In 1864, like today, many tables had an 'empty chair'

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 In 1864, like today, many tables had an 'empty chair'

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PostSubject: In 1864, like today, many tables had an 'empty chair'   11/26/2009, 10:22 am

In 1864, like today, many tables had an 'empty chair' -

PETERSBURG - For most families in the eastern and southern United States, Thanksgiving in 1864 was a holiday with mixed emotions. With boys and men gone off to the third year of war, many chairs at family dinners stayed empty. But what was Thanksgiving like for those in the field?

A tour at Petersburg National Battlefield last night gave at least some answers, and more importantly, some impressions of a holiday in the field where death could strike any minute.

It's the second time after a first tryout some years ago that the National Park Service invited people to a lantern tour back into the 19th century. At dusk, the first of two groups assembled at tour stop 3. Park Ranger Randy Watkins and more than a dozen Civil War re-enactors welcomed the guests to take them on their journey through time.

The tour started at a log cabin, which "could be located anywhere in the United States, in Virginia, Pennsylvania or wherever families had to part with loved ones who went to war," as Watkins said. A family in 19th-century clothing assembled around a simple, wooden table, their faces in the half dark with only a few small candles giving some light. On the table is a big turkey, and family members say a prayer.

One chair at the table is empty.

"Is Pa ever going to come back?" the daughter asks. "But of course, Pa will come back," the mother assures her. Jessica Hoover, a re-enactor from West Point, takes her violin and plays "The vacant chair," a song sung by many families during the Civil War.

Next stop is a Confederate private, sitting next to a bonfire at winter camp. The winter of 1864 was the coldest recorded until that time, Watkins said. Covered in blankets, the soldier writes a letter to his wife. "I'm dreaming of sweet potato and cabbage," the letter ends.

Only few soldiers were lucky to get better rations on Thanksgiving, Watkins said. And the closer the soldier was to the front lines, the less likely he received some extra food.

The main line is next. Here lied the soldiers of the United States Colored Troops. But last night, none were there. "The USCT re-enactors are mostly soldiers from Fort Lee, and you never know if they can make it or not," Watkins said.

Many get deployed on short notice, to Afghanistan or to Iraq. The real war has priority.

Watkins still talks about the achievements of the USCT. "The first monument to the colored troops stand here on our National Battlefield," he said.

Now the group approaches the picket line, where Confederates fire at Union soldiers less than 100 yards away. In between them nothing but no man's land. During the siege of Petersburg, an average of 16 Union soldiers were shot in the head every day by Confederate snipers. "Here it was hardly a holiday," Watkins said.

And those who died, were buried nearby. A funeral is the final stop on last night's tour. A chaplain reads a last prayer for the unfortunate man who lies underneath a simple blanket. The tour ends here, and so does Watkins's story.

"It all comes back to the vacant chair," he said. "And this Thanksgiving, many families will still have that vacant chair by their dinner table, with their loved one gone to Afghanistan or elsewhere."

The vacant chair means uncertainty, because neither the family, nor the soldier knows if he or she will ever return to sit in that chair again.

"Today, we have learned about the man who sacrificed so much for our freedom during the Civil War," Watkins said. "But we always seem to have been in some kind of war since, and this Thanksgiving, please think of those who are gone to protect our freedom."
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PostSubject: Re: In 1864, like today, many tables had an 'empty chair'   12/17/2009, 4:40 pm

Interesting and informative, Ashlie..
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PostSubject: Re: In 1864, like today, many tables had an 'empty chair'   2/18/2010, 9:01 am

great article
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