When Fiction Became Fact
WILLIAM MEADE DAME, D. D.
One bright spot in that “winter of our discontent”—lives in my memory. It was on the Christmas Day of 1863. That was a day specially hard to get through. The rations were very short indeed that day—only a little bread, no meat. As we went, so hungry, about our work, and remembered the good and abundant cheer always belonging to Christmas time; as we thought of “joys we had tasted in past years” that did not “return” to us, now, and felt the woeful difference in our insides—it made us sad. It was harder to starve on Christmas Day than any day of the winter.
When the long day was over and night had come, some twelve or fifteen of us, congenial comrades, had gathered in a group, and were sitting out of doors around a big camp fire, talking about Christmas, and trying to keep warm and cheer ourselves up. One fellow proposed what he called a game, and it was at once taken up—though it was a silly thing to do, as it only made us hungrier than ever. The game was this—we were to work our fancy, and imagine that we were around the table at “Pizzini’s,” in Richmond. Pizzini was the famous restauranteur who was able to keep up a wonderful eating house all through the war, even when the rest of Richmond was nearly starving. Well—in reality, now, we were all seated on the ground around that fire, and very hungry. In imagination we were all gathered ’round Pizzini’s with unlimited credit and free to call for just what we wished. One fellow tied a towel on him, and acted as the waiter—with pencil and paper in hand going from guest to guest taking orders—all with the utmost gravity. “Well, sir, what will you have?” he said to the first man. He thought for a moment and then said (I recall that first order, it was monumental) “I will have, let me see—a four-pound steak, a turkey, a jowl and turnip tops, a peck of potatoes, six dozen biscuits, plenty of butter, a large pot of coffee, a gallon of milk and six pies—three lemon and three mince—and hurry up, waiter—that will do for a start; see ’bout the rest later.” This was an order for one, mind you. The next several were like unto it. Then, one guest said, “I will take a large saddle of mountain mutton, with a gallon of crabapple jelly to eat with it, and as much as you can tote of other things.”
This, specially the crabapple jelly, quite struck the next man. He said, “I will take just the same as this gentleman.” So the next, and the next. All the rest of the guests took the mountain mutton and jelly. All this absurd performance was gone through with all seriousness—making us wild with suggestions of good things to eat and plenty of it. The waiter took all the orders and carefully wrote them down, and read them out to the guest to be sure he had them right. Just as we were nearly through with this Barmecide feast, one of the boys, coming past us from the Commissary tent, called out to me, “Billy, old Tuck is just in (Tucker drove the Commissary wagon and went up to Orange for rations) and I think there is a box, or something, for you down at the tent.” I got one of our crowd to go with me on the jump. Sure enough, there was a great big box for me—from home.
We got it on our shoulders and trotted back up to the fire. The fellows gathered
around, the top was off that box in a jiffy, and there, right on top, the first thing we came to—funny to tell, after what had just occurred—was the biggest saddle of mountain mutton, and a two-gallon jar of crabapple jelly to eat with it. The box was packed with all good, solid things to eat—about a bushel of biscuits and butter and sausage and pies, etc., etc.We all pitched in with a whoop. In ten minutes after the top was off, there was not a thing left in that box except one skin of sausage which I saved for our mess next morning. You can imagine how the boys did enjoy it. It was a bully way to end up that hungry Christmas Day. I wrote my thanks and the thanks of all the boys to my mother and sisters, who had packed that box, and I described the scene as I have here described it, which made them realize how welcome and acceptable their kind present was—and what comfort and pleasure it gave—all the more that it came to us on Christmas Day, and made it a joyful one—at the end, at least.