When we sit down to our Thanksgiving meals this year, we should take some time to remember the men and women in uniform who are unable to spend the holiday with their own families. We might also remember that Thanksgiving became a national holiday in time of war, and largely due to an effort 150 years ago to ensure that our soldiers and sailors in the field enjoyed some of the comforts of home.
Thanksgiving originated in Massachusetts, and on the eve of the Civil War was still not observed nationally. In the 1850s, Thanksgiving was celebrated in about ten states in New England and the midwest. It was a time both of feasting and of charity, acknowledging the blessings of plenty while remembering those who had little. “Eat the fat, and drink the sweet,” counseled a New York Times editorial in 1851, “and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared.”
When war broke out the observance became more widespread, and in 1861 the number of states celebrating Thanksgiving doubled. Troops took their traditions with them to the front, and the soldiers of Massachusetts regiments in particular held grand feasts in their field commands. Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew decreed such a celebration during the first November of the war, hoping that “military duties may not be inconsistent with their observation, in some fitting manner, of the day annually set apart for the renewal and enlivening of the domestic affections.”
President Lincoln declared a number of thanksgivings, for example in April 1862, and July 1863 after Gettysburg. Two months later Lady’s Book magazine editor Sarah Hale wrote a letter to Lincoln urging him to proclaim a national day of Thanksgiving reflecting the traditional holiday. Lincoln soon issued a declaration asking that the blessings bestowed upon the country “be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people” and inviting Americans at home and abroad “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.” This was the first general Thanksgiving observance, but the following year the holiday became the occasion for a national show of unity and support.
In October 1864, the president again decreed that the last Thursday of November be set aside to offer up prayers “for a return of the inestimable blessings of peace, union, and harmony throughout the land which it has pleased Him to assign as a dwelling-place for ourselves and for our posterity throughout all generations.”
Shortly thereafter, on October 27, a citizen of New York City known first only by the initials GWB (belonging to noted editor George W. Blunt), used the occasion of the holiday to propose a great national endeavor. Blunt suggested that “something be done for the Army and Navy” for Thanksgiving, “not only to aid them in keeping the day properly, but to show them they are remembered at home.” He proposed to send the troops “poultry and pies, or puddings, all cooked, ready for use.”
Blunt estimated it would take 50,000 turkeys and a like number of pies to feed the 220,000 men of the Army and Navy in Virginia then besieging Richmond. “This seems to be a big undertaking,” he wrote, “but I do not see any difficulty in carrying it out.” The food could be prepared and boxed up by those who could afford it, and shipped from New York a few days in advance, in time to be distributed the day before. If the idea has merit, he wrote, “I am ready to do my best with others to put it through.”
A committee was set up to organize the effort, their goal being that on Thanksgiving Day there would be no soldier or sailor in the eastern theater “who does not receive tangible evidence that those for whom he is periling his life remember him.” They felt it was particularly important to reach men who had no families back home. Blunt served as the committee’s executive director, and the treasurer was Theodore Roosevelt, father of the future president (then six years old). “Will not all who feel that we have a country worth defending and preserving,” the committee wrote in the Times, “do something to show those who are fighting our battles that they are remembered and honored?” The appeal was reprinted in many papers and the proposal caught on immediately.
Contributions began to come in from all over the country. Within three weeks, with little publicity and no direct solicitation, the committee had collected $50,000 (almost $600,000 in today’s dollars). The Times reprinted some of the letters sent accompanying the contributions. One contributor, signing “Little Mac” in homage to recently defeated Democratic presidential candidate and former Union General George McClellan, noted in verse,
Although I voted a Democrat,
But it has nothing to do with that.
It only shows a man can be
A Democrat and love sweet liberty.
