Nationally, America only celebrated two holidays in the mid-nineteenth century: July 4 and George Washington’s Birthday. This changed when, due to the tireless efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale, President Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring November 24, 1864 to be a day of Thanksgiving for the Union.
Upon hearing this news, wealthy, influential New Yorker George W. Blunt made a proclamation of his own. Writing to Lincoln, Blunt explained that he wished to supply the Union soldiers and sailors:
. . . with poultry and pies, or puddings, all cooked and ready for use. It would be a grand sight to see that army of brave men, loyal to the flag, feeding on the good things of the land they have fought for, whilst the miserable traitors, if they still hold out, are crouched behind their defences (sic) hungry and starving. Will not all who feel that we have a country worth defending and preserving do something to show those who are fighting our battles that they are remembered and honored?
Blunt was a member of the elite Union League Club, and these even-wealthier New
Yorkers joined his cause with enthusiasm:
We desire that on the twenty-fourth day of November there shall be no soldier in the Army of the Potomac, the James, the Shenandoah, and no sailor in the North Atlantic Squadron who does not receive tangible evidence that those for whom he is periling his life, remember him.
These words began the effort that resulted in the most unusual and successful morale booster of the Civil War: the Soldier’s & Sailor’s Thanksgiving.
All loyal states quickly picked up the idea and issued requests in local newspapers for donations. The Trenton Gazette and Republican wrote that it was the duty “of every male civilian to buy a chicken or turkey for the troops.” New Jersey citizens even contributed $1500 for the purchase of cigars and tobacco.
The Northern press enthusiastically trumpeted the project, lauding local efforts and explaining how every citizen could add their support, whether a little or a lot. Because soldiers in the Union Army regularly got newspapers, they knew what was coming. The excitement mounted in the camps!
As the idea spread, the good feelings spread also. Over $250,000 was eventually collected for the effort, in both money and in kind. Local citizens hosted units stationed near their towns and cities with “abundant dinners.” Nor were hospitals forgotten. The real trick was how to provide a Thanksgiving feast for the Union soldiers and sailors not stationed near a civilian center, and those whose units were within the geographical Confederacy.
Again, New York City led the way! The Union League requested that New York hoteliers, restaurateurs, cooks and bakers, and anyone else who could do so roast twenty or more turkeys and chickens and send them to a central location. From there, the food would be shipped south.
The reaction was instantaneous! Delmonico’s, the most fashionable restaurant in the city, roasted and stuffed thousands of birds. Fulton Market, the great wholesale marketplace, contributed most of the poultry, along with enormous quantities of other Thanksgiving dinner ingredients.
Supply ships and steamers left the ports of New York filled with over 400,000 boxes of packaged goodness. Trains left moment by moment, carrying carefully and lovingly packed meat, vegetables, fresh fruit, cakes and cookies, nuts, cranberries–everything a soldier or sailor could want from home.
The food went first to City Point, and from there to the camps. Normal supply systems were disrupted, causing General Rutherford B. Hayes to grumble, ” . . . overcoats, stockings, shirts, etc., which are greatly needed, couldn’t come because all the transportation was required to haul up the turkeys and Thanksgiving dinner!” When the food arrived, however, he added, ” . . . everyone is jolly and happy.”
A soldier from an Indiana regiment wrote, ” We had an excellent dinner here Thanksgiving Day, turkey, chicken pies, cakes, nuts, apples and everything nice. We have the best of times. We have a football and we have a good deal of fun with it. The boys are in a game now.”
Not everything worked perfectly, of course. Several units did not get their food on November 24, causing a few to write complaints in their letters and diaries. Sometimes the amount was insufficient for the number of men, and sometimes the food did not arrive in good condition, but soldiers made do. One artillery regiment that felt it had been shortchanged compensated by consuming unlimited quantities of liquids, to the extent that the evening brigade dress-parade was quite a spirited affair.”
Nevertheless, the entire effort was judged to be a wonderful success. The efforts from the homefront were always appreciated, and few more so than those offered in the fourth year of a grinding war. It was a testament to the Union as a whole that food was available, transportation was effective, and communication was efficient. Ultimately, it was this strength that would win the war.
From the New York Times, December 6, 1864 a soldier writes:
Far away from the home and friends we so dearly love, exposed to hardships, danger and death, ’tis pleasing to us to know that we are still remembered in the prayers, sympathies and kindness of the loyal hearts of our noble States. When in the language of the song we are asked “Do they think of us at home?” our own hearts can willingly and gladly respond, “They do.” The recent Thanksgiving present to the army is but one 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 soldier.
The American Armed Forces continues this tradition. On Thanksgiving, every Soldier, Sailor, Marine. Air Force and Coast Guard member on active duty will receive a holiday meal. It is usually traditional–turkey with all the trimmings!
I will venture to say that our men and women in uniform are just as grateful as the troops were in 1864.
From all of us at emergingcivilwar.com–Happy Thanksgiving!