Thanksgiving in America: 1860-1900 . . and beyond (Part 2)


Sergeant Major
Aug 6, 2016

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth”
Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1850-1935)
Quote from President Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation October, 1863

(Public Domain)

There was one battle during the Civil War that didn’t take part on any battlefield - it was the battle fought with Presidential “Thanksgiving” Proclamations. This battle was waged when United States President Abraham Lincoln and Confederate States President Jefferson Davis issued a request for their people to be in prayer, fasting, humiliation and Thanksgiving during the war years. Thanksgiving Proclamations continued with President Andrew Johnson’s October 28, 1865 proclamation and then on October 5, 1869 when President Ulysses Grant issued his.​


Abraham Lincoln; Jefferson Davis; Andrew Johnson; Ulysses Grant
(Public Domain)

On October 31, 1861 Jefferson Davis issued his first Proclamation calling for “A Day of Fasting & Humiliation” (not Thanksgiving) but a request “to protect and defend us hitherto in our conflicts with our enemies as to be unto them a shield” {3} . Less than six months later (April 10, 1862) Abraham Lincoln issued his “Thanksgiving Day Proclamation in 1862 for Victory in Battle”. Not to be forgotten within five months, (September 4, 1862) Jefferson Davis was issuing another Proclamation for his victory when he wrote: “Once more upon the plains of Manassas have our armies been blessed by the Lord of Hosts with a triumph over our enemies” {3}.

Abraham Lincoln called up the day of August 6, 1863 as a Proclamation of Thanksgiving for Victory in Battles and for the people “to be put aside to to be observed as a day for national thanksgiving, praise, and prayer, and I invite the people of the United States to assemble on that occasion in their customary places of worship and in the forms approved by their own consciences render the homage due to the Divine Majesty for the wonderful things He has done in the nation’s behalf”. {3}

It would not be until October of 1863 when President Lincoln officially Proclaimed what was the call for a national day of Thanksgiving which is the foundation for what we celebrate today. Excerpt here:

“I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, 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 the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.” {1}

There would be one more Proclamation from Jefferson Davis issued on January 25, 1865.​

“The Congress of the Confederate States have, by a joint resolution, invited me to appoint a day of public fasting, humiliation, anad prayer, with thanksgiving to Almighty God.

It is our solemn duty at all times, and more especially in a season of public trial and adversity, to acknowledge our dependence on His mercy, and to bow in humble submission before His footstool, confessing our manifold sins, supplicating His gracious pardon, imploring His divine help, and devoutly rendering thanks for the many and great blessings which He has vouchsafed to us.

Let the hearts of our people turn contritely and trustingly unto God; let us recognize in His chasteniing hand the correction of a Father, and submissively pray that the trials and sufferings which have so long borne heavily upon us may be turned away by His merciful love; that His sustaining grave be given to our people and His divine wisdom imparted to our rulers; that the Lord of Hosts will be with our armies and fight for us agaiinst our enemies, and that He will graciously take our cause into His own hand and mercifully establish for us a lasting, just, and Honorable peace and independence.

And let us not forget to render unto His holy name the thanks and praise which are so justly due for His great goodness and for the many mercies which He has extended to us amid the trials and suffering of protracted and bloody war.

Now, therefore I, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, do issue this my proclamation, appointing Friday, the 10th day of March next, as a day of public fasting, humiliation, and prayer (with thanksgiving) for "invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God," and I do earnestly invite all soldiers and citizens to observe the same in a spirit of reverence, penitence, and prayer.

