Thanksgiving, 1862

It's Thanksgiving Day, November 27, 2014. Later, our family will drive to my sister's family in Arlington, driving up the George Washington Parkway alongside the Potomac, past Theodore Roosevelt Island, to their house off of Lorcom Lane. Julia would been on some of the same terrain. She frequently went across the river to Washington, either by steamboat or on the "cars" across the Long or the Aqueduct bridges (near current-day 14th Street and Key bridges). TR Island was Mason's Island, used later in the war as a place to house freedmen.

But I get ahead of myself. Thanksgiving also fell on November 27 in 1862, when Julia had been in Alexandria less than a month. A last-minute invitation came to celebrate the day at the Paroled Camp. She went along with Mr. Warwick, a minister; Jennie and Nettie Kimball, two young women whose parents ran the rooming house where Julia was staying, and an acquaintance named Mrs. Winsor.

From her diary: "The drive was invigorating, in spite of all the dead horses we saw along the way."

Okay--once there, Col. Gabriel de Korpony, the camp commander, warmly greeted them and his other guests, including Alexandria's Military Governor John Slough and his wife. A Thanksgiving service, presided over by Mr. Warwick, was required for all those able to stand (about 2,000 in all, according to her diary). "Before service, cheers were given for the President, Gen. Slough & Mrs. Slough. After service an avenue was christened Mrs. Bell Slough & more cheers were given."

Col. Gabriel De Korponay
Col. Gabriel De Korponay

After that, "a very fine lunch was prepared in the Mess room, & spiced with sparking champagne....The Turkey was not cooked, & few people like raw turkey. Some things were well enough—justice was done to the wine by officers & guests, & if Col. K’s tongue did not move the faster for it then I’m no judge.—Ever so many toasts were drank & a few speeches made."

As for the rest of the camp--"The sick had Oysters & Pies to day, but I think the rest of the soldiers had nothing extra. Poor fellows. If what was spent for the wine that these officers drank had been laid out in something for all the soldiers to remind them of their homes! Oh! I do pity them, & felt that it was hardly right for me to enjoy myself all day when there is so much suffering around me....I little thought one year ago at my quiet home in W. N.Y. that I sh. [should] spend the next Thanksgiving under Va. skies, at the seat of war, & take my dinner in a camp with officers of high rank wearing Eagles & stars & bayonets guarding us the while."

A few notes of context:

  • Lincoln signed the proclamation institutionalizing Thanksgiving the following year, but various states celebrated in the years prior.
  • Early in the war, both sides had Camps of Paroled Prisoners. In this system, each side housed its own POWs that the other side had taken: in other words, this camp would have housed Union men who had been captured by the South. The parolees would not take up arms until they were exchanged for prisoners taken from the other side. So they languished in camp, a blessing or a curse depending on one's view of combat or guard duty. Later in war, prison camps were established. Parole Camp in Alexandria, formally Camp Banks.
  • Col. Gabriel de Korpony had a colorful life. Earlier in 1862, he commanded a Pennsylvania regiment; he was popular with his men but considered "a drunkard and generally unfit to lead," according to First Sgt. Ambrose Henry Hayward (his letters edited by Timothy J. Orr and published by U. of Tennessee Press). He was transferred to the Parole Camp, presumably to shove him out of the way, although he certainly seemed to relish some of the perks of this position. He emigrated from Hungary in 1844 and was one of several people who claimed to have introduced the polka to the US.
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