Monday, November 24, 2014

The Lions of Thanksgiving Day

For New York City the day had come at last. Amid bitter race-tinged draft riots during the summer, the city’s newspapers had carefully followed the performance in battle of the new black infantry regiments. Seeking to satisfy public curiosity about black soldiers, some city leaders had tried in vain to lure two such regiments to parade down Manhattan’s streets. Now, in November of 1863, the army ordered a New Hampshire lieutenant colonel to lead his black regiment into the city.

Stark Fellows had joined the army about a year earlier as a private in the 14th New Hampshire Volunteers. He was 23 years old and lived in Weare, N.H..A slight man with a full brown beard, Fellows had graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth College and postponed a legal career to fight for the Union.

He soon made lieutenant but wanted more. With the 14th stuck in Washington, D.C., guarding prisons, he followed his ambition elsewhere. He applied for a commission with a black regiment, breezed through the qualifying tests and got his wish. Free black men and former slaves from Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia came together in Arlington to form the 2nd U.S. Colored Troops. By late 1863 Fellows had his command.

Sarah Josepha Hale
When the new infantry regiment reached Jersey City on November 25, Fellows leaned on authorities to help get his men to New York. They left their baggage and horses behind and crossed to the southern tip of Manhattan, where Fellows found he had more work to do. After procuring bunks for his soldiers in the barracks at Battery Park and establishing his regimental headquarters at the Astor House, he went to his room and fell into a deep sleep.

The next morning was Thanksgiving. The holiday had long been celebrated around the country, but this year was different. Sarah Josepha Hale, a native of Newport, N.H., who edited the popular Godey’s Lady’s Book, had asked President Lincoln to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. Such a declaration would make the holiday “a great Union Festival of America,” Hale wrote the president.

Lincoln acted on the idea a few days later. Even in the midst of a terrible civil war, he wrote in his proclamation, it seemed to him that God’s gifts to America “should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people.”

Late Thanksgiving morning, as Fellows approached Battery Park after a good night’s sleep, he saw that “the ‘Nigger Regiment’ attracted unbounded attention.” People crowded into the park to peer through the iron fence toward the barracks and parade ground “like so many school urchins at a circus.”

The crowd parted for Fellows, and he passed through a line of bigwigs waiting to thank him for bringing a black regiment to the city. He initially wanted to reward the crowd by ordering a dress parade, but there was no time. When he learned the quartermaster had found a ship to transport his men to their duty station on the Gulf Coast, he ordered them to form for the march to the wharf.

Stark Fellows, whose regiment marched  through lower Manhattan.
The white people lining Broadway as the 2nd United States Colored Troops marched past disappointed Fellows. “The streets were crowded all the way, but the people were very quiet,” he wrote to a comrade.

When the regiment turned onto Canal Street and entered a black neighborhood, everything changed. Flags hung from the windows, and cheers hailed the soldiers. 

Reflecting on these spectators, Fellows observed: “It seemed that at last they could speak for themselves.” They howled and leapt and tossed their caps into the air, acting as if “the day of their deliverance” had arrived, Fellows wrote. White people farther along the route “seemed to catch the excitement,” cheering the ranks of black men proudly marching to meet their destiny.

It had already been a long war, with many festive sendoffs followed by battlefield disasters. The enthusiasms of 1861 had cooled, but on this day it seemed to Fellows that something novel and grand had occurred.

The march to the wharf was also a revelation for the soldiers. As they boarded the Continental for their journey south, echoes of gratitude, approval and even adoration rang in their ears. In the words of their commander they had been “the lions of Thanksgiving day.” 

[Stark Fellows’s account of Thanksgiving was taken from his letter to Alexander Gardiner, an officer in Fellows’s old regiment, the 14th New Hampshire. The letter was written Dec. 16, 1863, from Ship Island, Miss. Fellows died of disease on May 23, 1864, and was buried in Pensacola, Fla. Gardiner was mortally wounded four months later leading the 14th at the third battle of Winchester, Va. The letter is in the Samuel A. Duncan papers in the Rauner special collections at Dartmouth College.]

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