November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving Letter from an African American Civil War Soldier

Francisco Goya, 1787
 Civil War soldiers often wrote home about how much they missed the holidays that they used to have at home. Thanksgiving, while not an official national holiday, was still celebrated by many Americans. On October 3, 1863, Abraham Lincoln made a proclamation, at the urging of Godey's Lady's Book editor Sarah Josepha Hale, making a national holiday of Thanks. After the proclamation, it was widely celebrated by the troops.    

David A. Demus of Franklin County, VA to his wife Mary Jane Demus on November 25th, 1863:

"mi Dear Wife
I take this optuity to in form you that I am Well at presn and I hope Whean thes fu lines reach you tha ma find you i the best state of healte I receve yor letter on the 25th of november i Was hapey to hear frum you and I did not Car how smole the letter Was Jest sow I got Wone but you Cant tell how sweat it Was to me to get it fer I Wod like to hear frum you ever day If i Cod get it but i must tell you of the grate time that We had on theank giving it Was the best day that We ever had sinc i lefte home..."

Read the full transcription at The Valley of the Shadow: Valley Personal Papers

In this letter, Demus describes the festivities of the day: a greasy pole competition, a blindfolded sack race and men playing ball. Sack races and ball playing are still common festivities today, but greasy pole competitions seem to have lost favor.

Climbing a greasy pole was a very basic form of entertainment. Typically a pole would be erected with a prize at the top and then greased to make it difficult to get the prize. These poles would be erected by the wealthy, although the wealthy typically did not take part in trying to climb them. Climbing the pole was for the poorer classes and the wealthy enjoyed watching the climbers. Legs of mutton, slabs of bacon, jewelery and clothing were common prizes.  Climbers were typically young boys, servants, freed or enslaved African Americans, street urchins, and the poor. They were very popular in the 1860s, Edward VII of Wales even had a greasy pole at his wedding in 1863.   

The competition may seem barbaric, but for a young servant girl, it could be her chance to own a dress as pretty as her mistress' so many people attempted the climb as the draw of the prize was typically very tempting. In Demus' case, the prize was a pair of trousers with $13.00 in the pocket, a good sum as it was as much as a white soldier made in a month.   

 Harper's Magazine gives a good description of the technique of greased pole climbing "The first who attempt the ascent look for no honor; their office is to prepare the way, and put things in train for their successors: they rub off the grease from the bottom, the least practicable part of the pole. In every thing the first steps are the most difficult, although seldom the most glorious; and scarcely ever does the same person commence an enterprise, and reap the fruit of its accomplishment. They ascend higher by degrees, and the expert climbers now come forth, the heroes of the list: they who have been accustomed to gain prizes, whose prowess is known, and whose fame is established since many seasons. They do not expend their strength in the beginning; they climb up gently, and patiently, and modestly, and repose from time to time; and they carry, as is permitted, a little sack at their girdle, filled with ashes to neutralize the grease and render it less slippery."

I hope everyone has a very good Thanksgiving!


  1. I love reading these. It really shows how hard it was for all of them, yet, they looked for hope in all situation. Thank you for sharing.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. Happy Thanksgiving! Those old letters always make me teary - I'm thankful to be with my family!


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