Each year, Americans celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday with images of drab Pilgrim forefathers, Norman Rockwell turkey dinners, and autumnal themed centerpieces. The foliage laced holiday had long been observed in New England, but was transformed into a truly “American” holiday directly as a result of the Civil War when President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for “a day of thanksgiving” in 1863.
Early in the war, Thanksgiving had been celebrated by New England troops in the field but was not widely recognized by all sections of the country. Before the war, Virginia Governor Henry Wise had resisted calls to adopt the holiday because he believed it celebrated “abolitionism.” Until Lincoln’s Proclamation, the designation of Thanksgiving as a holiday was left to the individual states. While some Governors, like Connecticut’s William A. Buckingham, issued proclamations in honor of the holiday, most did not. In 1861, as the armies of North and South settled into winter camp, the Confederate President Jefferson Davis set aside November 15, 1861 as a “day of fasting, humiliation and prayer.” While President Davis did not specifically mention “Thanksgiving,” the Union army celebrated a more formal and typical New England Thanksgiving with turkey and pies. An 1861 drawing by the Harper’s special artist, Alfred R. Waud, depicted a feast in one Union camp.
Thanksgiving in Camp by Alfred R. Waud. (Credit: Library of Congress)
By the fall of 1863, Lincoln had little cause to celebrate. The progress of the war had been poor. The Union Army had been routed at the battle of Chancellorsville in May of that year, and had only beaten back the Confederate invasion of the North at Gettysburg in July by the narrowest of margins. The Union army declared victory at Gettysburg, but it had suffered greatly. Lincoln was privately frustrated that the Union commander, General G. Gordon Meade, had not followed up on his victory and pursued the retreating Confederates. The victory at Gettysburg had come at a dreadful cost – with nearly 8,000 dead and some 51,000 casualties. To add insult, in the wake of the battle, a public angered by draft laws that seemed to target the poor, rioted in Northern cities like Troy and New York. The violence often targeted African Americans as the President’s emancipation policies realigned the nature of the war and stirred racial tensions.
It was at just this moment, that President Lincoln announced a national day of thanksgiving, to be marked on the last Thursday in November. His Oct. 3, 1863, proclamation read: “In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity … 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 theater of military conflict.”
The following year, President Lincoln issued a second proclamation, which read, “I do further recommend to my fellow-citizens aforesaid that on that occasion they do reverently humble themselves in the dust.” Due in large part to the efforts of various Union League patriotic clubs in the major Northern cities, a program was developed to provide holiday meals to the troops serving in the field. The meals included turkey and mince pies. The outpouring of largesse was impressive. In Norwich, Connecticut for example, the Soldier’s Aid Committee sent 215 turkeys, 199 pies and other delicacies to the Front. In New York, steamers departed the harbor carrying 400,000 pounds of ham, canned peaches, apples and cakes – and turkeys with all the trimmings. They landed at General Grant’s headquarters in City Point, Virginia.
The feast provided to the soldiers was well received. Many soldiers recorded accounts of the bounty in diaries and letters. A letter preserved in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History written by one Union soldier, Vidal Thom, described:
My Dear Brother,
I suppose you are having a good time today eating chicken pie, plum pudding & C & C. are you not. I hope you art at aney rate for I want you to enjoy yourself as much as possible. I should like to be with you and help you ___ them and I know that you would like to have me ___ but although I cannot be with you to enjoy your luxceries and your company. Still I have many things to be thankful for I am thankful that my life has thus been spared to me and that I enjoy good heath I am thankful that you are all well at home. I am thankful that the good weather still continues which enables the army to keep on the move pressing the enemy back to this den. I hear cannon comanding this morning which sounds down to the Rapidan river.
I am in hopes that our army will be more successful this time and not have to fall back from thier position. If we are successful and the weather holds for a week longer I ___ in hopes that our Army will take Richmond this time. I should like a few gallons of that cider which you say you made and about one barel of those apples. This winter I should also like to have of that pigs legs after it was well pickled. But one thing I feel bad to hear that Willie has gone to Haverhill to work this winter instead of going to school. I wish very much that he would go to school this winter instead of working. I hope he has not let himself for 3 years for if he worlds this winter he must go to school next summer. I supose of course you will go to school this winter try hard to learn all you can and when you are older you will be glad you studied so ___ I have received the papers you sent me and was very glad ___ get them. I received a letter from George a few days ago he was well so ___ yes ____. I hope Mr Simervill will find some trace of our Dear Father.
My love and a kiss to mother I supose you would like to know what I had for Thanksgiving breakfast. Well I had a very good one. I had baked beans coffee with milk in it and bread which makes a good army meal. But I must close, give my love to all enquiring friends and accept the love and best wishes of your loving brother.
Sadly, Vidal Thom did not survive the war. After being captured and made a prisoner of war, he was exchanged and returned to the ranks. He was killed while on picket duty at Cox’s Mills, near Charlottesville, Virginia on July 18, 1864.
If the Union soldiers missed home during the holidays, they enjoyed celebrating at the Front with their comrades in arms. The artist Winslow Homer also recorded the celebrations in several illustrations that were published in Harper’s Weekly newspaper during the war. It is not surprising that Homer depicted the holiday. As a New Englander, Homer was already familiar with the holiday and had even published an illustration depicting a Thanksgiving dinner in a November 27, 1858 issue of Harper’s.
William F. Howard Collection
Homer, who served as a Special Artist for Harper’s, sent several drawings to his editors in New York that were made into woodblock prints and published in the paper. Homer’s first Thanksgiving illustration was published by Harper’s on November 29, 1862 – a year before Lincoln’s proclamation.
William F. Howard Collection
A second illustration by Homer titled, “Thanksgiving Day in the Army. After Dinner: The Wish-Bone,” was published in the paper’s December 3, 1864 issue.
William F. Howard Collection
This same issue published a remarkable center-spread illustration by Thomas Nast titled, “United We Stand,” that depicted Thanksgiving Day November 24, 1864. In 1865, following Lincoln’s death, President Andrew Johnson also issued a proclamation of thanksgiving for the nation.
William F. Howard Collection
It was in difficult times, like the Civil War, that Americans paused to give thanks. President Lincoln issued two Thanksgiving proclamations, but it wasn’t until the storm clouds of World War II approached, that Thanksgiving was elevated to a true national holiday. In 1939, with America limping out of the Great Depression and war unfolding in Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a proclamation designating the fourth Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day. Roosevelt did this for economic reasons since Thanksgiving had already become the informal start of Christmas shopping season.
In December 1941, President Roosevelt signed legislation making Thanksgiving a legal holiday on the fourth Thursday in November.
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