#Thanksgiving in the Civil War: a Proclamation from #History

It seems fitting that on this day of giving thanks and thoughtful reflection to wonder just a little bit about Thanksgiving in the Civil War. The first Thanksgiving was in the 1600s-ish but the tradition didn’t really catch on until the Civil War. On July 15, Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring a national day of thanksgiving for October 3rd, 1863.

Lincoln 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation
Lincoln 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation (Library of Congress)


By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

William H. Seward,
Secretary of State


Thanksgiving in Camp 1861 - Sketch by Alfred Waud (Library of Congress Image)
Thanksgiving in Camp 1861 – Sketch by Alfred Waud (Library of Congress Image)

Who’s in your family? #CivilWar #History Comes Home

This it! We’re down to the last 24 hours of the Kickstarter for the “Invalid Corps and the Battle of Fort Stevens,” if you haven’t, please take a moment to go donate. If you have, thank you for helping us bring this amazing story to the screen.


FHelp Spread the Wordor these last few hours we’re asking you to please pass along word of this project – Email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram…even just word-of-mouth. We’d love to have as many people as possible be aware of this; not just because of the crowdfunding but because of the many stories out there that still haven’t been heard.

The Civil War is the story of our country’s first major internal challenge and it is a history of our country’s people. It is that latter that both surprises and elates us. It captures the imagination of historians, genealogists, reenactors, and families. This isn’t just a story about long ago battles and famous generals, but a story about families and individual people and their choices of how to live, and what they were willing to die for. The Invalid Corps and the Battle of Fort Stevens documentary film has been couched as a lost disability and veterans’ history but it is more than that.  It could be your family history too.

Eagle and ShieldI had a discussion with author and musician Shawn Humphrey about this project and out of the blue he says, “I think one of my ancestors may have been a part of that.” After a bit of research it comes to light that James Mulvaney was listed as “absent/sick” in Washington, DC on March, 16, 1864. Mulvaney was not formally mustered for the 9th Veterans Reserve Corp. until August 16, 1864, but what is clear is that he was present in Washington, DC when the attack occurred. Now Shawn is on a hunt to discover what his ancestor may have been doing at the time. Was he a part of the defense of the city? Was James Mulvaney actually on the walls at Fort Stevens?

Perhaps the biggest surprise came last week when a family member, my uncle and his wife, sent me a package with information about her great great grandfather:

Jonathan Lyman

Meet Jonathan Lyman of Company K of the 8th Regiment of the Invalid Corps (Veteran Reserve Corps).*

So yes, even I, who was born more than 10,000 miles away, on a different continent, have a connection to the Invalid Corps.  🙂

This documentary is called, The Invalid Corps and the Battle of Fort Stevens, but in truth, it is about the men themselves and all of our connections to this history. Veterans’ stories and disability history seem sanitized, academic terms for what this really is: family history.

So today, this last day of our crowdfunding, please help share the message and spread the word this one last time and ask people, “Who is in your family?”

The answer may surprise you.


*Special Thanks to Uncle Gary and Aunt Erma for sending such wonderful detailed information about Jonathan Lyman!


Who Held the Saw: Discovering Mary Walker, Civil War Army Surgeon – From Julia Marie Myers

Mary Walker - Woman in long dark dress, dark hair, pale skin and medal pinned to breast
Mary Walker – Image: US Army Medical Department, Office of Medical History

It was Day who first told me of the Invalid Corps. I had never heard of it before. I remember listening with rapt attention as she painted a picture of the night when members of the Invalid Corps defended the Capitol against a Confederate army of 15,000. It was a classic, incredible story epic.

Intrigued, I went and did more research. It began to boggle my mind the pure numbers of soldiers injured during the war — we all know that in theory, but in literal, stark numbers … approximately 17,300 Union casualties at the Battle of Chancellorsville alone (the one where Stonewall Jackson was injured, later dying from his wounds), with almost 10,000 of those being wounded, rather than killed or missing[1]. Ten-thousand. Ten-thousand bodies, strewn about, amongst those who have already perished. How do you even know which ones are still alive?

“Near by, the ambulances are now arriving in clusters, and one after another is calld to back up and take its load. Extreme cases are sent off on stretchers. The men generally make little or no ado, whatever their sufferings. A few groans that cannot be suppressd, and occasionally a scream of pain as they lift a man into the ambulance. To-day, as I write, hundreds more are expected, and to-morrow and the next day more, and so on for many days. Quite often they arrive at the rate of 1000 a day.” – Walt Whitman, Specimen Days, Ch. 33[2]

With so many soldiers and varieties of injuries, I began looking into the army surgeons who had to navigate this chaos — the ones who had to determine how to triage the patients, who ultimately had to “wield the saw.” One particular surgeon stood out.

