Thursday, November 21, 2013

Preparing for Thanksgiving in Washington City and Alexandria, November 1863

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. Each year since starting the blog, I've taken a look at how the day was celebrated in and around the nation's capital at the time of the Civil War. As I wrote a few years ago, Thanksgiving was not yet a national holiday when the war began. Instead, individual states set aside a day in November to give thanks. Soldiers and civilians alike took the opportunity to observe the holiday with food, religious services, and numerous diversions.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of a key event in the history of Thanksgiving. On October 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation designating the last Thursday in November "as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficient Father who dwelleth in the Heavens." (Alex. Gazette, Oct. 5, 1863.) This proclamation laid the groundwork for the national holiday that we know today. (The full text of proclamation is available here.)

The country enthusiastically embraced Lincoln's call. By mid-November, the Alexandria Gazette reported:
Large preparations are making at the North for "Thanksgiving Day," 26th of November. Raisons [sic], lemons and grapes, &c., are arriving, opportunely, in vessels from Malaga, &c. (Alex. Gazette, Nov. 13, 1863.)
Residents in Washington found the stores well-stocked for the upcoming holiday. The Perpetual Market on H Street advertised the "finest lot in Washington" of turkeys and other birds for "THANKSGIVING DINNERS." (Wash. Evening Star, Nov. 24, 1863.) Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Provision Store on Pennsylvania Avenue offered for sale a "large lot of TURKIES, CHICKENS, DUCKS, and GAME of all kinds." (Wash. Evening Star, Nov. 24 1863.) A.M. Bininger & Co., also on Pennsylvania Avenue, announced "FOR THE HOLIDAYS. . . THE MOST COMPLETE ASSORTMENT OF WINE AND LIQUORS TO BE FOUND IN THE METROPOLIS." (Wash. Evening Star, Nov. 25, 1863.)

A play on President Lincoln's Thanksgiving Day Proclamation from a merchant in Washington City, Washington Evening Star, Nov. 25, 1863

Businesses adopted holiday operating hours in both Washington and Alexandria. The Gazette carried a notice informing readers that due to the "day of Thanksgiving and Prayer," the market in Alexandria would be closed on Thursday, November 26. Instead, the market would remain "open all day on the Wednesday preceding." (Alex. Gazette, Nov. 21, 1863.)  Similarly, the Center Market in Washington was scheduled to be open Wednesday afternoon, the 25th, rather than the next morning. (Wash. Evening Star, Nov. 25, 1863.) Gen. John Slough, the military governor of Alexandria, even issued a notice concerning proper commercial practices on Thanksgiving Day:
Thursday, the 26th inst., having been set apart by the proclamations of the President of the United States and the Governor of the State of Virginia as a day of thanksgiving and praise to Almighty God for his many blessings conferred on us as a people, so that the occasion may be properly observed, all citizens and soldiers in this command are notified that they will be expected, upon that day, to abstain from ordinary business pursuits except those unavoidably necessary. (Alex. Gazette, Nov. 24, 1863.)
No word on whether the provost marshal attempted to enforce Slough's notice, but whatever the case, today's big box retailers could learn a thing or two from our ancestors in 1863 about respecting the Thanksgiving holiday!
Family shopping for Thanksgiving Day turkey, c. 1860s (courtesy of PostersGuide)
The papers contained reminders of the religious nature of the holiday. Among the houses of worship in Washington, the E Street Baptist Church, the Unitarian Church, and the Wesley Chapel placed special notices about Thanksgiving Day services. (Wash. Evening Star, Nov. 25, 1863; Wash. Natl. Rep., Nov. 25, 1863.) The U.S. Christian Commission "made an appeal to the several pastors and congregations of the District to present the claims of the Commission on Thanksgiving Day, and take up a collection to aid them in their work." (Wash. Natl. Rep., Nov. 25, 1863.)

Thanksgiving Day also provided ample opportunity for fun and entertainment. The Evening Star noted that the Smithsonian Museum would be open to the public on Thanksgiving from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Wash. Evening Star, Nov. 25, 1863.) Those who were more theatrically inclined had the option of attending one of the many performances around town. Ford's New Theatre on 10th Street was staging "TWO GRAND PERFORMANCES" of Po-Ca-Hon-Tas, or, Ye Gentle Savage on Thanksgiving Day. (Wash. Natl. Rep., Nov. 25, 1863.) Meanwhile, "THE ENTIRE ITALIAN OPERA COMPANY OF IMPRESARIO GRAU" was performing at Grover's Theatre near Willard's Hotel (today's National Theater). (Wash. Natl. Rep., Nov. 25, 1863.) For the more adventurous and sports-minded, the Meridian Hill House uptown was hosting a "GRAND SHOOTING MATCH" with the prize of a 200-pound "live bear." (Wash. Evening Star, Nov. 25, 1863.) Readers were reminded that "street cars stop near the house."(Wash. Evening Star, Nov. 25, 1863.)

Thousands of sick and wounded soldiers filled hospitals in Alexandria and Washington. They too would have a chance to celebrate the holiday. As the Gazette observed on November 25:
Preparations are in the making at all the U.S. hospitals in this place, for the observance of to-morrow as a day of thanksgiving. Dinners and refreshments are to be furnished at all of them, and supplies have been received therefor. (Alex. Gazette, Nov. 25, 1863.)
The pages of the local newspapers in November 1863 tell the story of two cities preoccupied with preparations for Thanksgiving Day. Far away in Tennessee, Gen. U.S. Grant stood ready to break the Confederate hold on Chattanooga. By Thanksgiving, the nation would be receiving the blessings of yet another victory in a year that had already witnessed Gettysburg and Vicksburg.


Alexandria Gazette, Oct. 5, Nov. 13, 21, 24, & 25; "Thanksgiving History," Plimouth Plantation (website); Washington Evening Star, Nov. 24 & 25, 1863; Washington National Republican, Nov. 25, 1863.

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