By: Christina Volpe, curator of The Barnes Museum
Andrew Upson was born in Southington, Connecticut on May 18, 1825. He graduated from Yale College in 1849 (It became Yale University in 1887). On April 15, 1850, he married Elizabeth Gridley. The Upson family ran a successful farm in the Plantsville area in Southington. Elizabeth and Andrew had four children: Ida Maria, Francis Root, William Calkins, and Mary Brooks. On July 21, 1862, Upson enlisted as a 1st Lieutenant in Company E of the 20th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry. He died on February 19, 1864, in Tracy City, Tennessee. While he was away from home, he wrote his family and friends often, accounting for daily life as a Union soldier and his unique perspective of daily happenings during the Civil War.
Winslow Homer's 1862 wood engraving titled Thanksgiving In Camp
Historically, 1862 was the last year that Thanksgiving was celebrated on varying dates in the Northern states. To promote cultural unity between the North and South, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that the Thanksgiving of 1863 would be held on the last Thursday of every November. The Northern states celebrated their first federally recognized Thanksgiving in 1863, while the Southern states observed the federal holiday only in the years following the Civil War.
Thanksgiving blessings from Captain Andrew Upson to his wife.
November 23, 1862
“I hope you will make thanksgiving with usual ceremony & enjoy with more fullness than ever before – Just see how much we have for which to offer up devout praise – First our little circle unbroken & capable of participating in the Anniversary – Second our health – We have been sick & recovered – Thousands have died young & old have been taken we are alive – How strange that seems! Our four children all spared – all well – Third our numberless blessings – I left a full barn & more crops to be gathered – You all have enough to eat, to wear – You have quiet & may hope for its continuance – Could you see the people where war makes its track. I am sure you would praise & thank God for your own condition.
Lastly, thank God that you & I & we all are able to do something for the country He has so bountifully blessed – thank Him that in this sore trial we have hearts willing to meet privations & even sacrifice life under his command if so be liberty & good government may be upheld & great blessings flow down to our posterity – Be think you at the pristine board & all the day how often We have together enjoyed a Thanksgiving because Patriots lived years ago – recall their heroism – their great suffering & count as light indeed what this crisis demands of us. Is it an honor now to be patriotic?”
Captain Andrew Upson's 1862 Cabinet Card
The following year President Abraham Lincoln made a proclamation declaring the last Thursday in November be observed as Thanksgiving. Another attempt at unifying a mourning nation - whose losses at the battle of Gettysburg in July of 1863 had surpassed 50,000 lives.
"I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, …to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving... And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him …, 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 Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union."
Thomas Nast 1863
With the war still carrying on, Captain Upson wrote a Thanksgiving blessing to his family once again. Reporting from Fort Harker near Stevenson, Alabama (pictured right) the Captain had been stationed there for some time and wrote home to his wife often. Fort Harker was vital during the campaign against the confederate General Braxton Bragg in Chattanooga Tennessee in July of 1863 and the small town of Stevenson also served as a refugee camp and hospital following the battle. Occupation of the rail town ensured that the Union had control of supply lines in southeastern Tennessee and northeastern Alabama. In other letters that we will not be sampling here today – Captain Upson described seeing the refugees and their small children. He describes seeing former enslaved African Americans eager to fight with the Union. Several of the sentiments he has developed from being around and in the camp are conveyed to his children in the letter below.
November 18, 1863
To Ida, Frank, Willie & Mary
My Dear Children,
I suppose this letter will arrive at its destination about Thanksgiving Day – Hoping it may add to your happiness on that occasion I sit up a few moments although it is time to go to bed and everyone around is asleep – Perhaps, children you do not understanding the real meaning of Thanksgiving Day – In the 1st place, you have enough to eat – that is, God has made the grain and fruits to grow during the past season, and so you have food – If now, there had been a scarcity of rain, or if war had prevailed around your home the crops would have failed – Down here there are many sections in which the corn was cut off for want of showers – In other sections it was all destroyed by the army – The people have scarcely nothing to eat – Papa has seen numbers of these people – Men, women and children – They had none of those good things that contribute to your comfort and for which you should give thanks to God –
In the 2d place, you have a snug and quiet home – In this part of the country families are often driven from their houses – They have to leave nearly everything and flee away to strange places – Often times women and their little ones are compelled to walk day and night – If the weather is cold or wet they suffer much and frequently become sick – You are not disturbed in this way and there is a reason why you should thank God who rules over all things – In the 3d place you have books, papers, schools and various privileges which thousands of children in other parts of the country know nothing about – It is a bad thing to grow up in ignorance – it is a bad thing to live where the people do not go to meeting or have good books and maps and the means of acquiring knowledge – God has case your lot where you have the benefit of almost every advantage to become learned and wise and useful – I hope you will so far understand this as to be thankful for your opportunities and not neglect them –
Now, my children, Thanksgiving Day is appointed that we may call to mind how much we owe to the Great and Good God – We are very apt to think too little of our common blessings – But if they are taken from us we begin to see their value – I hope you may never lose your schools, or your home, or the chance of enough to eat…I should like very much, Dear Children, to sit down with you at the Thanksgiving Supper – Perhaps another year God will permit us to meet on this anniversary – Whatever may be our condition let us be very thankful – Papa sends his best wishes and his tender affection to each of you and also to Mother and Grandmother –
From your loving father,
Unfortunately, Captain Upson would not be so blessed as to make it to the next Thanksgiving Supper with his family. Less than two months after he wrote this letter he died after succumbing to two gunshot wounds sustained during an ambush by Confederate soldiers on Tracy, City Tennessee. Captain Upson was there with Company B of Connecticut’s 20th Regiment to defend the rail line in Tracy City. The captain had been by the train depot with ten of his men when the ambush occurred. He was shot and captured with his men and after four hours was released. During his time recovering in the days following the incident Captain Upson continued to write home to his family. Word of mouth and local reporting indicated the Captain was feeling better. Several days later he died and on February 29, 1864, his body returned to Southington for burial and is interred within Quinnipiac Cemetery.
The Barnes Museum has the honor of housing the Captain Andrew Upson Civil War Letters and Diaries within the archival collection. The collection is open for scholarly research and select items belonging to Captain Upson remain on display. To learn more about him or his grand daughter Leila Upson Barnes's legacy contact us today!