Mary Walker’s story unfolded in front of me as I flipped through the virtual pages of the internet, piecing together information about her career. She was clearly a “disruptive” person — the only woman at the time enrolled in her medical degree program at Syracuse, the first woman surgeon ever to be employed by the US Army.[3]

As I read more about Mary, I found her story incredibly modern. Mary wore men’s clothes. She surely faced discrimination and ridicule for this choice — and indeed on more than one occasion she was arrested for “impersonating a man.”[4] It strikes me as incredible that she existed so long ago, but that she could just as easily be a next door neighbor of mine, who faces similar concerns and judgments about her identity today. We are divided by centuries of time, but when I look at her, I see a saturated, piercing image of the modern world staring back.

Mary’s story as well as the stories of the members of the Invalid Corps inspired me to write my own short fiction film inspired by both historical narratives, for which I am now beginning the pre-production process. I felt that Mary’s role in disrupting the status quo of women, but also in standing on her own as an influential person regardless of her gender, paralleled so beautifully with the story of these men of the Invalid Corps, who defied not only their labels as “cowards” and “cripples,” but who rose up to show that they mattered, fully and fundamentally, as people.

It has been a great pleasure intertwining these stories together in a creative way, and it has been a perfect complement to my working with Day on her documentary on the Invalid Corps. Every day, we are learning more and more, and it only makes me more excited to share what we have discovered, and what we are creating, with you.

Don’t forget to visit our “The Invalid Corps and the Battle of Fort Stevens” Kickstarter: 

Please share widely. We need you to help get the word out about this documentary! 


Civil War Medical Instruments
Civil War Medical Instruments

[1] http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/chancellorsville.html?tab=facts

[2] http://www.bartleby.com/229/1033.html

[3] http://chnm.gmu.edu/courses/rr/s01/cw/students/leeann/historyandcollections/history/pathbreakers/marywalker.html

[4] https://www.nlm.nih.gov/changingthefaceofmedicine/physicians/biography_325.html

Kickstarter First Stretch Goal Revealed! – Civil War Mail

A quick Update from our Invalid Corps and the Battle of Fort Stevens Kickstarter.  We’ve reached 90%! We are thrilled and humbled by the support we’ve received.  And now we have 13 more days to reach the full amount. Considering the closeness to our goal, we thought it prudent to unveil our first Stretch Goal.

Our first Stretch Goal is a simple one, and one we hope is in relatively easy reach: $8,000. We hope to entice more people to support this project and/or to consider backing at a higher level. Why? Because at its heart, the Invalid Corps documentary is about the content and the stories of these men. Additional funding will allow us to begin to pay for direct production and have higher production values – To get this done right.

It means being able to afford things like a professional sound editor; some compensation for musicians (we have a composer so this project will have an original score but musicians have to eat too); and being able to send a full crew out for additional interviews with historians and descendants of Invalid Corps members. As for those who may be wondering, what additional reward that may entail, I give you the paragraphs below. 🙂

Patriotic Union Envelope
Patriotic Union Envelope – Image: Postal Museum

Mail has always been very important to soldiers. During the Civil War, these fragile notes are what connected families and in many ways have continued to connect military families, even today. These letters tell a much more intimate story than our textbooks of generals and battles. And of course, as we know, many soldiers carried letters in their pockets, to be forwarded to loved ones if they were killed in action.

About 45,000 pieces of mail per day were sent through Washington D. C. from the eastern theater of the war, and about double that in the west, through Louisville. According to Bell Wiley’s “Billy Yank,” a civilian worker with the U. S. Sanitary Commission, who visited a number of units, reported that many regiments sent out an average of 600 letters per day, adding up to more than 8 million letters travelling through the postal system per month. Franklin Bailey wrote to his parents in 1861, that getting a letter from home was more important to him than “getting a gold watch.” (via Dave Gorski at CivilWarTalk.com)

In recognition of the role that letters played, with this first stretch goal, we will send each backer (at the $25 and up level) an actual piece of PHYSICAL mail. They’ll receive a custom postcard of Invalid Corps imagery via the US Postal Service. Sent the same way families mailed letters more than 150 years ago, this is our “letter,” in thanks.

Resources: http://about.usps.com/news/national-releases/2012/pr12_civil-war-mail-history.pdf

Don’t forget to visit our Kickstarter! We need your to help get the word out about this documentary.


