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  • Writer's pictureJill Newmark

A Civil War Thanksgiving

Updated: Dec 15, 2022

Thanksgiving with the United States Colored Troops

Company E, 4th US Colored Troops, Fort Lincoln, Library of Congress

Thanksgiving has been recognized as a holiday since George Washington signed a proclamation in 1789 recommending November 26th to be a “day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” [1] In October 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation that formerly established Thanksgiving as a national holiday to be celebrated on the last Thursday of November. Churches throughout the country held special services and organizations sponsored celebrations in support of those fighting in the Civil War after the president's proclamation.

An engraving shows Union troops receiving Thanksgiving rations during the Civil War, circa 1864.

Relief associations solicited donations of turkeys, sausages, pies and fruits to send to troops in the field. They also arranged dinners with all the fixings of a Thanksgiving meal for convalescing soldiers in hospitals. The Union Relief Association in Baltimore, Maryland arranged a gathering at U.S. General Hospital McKim’s Mansion in November 1864 where tables were set-up in the chapel by the Colored Ladies Union Association exclusively for Black soldiers. What a sight it must have been to have Major Alexander T. Augusta, the first Black commissioned army medical officer, among the soldiers in attendance. [2]

Thanksgiving in camp sketched by Alfred Waud on November 28, 1861, Library of Congress.

For soldiers serving in the field, being away from their families was difficult especially during the holidays, but regiments took a break from the daily rigors of war to plan Thanksgiving celebrations and enjoy the day. Private David Demus served with the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Infantry and in November 1863 wrote a letter to his wife about his Thanksgiving experience. He described the games they played for amusement and told her about “the grate time that We had on theank giving it Was the best day that We ever had sinc i lefte home.” [3]

Soldiers of the USCT at Dutch Gap, Virginia.

While serving near Dutch Gap, Virginia, John W. Pratt, a sergeant with the 30th USCT, praised the efforts of the “good people of the North” in a letter to The Christian Recorder in November 1864. “We would have had a splendid dinner indeed on Thanksgiving Day’’ he wrote, “had our things arrived in time; but that was no fault of the kind donors.” Nevertheless, the Black soldiers enjoyed their meal and “that day many a poor soldier's heart was made glad, myself among the number. And when I thus give utterance to my own sentiments, I can assure you I but speak those of every man in the regiment.” [4]

In Louisville, Kentucky at the Taylor Barracks where Black soldiers from several regiments of the USCT were residing, the Soldiers Aid Society organized a Thanksgiving dinner in 1864. In a letter to The Christian Recorder, the writer notes that the dinner “would not be on the 24th, which was thanksgiving day, but we got it up in that name, and placed it as near the proper day as practicable, in which the committee was perfectly successful; for after they had set dinner for about thirteen hundred colored soldiers and officers, white and colored, they had a table about fifty feet long, over what served the whole number above mentioned.” [5]

[1] “Civil War: Thanksgiving Foods,” Inside Adams Science, Technology & Business, Library of Congress, [2] The Baltimore Sun, November 26, 1864. [3] David D. Demus to Mary Jane Demus, November 25, 1863, Valley Personal Papers, University of Virginia Library and Virginia Center or Digital History. [4] The Christian Recorder, December 24, 1864. [5] The Christian Recorder, December 10, 1864.

© Jill L. Newmark 2022

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