Abner Small, born in Gardiner on May 1, 1836, rose to the rank of full major as part of the 16th Maine Infantry Regiment in the Civil War. He was captured as a prisoner of war in Petersburg, Va., endured six months and four days in the hands of the Confederacy, then returned to the fighting in the war’s final days.

Before that, however, he was a soldier in Company G of the 3rd Maine Volunteers, full of young men from the Kennebec River Valley. They came together just after the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, according to the Maine Historical Society, and encamped at the grounds near the State House. Wearing shirts from the Hathaway Shirt Co., they boarded a southbound train in early June, 1861. War for the 3rd Maine started at the first Battle of Bull Run, in Manassas, Va., on July 21, where a surprise Confederate victory showed the war would be no short affair.

That fact had to weigh heavily on Small’s head as he sat down at a Virginia encampment on Nov. 20, 1861, to write a letter to friends, wishing them well during the traditional time of Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving, the national holiday as we know it now, with the Pilgrims and Native Americans and, eventually, Black Friday, did not exist in 1861. That would begin later, after the wounds of the Civil War began to heal and all states together began celebrating the final Thursday in November.

In 1861, however, Thanksgiving was still a time of family and feast, and Small was far away from both. So he wrote the letter, a tongue-in-cheek invitation for the recipients to join him at the front. He wants to connect to friends from a distance, to share a tradition marked by togetherness, even if he is hundreds of miles away. He is stuck on a battlefield, but he could be in a snowed-in airport, watching flight after flight get canceled.

“You are cordially invited to take a thanksgiving dinner with the ‘subscriber’ who would be most happy to help you to some choice bite of horse meat and condiments raised on the sacred soil of old Virginia,” Small writes in the letter, which is now in a collection at the Maine Historical Society and can be found on the Maine Memory Network. “All shall dine at 12 punctually, you need’nt laugh at that for tisnt everybody that I honor with such an invitation! ha! ha!

“You can pass the compliment to Mr. Bartlett,” he continues, taking the first of a few jabs of the kind aimed at friends and family that are loved, in the way one loves friends and family during the hectic holidays. “If he thinks the rituals could’nt choke him to eat from the same table with me, he would be welcomed to help himself the same as he has always done with everything I had. Let him read that — twill sett him to thinking — perhaps he has got a heart — I doubt it.”

Small goes on to say he will miss the baked beans, mince pie and homemade butter. His actual meal is not as anticipated.

“Instead I shall have to satisfy that appetite of mine with — I will tell you next time I write.”

He finishes by saying he has “seen some rich sights” that he will describe when he gets home. He tells a woman that he is hers, and that he loves everyone back home.

Circumstances part families and friends. Jobs, school, travel, even war. Holidays — then, now and forever — can bring us back together, even if we are miles apart.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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