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Thanksgiving During the Civil War: A True Story

Updated on December 23, 2022
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The author has an M.A. in history and German from SWTSU and over 30 years of teaching experience at public high schools.

Isabella Bomefree
Isabella Bomefree | Source

Born approximately in 1797 in Hurley, Ulster County, New York, Isabella Bomefree was raised in slavery. She spoke a unique Dutch dialect until about ten years of age and as New York passed several emancipation orders, Isabella escaped with her infant daughter in 1826. She eventually sued for the release of her son and won. Isabella became the first black woman to win a court case for the return of a slave. Mastering the spoken English language, she became an outspoken opponent of slavery. Although never able to read nor write, she dedicated her life to traveling across the United States addressing the horrors of slavery. During the Civil War she moved to Michigan to live with some abolitionist friends.

By 1863 a number of men from Battle Creek had joined the 1st Michigan Colored Infantry. They were stationed at Camp Ward, near Detroit. Urged on by her desire to help those soldiers, Isabella raised money to help pay for a Thanksgiving feast. Thanksgiving, as one might remember from high school history class, became a national holiday during the Civil War and local civilians came together to thank the troops for their service. As Isabella went through Battle Creek, she met a white gentleman whom she asked to donate money for the occasion. He refused to do so, and made some crude remarks about the war and slaves. Much surprised, she asked him who he was. He replied, "I am the only son of my mother." Relying on her typical dry wit, she replied, "I am glad there are no more."

Near the same time period that Isabella moved to Michigan, her grandson James Caldwell enlisted in the 54th Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteers. (The regiment made famous by the movie, Glory).

By November she had raised enough money and visited the troops, taking with her the meals prepared for ‘the boys’ by the people of Battle Creek. The troops were ordered in parade formation, but before they were dismissed to enjoy the bounty prepared for them, they were allowed to hear her speak. Her speech was filled with patriotic statements and good wishes, which the soldiers responded to enthusiastically. She then personally helped distribute the meals, which included boxes and packages containing all manner of Thanksgiving delicacies including the requisite fully fattened turkey. The next day, Sunday, she returned to once again talk to the soldiers. However, so many citizens of Battle Creek were in attendance to hear her that the soldiers could not even make out the slightest sounds. She quickly promised to give another speech at a later time just for the soldiers.

In honor of her work, President Lincoln invited her to the White House in 1864. For Isabella, seeing President Lincoln, the President who issued the Emancipation Proclamation the same year she visited those troops in Michigan, was one of the greatest days of her life. She had total faith in Abraham Lincoln. To a friend who was impatient with the President's slow progress she said, "Oh, wait, chile! Have patience! It takes a great while to turn about this great ship of state." Prophetic words for any Thanksgiving.

So give credit to Isabella Bomefree. A woman who, "journeyed" through the United States and always told the truth. A woman who changed the course of history by saying the prophetic words, "Ain't I a Woman?" A woman we all know today as Sojourner Truth. And we are thankful for her contributions to equality as well as her strength of conviction and her courage.


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