Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving 1863 in Washington and Alexandria

President Lincoln issued a proclamation in October 1863 declaring the last Thursday of November as a national day of Thanksgiving. During the countdown to the holiday, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant defeated the Confederate Army of Tennessee in a series of engagements before Chattanooga. News of the Union victories began to appear in newspapers prior to Thanksgiving Day, providing the country with even more reason to give thanks.

Last week, I discussed how the residents of Washington City and Alexandria prepared to mark the Thanksgiving holiday in November 1863. Now, on the eve of our own family celebrations, I'd like to take a look at Thanksgiving Day observances in the two cities.

People in Washington and Alexandria awoke to stunning autumn weather on Thanksgiving morning, November 26. As the Washington National Republican observed: "The day dawned bright and beautiful. The atmosphere was cool and bracing. Every heart, therefore, leaped high with joyous thrillings." (Nov. 27, 1863.) Similarly, the Alexandria Gazette reported on November 27 that "[y]esterday was one of the most delightful days -- as to weather-- we have had this fall."

The Washington Evening Star provided an overview of the holiday in the nation's capital:
Yesterday being Thanksgiving day, it was celebrated by a general suspension of business throughout the city, and in accordance with the recommendation of the authorities was very generally observed. Services of an appropriate character were held at all the churches, and all were well attended. Others celebrated the day by attendance upon one or the other of the place of amusement, all of which were open. The street cars were filled on every trip, mostly by those who took the occasion for a ride from the Navy Yard to Georgetown and intervening points. The day was indeed recognized as one justly set apart for thanksgiving and joy on account of the many victories which have recently crowned the Union arms; and when about 12 o'clock, the extra Star appeared, announcing further victories and new causes of gratulations, the public felt indeed that the day was one for the exchange of gratulations and the pouring out of devout thanksgiving. (Nov. 27, 1863.)
The Gazette was a little less verbose, but also took note of the observance of Thanksgiving in Alexandria:
Business in this place was suspended yesterday. In the Methodist Episcopal, Methodist Protestant, and Christ Church, religious services were held and addresses delivered, and collections taken up for the Federal prisoners confined in Richmond. (Nov. 27, 1863.)
The National Republican devoted considerable space to summarizing the Thanksgiving Day sermons around town. Most notably, at the Calvary Baptist Church, the Rev. T.R. Howlett "preached an eloquent and truly patriotic sermon." (Wash. Natl. Rep., Nov. 27, 1863.) He thanked God "for the glorious results of our many victories." (Wash. Natl. Rep., Nov. 27, 1863.)  The paper observed that "[o]n this point, the speaker dwelt at some length, referring to several of the most important battles, closing with the last, the glad intelligence of which so appropriately reached the ears of a grateful people this very day." (Wash. Natl. Rep., Nov. 27, 1863.) Howlett also reminded his congregation about the meaning of the war :
We should today thank God for the brightening prospects of freedom. The conflict in which we are now engaged is to settle forever the principles of the Declaration of Independence. From the womb of the storm, universal liberty is to be  born. (Wash. Natl. Rep., Nov. 27, 1863.)

"Thanksgiving-Day," Harper's Weekly, Dec. 5, 1863, by Thomas Nast (courtesy of Gilder Lehrman Institute)
The patients in military hospitals throughout the capital also had an opportunity to partake in the Thanksgiving Day festivities. As the National Republican reported:
. . . suffice it to say that a merry time was enjoyed by all -- both patients and invited guests. There was a superfluity of turkeys, roast beef, plum pudding, and all the little etceteras which go to constitute a good sumptuous Thanksgiving dinner. In the afternoon the religious exercises were held by the chaplains, and in two or three a dance was held in the evening. We venture the assertion that the inmates of the hospitals of our city yesterday spent as happy a time as was possible for the surgeons-in-charge and the noble women of our city who act as nurses could possibly make them. (Nov. 27, 1863.)
At Emory Hospital east of the Capitol, "'Do they miss me at home' was on the lips of all." (Wash. Natl. Rep., Nov. 27, 1863.) The paper described some of the day's entertainment for the convalescing soldiers:
The band of the 15th New York discoursed the most exquisite music. "Yankee Doodle" and the "Star Spangled Banner" were rendered with a spirit we have seldom seen equalled. (Wash. Natl. Rep., Nov. 27, 1863.) 
The patients even presented assistant surgeon W.H. Ensign with "a splendid silver service, a pitcher, two goblets, and salver, exquisitely and appropriately engraved." (Wash. Natl. Rep., Nov. 27, 1863.)

Across the Potomac in Alexandria, the hospitals were also filled with holiday cheer. According to the Gazette, "several of the U.S. Hospitals were decorated, and in all of them, the inmates were provided with repasts." (Nov. 27, 1863.)

As in the previous two years, Thanksgiving provided welcome relief from the everyday routine of civilian and military life in and around the nation's capital. Grant's victories made the holiday that much more meaningful and offered hope for the future. Alas, another Thanksgiving would come and go before the bloodletting would end and the U.S. flag would waive once again over the capital of a reunited country.

On a personal note, I'd like to wish readers Happy Thanksgiving! See you in December! Be forewarned, however, that due to the end of the year rush to make trade deals, things may slow a bit around here next month. Regardless, I have a few good posts in the works that I hope to share.

Alexandria Gazette, Nov. 27, 1863; Washington Evening Star, Nov. 27, 1863; Washington National Republican, Nov. 27, 1863

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