At the start of the Civil War, Thanksgiving had not yet become a national holiday. Earlier Presidents issued Thanksgiving proclamations, but this trend did not continue after James Monroe's Administration. Instead, each state set aside a day to give thanks. In 1861, the majority of states, including New York, Pennsylvania, and Vermont, fixed Thursday, November 28, as Thanksgiving. Massachusetts and Maine established a date of Thursday, November 21.
The governors' Thanksgiving proclamations were inevitably marked by talk of war. In Pennsylvania, Governor Andrew Curtin beseeched God that "our beloved country may have deliverance from those great and apparent dangers wherewith she is compassed, and that the brave and loyal men now battling in the field for her life may have their arms made strong and their blows heavy." Curtin also prayed that the "rebellious people" would "see the error in their ways" and "obediently walk in His holy commandments, and in submission to the just and manifest authority of the Republic." (Phila. Press, Oct. 25, 1861.) Governor Edwin Morgan of New York began his proclamation by recalling that "[a]mid the tramp of armies, the sound of fratricidal strife and lamentation for the fallen, we still behold the merciful arm of the Ruler of the Universe made bare for our protection." The governor reminded his fellow New Yorkers:
We believe that, in the wondrous plan of God, if we but humbly bow before Him and acknowledge our National sins, Infinite Wisdom will work out from this great tribulation a marked and permanent good . . . that this noble Union, the work of men inspired by the loftiest patriotism, the wonder of the world and the glory of this nation, will be preserved.
The government workers in Washington may have had less lofty thoughts in mind as the holiday approached. According to the November 21, 1861 edition of the Philadelphia Press, although the "City Councils" had selected November 28 as a day of thanksgiving in the District of Columbia,"the Departments will not be closed." The paper noted, however, that "mercantile business generally throughout the city will, it is said, be suspended after noonday." President Lincoln soon came to the rescue of government employees. On November 27, he issued the following order:
The Municipal authorities of Washington and Georgetown in this District, have appointed tomorrow, the 28th. instant, as a day of thanksgiving, the several Departments will on that occasion be closed, in order that the officers of the government may partake in the ceremonies.
The workers in Washington took full advantage of the day off. As the Press reported, "the stores are closed, the churches are filled, and the streets present a holiday appearance." Then, as now, the inhabitants of the nation's capital did not pass up the opportunity to imbibe. The Press noted that "[t]he saloons and barrooms [were] well patronized."
Even with all the festivities, the war was never too far away. Rumors abounded that Thanksgiving Day. According to the Press, some people believed that "our advanced guard has taken up the line of march towards Fairfax and Centreville." Others spoke of the flight of Confederate sympathizers from Alexandria. The Press rightfully considered all of these tales "absurd."
Across the Potomac River, the Union soldiers in the camps around Lewinsville and Langley, near present-day McLean, observed the holiday as best they could. Some men made out pretty well given the normal state of affairs in camp. According to a private from the 2nd Vermont at Camp Griffin, "in most companies enough extra rations had been disposed of to buy potatoes, fresh pork, chickens, turkeys, and other such luxuries as could be got, and all ate their fill." (in Zeller 50.) The men assembled later in the evening and "cooked their oysters, drank cider, and smoked a 'mild Havana,'" while reminiscing and telling stories. (in Zeller 50.) All told, this soldier considered that "it was a day of joy, and thanksgiving to us Vermonters." (in Zeller 50.) Others, who spent the day on picket duty, or whose regiments were less well supplied with victuals, may have taken exception.
The famed Bucktail Regiment (1st Pennsyvalnia Rifles) of the Pennsylvania Reserves passed a fun Thanksgiving at Camp Pierpont. According to an officer's account in the December 11, 1861 Philadelphia Press, "the soldiers enjoyed themselves eating oysters and shooting at a target." As might be expected, the crack marksmen held a contest to show off their skills with a gun. The prizes consisted of "a turkey, two bbls. of apples, and twelve pairs of socks, which had been presented to Colonel [Thomas] Kane by an old lady ninety years old." The winners of the apples split their bounty with other men from their companies. The socks got divided among three privates. According to the prideful officer, "many of the shots would have plunked a rebel's eye at one hundred yards."
The next day would bring a return to the normal routine of camp life. At least for a little while, the soldiers from Pennsylvania, Vermont, and other states had enjoyed the holiday and perhaps gotten a break from the everyday diet of hardtack and salt pork. Surely they would rather have been at home with loved ones, and many men must have fervently hoped that they would be back with family in a year's time. Meanwhile, the business of war, both in the nation's capital, and in the hills and fields across Northern Virginia, would continue.
Graz Historical Society, Graz, Pennsylvania, "Thanksgiving 1861--Preparation," Civil War Blog; Abraham Lincoln, Order for Day of Thanksgiving, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 5 (1953), Plimouth Plantation, "Thanksgiving History;" "Thanksgiving Day; Proclamation," New York Times, Oct. 3, 1861; Paul G. Zeller, The Second Vermont Volunteer Infantry Regiment, 1861-1865 (2002).
All Pennsylvania news articles can be found on the extensive Pennsylvania Civil War Era Newspaper Collection maintained by the Libraries of Penn State University.
Ron Baumgarten writes the blog "All Not So Quiet Along the Potomac: A DC Lawyer On The Civil War." To read more of his work, click here