Public stores were made available for the turkeys and “other good things for the soldiers and sailors on the James.” Goods were to be cooked, wrapped in white paper, packed in straw in boxes or barrels, and marked “Our Defenders, City Point.” Private transport companies volunteered to ship the materials by rail and steamship. The food drive was emulated in other cities. Ladies of Jersey City contributed $1,500 for the purchase of cigars and tobacco for the troops. The citizens of Orange, New Jersey, sent bags of tomatoes for sauces. There was a proposal to send 1,000 barrels of apples to soldiers, and the Army Apple Fund was born. The governor of Ohio suggested that the Saturday following Thanksgiving be devoted to helping the families of servicemen, especially those suffering privations by the absence of their men. It was called “a day of gladness for the wives and children of our brave defenders,” and is an idea that still has merit.
As the day neared, the foodstuffs were collected and shipped out. Steamers took meals to sailors and Marines in the blockade forces, and in the ports and fortifications along the eastern seaboard. Trains headed south to predetermined distribution points. Blunt believed the effect of the outpouring of public support would inspire the troops to “hit the rebels a harder lick than ever.”
Meanwhile Jefferson Davis also declared a Thanksgiving day, for November 16, 1864, a day “specially devoted to the worship of Almighty God,” that the people of the Confederacy would join together in prayer that God would, inter alia, “restore peace to our beloved country, healing its bleeding wounds and securing to us the continued enjoyment of our right of self-government and independence.” But when the day arrived, Atlanta was in flames, Sherman started his march to the sea, and Lee’s men huddled in their trenches around Richmond. Confederate War Department clerk J. B. Jones dryly noted in his diary that the Confederate Thanksgiving was “like Sunday, with an occasional report of cannon down the river.”
November 24 dawned cold, bright, and brilliant on the eastern seaboard. General George G. Meade reported to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, “Nothing new or important this morning except the arrival of deserters, who report the occupation of Macon by Sherman.” Sherman’s Army continued its march, sadly unable to be reached with the Thanksgiving turkeys, but not having time to pause. In Virginia and North Carolina, Union troops were “relieved from all duty not essential to the safety of the command.”
Turkey feasts were enjoyed by Union troops in camps, on the siege lines, and in the rear areas. Seventeen thousand meals were served in Washington, DC, to troops defending the city and convalescing in hospitals. A large banquet was held in Alexandria, Virginia, followed by a grand ball. In Baltimore, the Union Ladies’ Committee distributed meals to Union soldiers and rebel prisoners alike. At Camp Parole, in Annapolis, roast turkey had been the primary topic of conversation for days. That morning “every face wore a joyous aspect, in anticipation of the good things in preparation for the dinner.” Orderlies set long tables of turkey, pies, bread, butter, tea and cider. Fourteen hundred men sat down, Federal soldiers and paroled Confederates, men from every state in the Union, probably the first such all-American Thanksgiving meal ever.
Shipments sent to the Shenandoah Valley were coordinated with the city of Philadelphia. When transportation arrangements broke down at the last minute, Reverend George F. Noyes personally undertook the mission to get the food delivered. “The want of proper appliances compelled most of the men to broil or stew their turkeys,” he wrote, “but everyone seemed fully satisfied, and appreciated the significance of this sympathetic thank-offering from the loyal North. One soldier said to me, ‘It isn’t the turkey, but the idea that we care for,’ and he thus struck the key-note of the whole festival.”
Fearing shortages, General Sheridan ordered the food first be distributed to enlisted men, but some officers had made independent arrangements for their units guaranteeing there was plenty for all. “Joy and festivity were the order of the day,” a correspondent wrote, “and you may depend upon it that our brave fellows in the field knew how to do justice to the occasion.” Near New Town, Virginia, the officers and men of the Ninetieth New York regiment sat down to a feast of turkeys, chickens, cakes and fruits, “more evidence that we are not forgotten, nor can we ever forget those who, while they are enjoying all the comforts of home and plenty, still think of, and by their noble deeds testify that they remember the soldiers.”
The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Thanksgiving united the country in the spirit of giving, gratitude, and patriotism. It showed the troops at the front that the country was behind them, and solidified Thanksgiving as a national observance. So please take a minute to remember those who are giving so much for us, or better yet find a way to let them know that you care. Let’s give our service people all the support we can, so they will be able to say, in the words of a Union soldier, “When we are asked, ‘Do they think of us at home?’ our own hearts can willingly and gladly respond, ‘They do.’”