the most popular member of
Company I, and every man knew how he had
clung to the turkey apiece idea.
"Never let on a word," said Sergeant Cunningham.
"He'll think there's a turkey for
The biggest bird, the least demoralized pie, a
bologna sausage, and the whole six apples were
placed in the cloth that had covered the box.
I was told to carry the display to my poor
As I marched down the row of tents a
tremendous yelling arose from the crowd round
Cunningham's tent. I turned to look behind.
Some man with a riotous impulse had seized
the box and flung its contents in the air over
the thickest of the crowd. Next moment the
turkey was seized by half a dozen hands. As
many more helped to tear it to pieces. Barney
Donahoe ran past me with a leg, and two
laughing men after him. Those who secured
larger portions took a bite as quickly as
possible, and yielded the rest to clutching
hands. The bologna sausage was shared in
like fashion, but I never heard of any one who
got a taste of the pies.
"Here's your turkey, Charley," said I,
entering with my burden.
"Where's yours, Ned?"
"I've got my turkey all right enough at
"Didn't I tell you there'd be a turkey apiece?"
he cried gleefully, as I unrolled the
lot. "And sausages, apples, a whole pie—oh,
say, ain't they bully folks up home!"
"They are," said I. "I believe we'd have
had a bigger Thanksgiving yet if it wasn't such
a trouble getting it distributed."
"You'd better believe it! They'd do anything
in the world for the army," he said, lying
"Can't you eat a bite, buddy?"
"No; I'm not a mite hungry. But I'll look
at it. It won't spoil before to-morrow. Then
you can share it all out among the boys."
Looking at the turkey, the sick lad fell
asleep. Barney Donahoe softly opened our
door, stooped his head under the lintel, and
gazed a few moments at the quiet face turned
to the Thanksgiving turkey. Man after man
followed to gaze on the company's favorite, and
on the fowl which, they knew, tangibly symbolized
to him the immense love of the nation for
the flower of its manhood in the field. Indeed,
the people had forwarded an enormous Thanksgiving
feast; but it was impossible to distribute
it evenly, and we were one of the regiments
that came short.
Grotesque, that scene was? Group after
group of hungry, dirty soldiers, gazing solemnly,
lovingly, at a lone brown turkey and a pallid
sleeping boy! Yes, very grotesque. But
Charley had his Thanksgiving dinner, and the
men of Company I, perhaps, enjoyed a profounder
satisfaction than if they had feasted
I never saw Charley after that Thanksgiving
day. Before the afternoon was half gone the
doctor sent an ambulance for him, and insisted
that he should go to City Point. By Christmas
his wasted body had lain for three weeks in the
red Virginia soil.