Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving 1864 in Washington City

As Thanksgiving Day fast approaches, I wanted to take a look like I do every year at how the holiday was celebrated in and around Washington during the Civil War. For each year of the Sesquicentennial I've been concentrating on Thanksgiving at the corresponding time 150 years ago. It's hard to believe that we have at long last come to the final Thanksgiving of the Civil War. In a year, the war would be over, and the long process of reunion and reconstruction begun. But in 1864, Sherman was on the march in Georgia, Grant was dug in before Petersburg, and Lincoln had just won reelection. The nation gathered around the table on November 24, hopeful that the bloodshed would soon end and peace would return to the land.

Like other places around the country, Washington City greeted Thanksgiving with enthusiasm. The Washington Evening Star provided readers with an overview of the holiday in the nation's capital:
Yesterday, the day designated by President Lincoln as a day of Thanksgiving, was very generally observed. Public offices, banks and places of business were closed, and the people set themselves to a hearty observance of the day, not forgetting to pay due attention to that estimable feature of the occasion, the Thanksgiving Dinner, which sent up its appetizing odor throughout the length and breath of the city. The weather was just the thing for thanksgiving day purposes, with a mild crispness, not cold, but cool enough to be bracing, and to make it pleasant to gather about the glowing fire and the smoking board at nightfall. (Nov. 25, 1864.)
The papers in particular discussed the Thanksgiving celebrations at the military hospitals in Washington, which were decorated for the occasion with patriotic banners and festive greenery. Convalescing soldiers feasted on a full Thanksgiving dinner thanks to the generosity of public and private donors. The menu for 500 patients at Armory Square Hospital was typical:
Roast beef, roast veal, boiled ham, roast turkey, roast goose, chicken pie, cranberry sauce, cranberry tart, apple pie, mixed cakes, jellies, smoked beef, bologna sausage, bread, butter, celery, oyster stew, oysters raw, cheese, crackers, ice cream, baked rock fish, boiled cod fish, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, [cole] slaw, picked cucumbers, pickled beets, apples, almonds, raisins, figs, coffee, tea, cocoa. (Wash. Daily Natl. Rep., Nov. 25, 1864.)
Other hospitals across the city served similar feasts, but "the non-receipt of the poultry" at the Quartermaster's Hospital caused a postponement of the holiday until Saturday! (Wash. Even. Star, Nov. 25, 1864.)

"United We Stand," Harper's Weekly, Dec. 3, 1864, by Thomas Nast (courtesy of The newsweekly offered some words of thanks: "THE American people have this year such reason as they never had before to give humble and hearty thanks to Almighty God. . . . First of all by a singular unanimity the people have resolved that the authority of their Government and the order of civil society shall be maintained, and have expressed their will by the re-election of the President whose name is identified with the defense of the Union and the perpetuity of the American principle. . . . They thank God that the great State of Maryland, torn by civil war, has deliberately renounced the system from which all our woes have sprung, and has led the march of the Slave States in the path of equal liberty and justice, the way of permanent peace. . . . They thank God that the defeat of rebels and the consternation of foreign foes foretell the triumph from which peace and prosperity shall flow."

Following dinner, the patients enjoyed speeches, musical entertainment, and dancing late into the night. At Campbell Hospital, Gov. Oliver Morton of Indiana paid a visit. According to the Daily National Republican, the governor, "with his characteristic good nature, yielded to the pressing demands of the company, and, curing a pause in the dance, addressed them in a brief speech, full of patriotic wisdom and fervor." (Nov. 25, 1864.) The patients and guests  "were most enthusiastic in their praise of this gallant champion of the good cause, and gained new enthusiasm from this eloquent appeals," so much so that the dancing last until 11. (Nov. 25, 1864.)

"Thanksgiving-Day in the Army. After Dinner: The Wish-Bone," Harper's Weekly, Dec. 3, 1864, by Winslow Homer (courtesy of
On November 25, the Daily National Republican offered the following editorial to readers recovering from Thanksgiving Day excesses:
Second only to the American eagle is that other great American bird, the turkey. How many of the latter were laid upon the altar of their country yesterday we can state only approximately. Sheridan's army had turkey dinners, the armies of the Potomac and the James feasted on turkeys, and the soldiers in our hospitals had turkey to right of them, turkey to left of them. The gallants tars of the navy received cargoes of turkeys, which were duly stowed away under their hatches.
Sherman's brave boys probably dined upon sweet potatoes and spring pork, commonly called "shoat,"in the southern plantations. Sherman being beyond the reach of the Commissions and State Agencies, is obliged to forge upon a country where turkies (as well as the American eagle) are scarce, and his men are themselves "gobblers" about this time, unless they have been gobbled by the rebs. This last supposition has but little probability, however, for Sherman's army would make too heavy a meal for rebel digestion.
The soldiers in the camps and in the hospitals of the military department of Washington, fared sumptuously. . . and our citizens enjoyed the festival in their own houses with the unusual zest, after having duly attended service in the churches. Turkies were rather high, but "the goose" was higher, and the American Eagle soared above all. (Nov. 25, 1864.)
After a fully satisfying day of rest and celebration, the busy work of the nation's capital would resume in earnest. There was unfinished business to conduct; a war to be won. And as much as the citizens of Washington City had to be thankful for in 1864, they would have even more blessings to count in a year's time.

On a personal note, I'd like to wish all of my readers a Happy Thanksgiving! Enjoy the good times with family and friends, eat plenty of turkey, and see you in December.


Washington Daily National Republican,Nov. 25, 1864; Washington Evening Star, Nov. 25, 1864.

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