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Thanksgiving in the Civil War

By Jodi Frederiksen
American Civil War Museum Collections Manager

By November 1861, the American Civil War was in full swing.  Eleven states seceded from the Union, Federal troops had been called up, and the two armies had engaged in battles including Manassas and Wilson’s Creek.  Though perhaps some of the initial excitement of war remained, a break came for Confederate soldiers in mid-November, 1861.  Perhaps following the example of George Washington from 1789, Confederate President Jefferson Davis declared a “day of fasting, humiliation and prayer” to take place on November 15, 1861. While this proclamation was very similar to others that Davis issued which specifically called for a day of “thanksgiving,” that word does not appear in this message.

From the headquarters of the Valley District, Major General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson ordered drills to be suspended for the day (see orders below).  A day of fasting is completely opposite from the way most of us celebrate Thanksgiving today. Although there was no turkey, green bean casserole or pumpkin pie, we can presume that this brief respite was as welcomed by those soldiers who had spent months away from home as our modern holiday is to us.

Two years later, in 1863, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln began a tradition that Americans know well today, declaring that a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise” would be observed on the last Thursday of November. While it wasn’t made an official national holiday until 1941, the day of Thanksgiving clearly has roots throughout American history.