Falmouth, Va. Group in front of post office tent at Army of the Potomac headquarters
Falmouth, Va. Group in front of post office tent at Army of the Potomac headquarters


Soldiers’ Stories: Sergeants Durgin and Wray

For William Durgin of Maine, April 20, 1865 was a typical day. He was garrisoned at the Camp Frye Barracks in Washington, D.C., assigned with the 10th Veterans Reserve Corps. His typical duties with the regiment consisted of nothing more than garrison duty after suffering from rheumatism in his arms and being struck in the ankle with a cannonball during the amphibious landing at Fernadina, Florida in 1862. Yet, when he received his orders for that day, they looked far different from his daily duties. The order read as follows:

Special Order No. 88

Pursuant to orders from Headquarters, 1st Brigade Veteran Reserve Corps requiring four First Sergeants should be selected with reference to their age, length of service and good soldierly conduct for escort duty to the remains of President Lincoln to Springfield, Illinois.

1st Sergeant William W. Durgin of Company F 10th Regiment V.R.C. is hereby detailed for that duty and will report to Capt. McCamly 9th Regiment Vet. Res. Corps at Camp Frye at 9:00 o’clock A.M. this day.
By command of

Major George Bowers Commanding Regiment

Collage of newspaper from early 1900s, image of young Durgin and one of old Durgin
Sgt. William Durgin was proud of his role as one of Lincoln’s Pallbearers, and was the last one living by the early 1900s. Credit: MaineLegacy.com

From his clerical duties at Camp Frye Barracks, Durgin’s place in history rose greatly as he became one of Lincoln’s pallbearers, traveling across the nation with the casket. His war-record carries on his roll call for April 1865 “Absent – on escort duty with remains of President Lincoln.”

Drawing of Lincoln's funeral with casket carried by Invalid Corps pallbearers, soldiers, horses
Harper’s Weekly drawing of Lincoln’s funeral procession in New York, May 13, 1865. Credit: Library of Congress

While Durgin seems to be a typical soldier offered the honor as a token of great luck, in many ways the assignment was and did boost the prestige of one of the most neglected regiments in the U.S. Army: the Veterans Reserve Corps (VRC).

Created in 1863, the VRC started as the Invalids Corps, and began as a project to give disabled veterans like Durgin a second chance at active service. Yet their corps did not go unscathed. Other soldiers derided the corps as a group of cowards and rejects; the initials of the Invalids Corps matched a stamp of the Quartermaster’s Department that stood for “Inspected – Condemned.” Soon after, to boost the morale of recruits and entice more volunteers, it was renamed “Veterans Reserve Corps.” The disabled veterans that re-enlisted were assigned various rear-echelon duties, ranging from guard duty to censoring mail.

To honor one of the corps members as a pallbearer presented in a greater sense a place for disabled soldiers in American military history alongside regular soldiers in memorializing the Civil War, and recognizes the potential of disabled veterans, or civilians, as capable individuals that can still contribute despite their sacrifice.

Image of Fort Stevens with soldiers and carts around
Fort Stevens. Credit: Library of Congress

Enlistment in the corps did not always entail monotonous, clerical duties. For Sergeant William Wray, fate would lead to a reprisal of his combat duties. After losing his right eye and parts of his nose at Fredericksburg, Wray joined the 1st Veterans Reserve Corps. While stationed at Fort Stevens, he miraculously found himself at the center of a surprise attack by a corps of 10,000 men led by Jubal Early. In the midst of battle, while a number of his VRC comrades were confused and scattered, Wray rallied his men to the defenses during a critical attack, and helped prevent the fort from falling. Although his actions did not go recognized until much later, with some speculation regarding the fact that he was a member of the undesirable VRC, Wray was eventually awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions.

After the Civil War, programs for injured soldiers and disabled veterans returned around World War I, when the massive amounts of casualties and disabling injuries permitted for the resurrection of the Veterans Reserve Corps. In the age of modern warfare, disabled veterans have been able to carve a niche for themselves with the Continuation on Active Duty program, allowing wounded soldiers to serve their country within the limits of their abilities. Thus, heroes like Sergeants Durgin and Wray show what makes a soldier a great leader and a hero is not how well or straight a soldier stands, but what a soldier stands for in fighting for their country.

Jon van Harmelen

Jonathan van Harmelen is currently studying American History at Pomona College, and has conducted research with Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. He also works at Pomona College as manager for the Orchestra and as assistant to the History Department. He enjoys collecting military antiques, playing drums, and attempting to learn French, German, and Dutch all at once.