Given under my hand and the federate States, at Richmond, this 25th day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-five. {3}

Meanwhile Back in Camp


Thanksgiving in Camp - November 28, 1861
Illustration by Alfred Ward
(LOC/Public Domain)

For the soldiers in the field, Thanksgivings came and Thanksgivings went. In 1861 an Illinois soldier writes home to his sisters with details of Thanksgiving. He wrote he had hard bread and salt pork for his meal. He also wrote his sisters:

“during the day I thought of you at home having your nice dinners and wishing maybe that you might present a plate to some of us soldiers filled with your own goodies.” {5}

Private Zebina Bickford of the 6th Vermont Infantry spent his last Thanksgiving content with a package of goodies he received from home. The box contained some clothing and o food items. He also noted that he had bread and salt pork but added:

“some of mother’s cookies and doughnuts that came in our box” made the evening memorable”. {5}

He died the following April in 1862. Dr. Asa Bean was a lucky fellow when on November 27, 1862 he wrote home that he feasted on “roast turkey, chicken, pigeon, and oysters stewed”. And like Private Zebina Bickford it was his last Thanksgiving feast as he died months later.

I think the best illustration of the state of any “feast” in the Confederate army is seen in the book “Their Last Full Measure: the Final Days of The Civil War”, by Joseph Wheelan. He opens his book in January 1865 to be specific January 1 of that year. The women of Richmond and Petersburg were busy preparing a feast to take to the Confederate troops. A cease fire had been issued by General Ulysses Grant out of respect for the Confederates not firing on his troops during Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The ladies had been fund raising to provide this special day with a special treat for their special men. The 18th Georgia waited and watched all day for the arrival of the food. “What a long day that seemed to be!” wrote John Coxe. He continues the story:

“We whiled away the tedious hours by telling stories and cracking jokes.” [At midnight some went to sleep after the men on night watched promised to summon their comrades when dinner arrived. About 3 a.m., the Georgians were awakened and told that a detail had gone out to meet the dinner wagon.] “But O what a disappointment when the squad returned issued to each man only one small sandwich made up of two tiny slices of bread and a thin piece of ham.” {5}

He goes on to report that after they ate:

“a middle-aged corporal lit his pipe and said, ‘God bless our noble women!’ It was all they could do; it was all they had.” {5}

Reportedly grown man wept.
The women did the best they could when there was
no food to be found in Richmond or Petersburg.


Winslow Homer’s Thanksgiving in Camp
Published - 1862
(Public Domain)

At war’s end the country was now faced with the difficult job of moving forward. President Andrew Johnson issued the first Thanksgiving Proclamation after the end of the war. He declared on October 28, 1865:

“Whereas it has pleased Almighty God during the year which is now coming to an end to relieve our beloved country from the fearful scourge of civil war and to permit us to secure the blessings of peace, unity, and harmony, with a great enlargement of civil liberty; and

Whereas our Heavenly Father has also during the year graciously averted from us the calamities of foreign war, pestilence, and famine, while our granaries are full of the fruits of an abundant season; and

Whereas righteousness exalteth a nation, while sin is a reproach to any people :

Now, therefore, be it known that I, Andrew Johnson, President of the United States, do hereby recommend to the people thereof that they do set apart and observe the first Thursday of December next as a day of national thanksgiving to the Creator of the Universe for these great deliverances and blessings.

And I do further recommend that on that occasion the whole people make confession of our national sins against His infinite goodness, and with one heart and one mind implore the divine guidance in the ways of national virtue and holiness.”


For the Southern states would take time. The “Weekly Advocate” of Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1868 reported:

“Thanksgiving was kept by a portion of the community. . .Very little preparation had been made for big dinners. Turkeys are scarce, pumpkins are not fashionable eating in these latitudes.” {6}

The article went on to state that most residents spent the day hunting or spent the day with friends chatting about “politics and personal reminiscences”. Resistance ran deep for in 1873 the “Alexandria Gazette” in Virginia reported:

"The President's Thanksgiving Day was observed here only partially, all the grafts of New England custom upon a Virginia stock having so far found but moderate growth.” {6}

General Ulysses Grant issued a Thanksgiving Day Proclamation for the first Thanksgiving he was president October 5, 1869:

“The year which is drawing to a close has been free from pestilence; health has prevailed throughout the land; abundant crops reward the labors of the husbandman; commerce and manufactures have successfully prosecuted their peaceful paths; the mines and forests have yielded liberally; the nation has increased in wealth and in strength; peace has prevailed, and its blessings have advanced every interest of the people in every part of the Union; harmony and fraternal intercourse restored are obliterating the marks of past conflict and estrangement; burdens have been lightened; means have been increased; civil and religious liberty are secured to every inhabitant of the land, whose soil is trod by none but freemen.

