J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, November 28, 2013

“Upon a Leg of Nothing and No Turnips”

In the fall of 1777, Gen. William Howe defeated Gen. George Washington’s army at Brandywine, Paoli, and Germantown and took Philadelphia, the young republic’s capital. But up north another American army captured Gen. John Burgoyne after Saratoga. From its new headquarters in York, Pennsylvania, the Continental Congress put the best face on things by declaring 18 December to be a day of “Solemn Thanksgiving and Praise.”

One of the soldiers in Washington’s army, Pvt. Joseph Plumb Martin, later wrote of that holiday:
While we lay here [in “the Gulf”] there was a Continental thanksgiving ordered by Congress; and as the army had all the cause in the world to be particularly thankful, if not for being well off, at least that it was no worse, we were ordered to participate in it. We had nothing to eat for two or three days previous, except what the trees of the fields and forests afforded us. But we must now have what Congress said—a sumptuous thanksgiving to close the year of high living we had now nearly seen brought to a close. Well—to add something extraordinary to our present stock of provisions—our country, ever mindful of its suffering army, opened her sympathizing heart so wide, upon this occasion, as to give us something to make the world stare. And what do you think it was, reader?—Guess.—You cannot guess, be you as much of a Yankee as you will. I will tell you: it gave each and every man half a gill of rice, and a table spoon full of vinegar!!

After we had made sure of this extraordinary superabundant donation, we were ordered out to attend a meeting and hear a sermon delivered upon the occasion. We accordingly went, for we could not help it. I heard a sermon, a “thanksgiving sermon,” what sort of one I do not know now, nor did I at the time I heard it. I had something else to think upon; my belly put me in remembrance of the fine thanksgiving dinner I was to partake of when I could get it.—I remember the text, like an attentive lad at church, I can still remember that; it was this: “And the soldiers said unto him, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, nor accuse any one falsely.”

The preacher ought to have added the remainder of the sentence [from Luke 3:14] to have made it complete: “And be content with your wages.” But that would not do, it would be too apropos; however, he heard it as soon as the service was over, it was shouted from a hundred tongues.

Well—we had got through the services of the day and had nothing to do but to return in good order to our tents and fare as we could. As we returned to our camp, we passed by our Commissary’s quarters; all his stores, consisting of a barrel about two thirds full of hocks of fresh beef, stood directly in our way, but there was a sentinel guarding even that; however, one of my messmates purloined a piece of it, four or five pounds perhaps. I was exceeding glad to see him take it; I thought it might help to eke out our thanksgiving supper; but, alas! how soon my expectations were blasted! The sentinel saw him have it as soon as I did and obliged him to return it to the barrel again. So I had nothing else to do but to go home and make out my supper as usual, upon a leg of nothing and no turnips.
In his diary Lt. Ebenezer Wild recorded hearing no sermon, since his regiment had no chaplain, and a marginally better meal:
we had but a poor thanksgiving,—nothing but fresh beef & flour to eat, without any salt, & but very scant of that.
Shortly afterward Martin, Wild, and their regiments entered Valley Forge to spend the winter.

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