Celebrating Thanksgiving on a Union Monitor

As Thanksgiving approaches, we wanted to take a look at how U.S. sailors during the American Civil War celebrated the holiday. Thanksgiving was an important day for immigrants as well as for native-born Americans during the Civil War, as it provided them with an opportunity to embrace one of the flagship dates in their new home’s cultural calendar. One such immigrant was Second Class Fireman Michael J. Callinan, from Limerick City in Ireland. In 1864 he was serving in Virginia as part of the crew of the newly-commissioned monitor USS Onondaga, part of the James River flotilla. He was so impressed with the crew’s Thanksgiving efforts that he wrote a detailed letter home about just how they celebrated the occasion on the waters of the James.

The September 1864 Muster of USS Onondaga (Click to Enlarge). Taken just a few weeks before he wrote his Thanksgiving letter, you can find Michael’s details among the crew, where he is recorded as “Michael Callahan” (NARA)

Michael was 32-years-old and had been a laborer prior to his 1864 enlistment. During his service he regularly sent letters back to the New York Irish American Weekly newspaper, who duly published them. In the paper’s pages he went by the nom-de-plume “Garryowen”, which was both a well-known area in his home city and the title of a popular military song (it would later become even more famous, due to its connections to the 7th U.S. Cavalry and George Armstrong Custer). Below you will find how Michael described his and his crewmates Thanksgiving, in a letter written from Dutch Gap on the James River on 28 November 1864:

…We had our Thanksgiving Festival, and indeed the patriotic parties who were instrumental in getting it up are deserving of more than an ordinary share of praise for the creditable manner in which the affair was managed, as we received an abundance of Turkeys, &c., which made the berth deck resemble a poultry market on a small scale. After all being served the work of dissecting commenced; the cooks “pulled off their coats and rolled up their sleeves,” transferred the gobblers to the upper deck, and went through the process of immersion in the James with the said gobblers. On Thanksgiving morning the “galley” was the centre of attraction- roasting, baking, boiling, stewing, and all the paraphernalia of the culinary department brought into requisition and under full headway. At the usual time, eight bells announced dinner, when there was a simultaneous attack on the enemy. Talk about storming the enemy’s works, and taking them by assault, but the attack on the defenceless gobblers throws Sherman’s flanking movements in the shade; for, in less time than it takes to tell it, they had all disappeared before the terrible onslaught of the sturdy sons of Neptune; and thus was fought the great battle of Thanksgiving on the James.

The U.S.S. Onondaga on the James River during the Civil War (Library of Congress)

Having this temporarily enjoyed ourselves, had we no thoughts of those dear, fond and loving ones at home- did the question occur to us, what kind of a Thanksgiving had our wives and little ones? Oh, yes! It could not be otherwise, though we felt somewhat consoled and assured that the same bountiful and patriotic hands that provided for us, would not see them want for their Thanksgiving festival, as no luxuries, no comforts, no encouragement is so acceptable to the soldiers or sailors as the assurance that our families are not neglected. Let us only hear that they are looked after and cared for, and no dangers, no risks or privations will be too much for us to endure or encounter; with a willing cheerfulness will we strike the foes, and with our strong right arm to the rescue, our once happy, united and prosperous country will again take her place among the nations of the world, a terror to traitors at home and enemies abroad.

Officers of the U.S.S. Onondaga pictured with some canine companions during the Civil War (National Archives)

In the evening, while we were congratulating ourselves on the happy events of the day, we received a salute from our pugnacious friends- the “Rebs.” Having discovered a new iron-clad- the “Mahopac”- they determined to give her a welcome in the shape of mortar shells from “Howlett’s Battery,” in which exercise they indulged to a considerable extent. Their shots were aimed mighty accurate- one of the shells having hit the “Mud Digger,” at the canal, in the ribs and sent her to the bottom. At this juncture we were called to quarters, and commenced firing a few of our 15-inchers, scattering terror and dismay among them, which soon caused them to cease their vomiting. For about two hours a brisk cannonading was kept up by both parties, which resulted in immense quantities of metal being wasted, and “nobody hit.” About dusk it was “all quiet on the James” again and remains so yet.


It is clear that Michael was fond of humorous literary flourishes, eagerly recounting the victory “sturdy sons of Neptune” over the “defenceless gobblers.” But the letter also demonstrates that the serious business of war didn’t stop for Thanksgiving. In the second part of his letter, Michael tells of incoming fire directed at them from “Howlett’s Battery”, a Confederate position located at Howlett House. Such batteries were a regular thorn in the side of U.S. vessels operating on the James. One of the victims of the barrage was what Michael calls a “Mud Digger”. This was a dredge boat that was being employed by Federal forces under General Benjamin Butler to help dig a canal that would bypass these Rebel batteries on the James- a scheme that never came to fruition.

The “Mud Digger” Michael describes being struck, pictured after her sinking (Library of Congress)

If you are interested in hearing a bit more about what the Civil War Bluejackets Project and Irish immigrants in the Union Navy (including Michael), we will be presenting a free online talk to the Irish American Heritage Museum at 5.30pm Eastern Time on Tuesday, 22 November. You can sign up at this link. Hopefully we will see some of you there. We would also like to take the opportunity to wish all our Civil War Bluejacket community a Happy Thanksgiving, whether or not you are engaging in battle with gobblers for the occasion 🙂

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