It becomes a people thus favored to make acknowledgment to the Supreme Author from whom such blessings flow of their gratitude and their dependence, to render praise and thanksgiving for the same, and devoutly to implore a continuance of God’s mercies.

Therefore, I, Ulysses S. Grant, President of the United States, do recommend that Thursday, the 18th day of November next, be observed as a day of thanksgiving and of praise and of prayer to almighty God, the creator and the ruler of the universe; and I do further recommend to all the people of the United States to assemble on that day in their accustomed places of public worship and to unite in the homage and praise due to the bountiful Father of All Mercies and in fervent prayer for the continuance of the manifold blessings he has vouchsafed to us as a people." {3}

“Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner”

Thomas Nast used his talent in illustration and in the November 20, 1869 edition of Harper’s Weekly he drew his first portrayal of a character that would be forever known in the United States as “Uncle Sam”. He drew the illustration to imply images of:

“freedom, equality, and unity—images still associated with Uncle Sam today. Nast wrote out in the lower left-hand corner of the illustration the words "Come One, Come All," and in the lower right-hand corner the words "Free and Equal." He used these phrases to show that all the men and women of different races and backgrounds—such as Chinese, Indian, White, and Black—were equal while sitting at the dinner table of Uncle Sam.” {7}


(Public Domain)

What could be a better example of an American Thanksgiving when according to “The Evening Telegraph” in Philadelphia reported on November 25, 1869 the first intercollegiate football game was played on Thanksgiving Day when Rutgers University faced off against Princeton University. {8} The Intercollegiate Football Association determined in 1882, Thanksgiving was established as the day on which the two best college football teams would play to determine the champion of the year. ​


Postcard from 1900
(Public Domain)

Thanksgiving is a well-established tradition in the United States. President Franklin Roosevelt changed the date to the 4th Thursday in November. (So done to give a boost to retain sales by adding an extra weekend for Christmas shopping during the last year of the depression.) That year Thanksgiving was called Franksgiving

Last year Americans consumed 46 million turkeys; 5,062,500 gallons of canned, jellied cranberry sauce; 214 million pounds of potatoes; 50 million pounds of sweet potatoes; and last of all will consume 18.9 million pies made of either apples, pumpkin or pecan. {9}


* * *

5. “Their Last Full Measure: The Final Days of the Civil War”, by Joseph Wheelan


Sergeant Major
Aug 6, 2016
Am I reading properly that Thanksgiving was your be a day of fasting?
When did we change from fasting to gluttony on the holiday....
Maybe this will help explain. In Part 1, Thanksgiving in America 1800-1860 - I discuss how the holiday was celebrated before the war. In one section I note the “The Lowell Daily Citizen and News” of Massachusetts calculated and printed printed the following:

“One million turkeys, 12,000,000 chickens, 30,000,000 pounds of pork, 30,000,000 pounds of beef, 6,000,000 pounds of raisins, 30,000,000 pounds of flour, 30,000,000 pounds of sugar. The turkeys placed three feet apart in a straight line would reach from Massachusetts to Indiana. The chickens, one foot apart, would reach from New York to California. The pies, side by side, would reach across the Atlantic Ocean. It would require 25,000 cattle and 50,000 swine to furnish the beef and pork. The raisins would cost nearly a million of dollars, and the flour quite that sum. The sugar would cost about three millions, and the whole value of the items we have named would exceed $18,000,000! Our estimate gives one turkey to three families, four chickens to each family, also ten pies, ten pounds each of pork and beef, two pounds of raisins, ten pounds of flour and ten of sugar. The eggs, spices, lard, butter and ‘fixins’ generally, of which we have made no account, would raise the sum total to nearly twenty-five millions of dollars.”

The date of the article - December 4, 1858

I believe during the reality of the war years Thanksgiving took a more sobering tone based on the tragedy that faced each family and in some cases the lack of food.​

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