Please don’t forget we are in the middle of our Kickstarter to raise funds to tell the story of the Invalid Corps; of soldiers with disabilities who continued to serve: 


Society for Disability Studies and the Invalid Corps as “Hidden #Disability History”

Atlanta Skyline with We are in Atlanta textWe were very proud to present at this year’s Society for Disability Studies national conference in Atlanta, Georgia. The Society for Disability Studies (SDS) is a scholarly organization dedicated to promoting disability studiesand their conference examines “multiple and significant possibilities at the intersections of disability and (getting it) right/s” with “hundreds of participants [who] gather every year to share expertise, perspectives, and community.” The story of the Invalid Corps is a part of disability history and it was great speak on a panel about soldiers with disabilities and this “hidden history.”

Although most of the presentation was an introduction to the Invalid Corps and their role in the Civil War, I thought I’d blog a little bit about how I opened the talk.  An aspect of “Black History Month” has always struck me: how little of history has been captured that includes the contributions, heroism, sacrifice, and inventions of African Americans.  The same for women.  History has primarily been written by a certain class of individuals, who were likely men, and white. What that means is that history doesn’t often include mention of minorities. That includes disability.

So, when speaking with the audience I wanted to highlight “bright and shining” examples of disability that, because of the way we view the world, have had their disability erased and that part of the story goes untold.  I wanted to include examples of men who meet that description, and although they were never part of the Invalid Corps, they were individuals with disabilities who many people do not know had disabilities – hidden disability history.

Oliver Otis Howard

Oliver Otis HowardO. O. Howard is known as a man who was a general in the civil war.  He is known as the first head of the Freedmen’s Bureau who was dedicated to supporting the new independence of freedmen.  He is known as the founder of Howard University.  But what I discovered is that many graduates of the institution don’t realize (I’ve spoken to almost a dozen at this point) that he was also a man with a disability. General Howard lost his right arm at the Battle of Fair Oaks in 1862 when he was still a brigade commander.  Disability was so ubiquitous that it was seldom mentioned; everyone had a brother, son, father, husband, or neighbor who had been injured in battle. And over time, this piece of history becomes lost. While it may not seem important in the “broad picture,” when it comes to recognition of disability and its place within our society, knowing this history suddenly becomes quite important.

Mathew Brady

MatthewBradyMathew Brady, the photographer of the Civil War.  The man whose thousands of scenes of war give us the vision of the time. We all know the images.  We all have seen at least one picture attributed to him (or more likely, his company.)  Mathew Brady had a disability. Although Brady had his own studio and permission from President Lincoln himself to photograph the battlefield sites, many of the photos were in fact, taken by his assistants. Brady had an eye condition and his vision began to deteriorate in the 1850s. He was almost totally blind the last few years of his life.


John S. Pemberton

John S PembertonAnd of course, because we were in Atlanta, I had to mention John Pemberton, inventor of Coca-Cola. Yes, he too had a disability. A Confederate Lieutenant Colonel, he was wounded at the Battle of Columbus, in what was, arguably, the last battle of the war. Shot and then slashed across the chest with a saber, the wound gave him chronic pain. This led to a morphine addiction, ailment that was so common among veterans it was called the “soldier’s disease.” Pemberton invented Coca-Cola as an alternative to the highly addictive morphine. In his own words: “free from opium…a remedy to meet the urgent demand for a safe and reliable medicine.” Whether to address his addiction and/or to manage the pain from his war wounds, Pemberton, inventor of Coca-Cola, was also a man with a disability.

The Invalid Corps story is a part of this “hidden history” and for the SDS attendees, one that they were excited to learn more about.  I hope to be able to show their story at the 2016 conference!

Background Reading and Useful Books (#InvalidCorpsFilm)

A little light reading?

I’ve been doing quite a lot of reading to make sure we are solidly grounded in the history of these events. It has been a fun challenge in some ways. The information is split up in multiple places: Stories about men injured during the war is in one place, information on the Battle of Fort Stevens is in another, and information on the Invalid Corps itself is somewhere else again. Pulling it all together is the part that is most exciting.

I’ve looked at several websites, explored library collections, spoken to people in online forums, and perused journal articles as well as general articles for the public. But I thought it might be useful to just list some of the actual books that I’ve been reading. Granted, not all fit the topic fully, but they’ve all been very informative and have helped immensely.

So, in no particular order, to date I have read:

Although I don’t have the book yet, I’ve gone through Ronald S. Coddington’s website “Faces of the Civil War” several times. Fantastic images and he’s obviously gone through a lot of trouble to get the stories of the men behind the photos.

AND after having a GREAT phone conversation with Susan Claffey who is a past president of the Civil War Roundtable of the District of Columbia, I have a new book for my list: As I Remember: A Civil War Veteran Reflects on the War and Its Aftermath by Lewis Cass White and edited by Joseph Scopin.

I also have to give a shout-out to the National Park Service who has a wonderful brochure on the Battle of Fort Stevens.