In November 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, many Americans sat down to a Thanksgiving feast, gathering family around a table piled high with food and drink. In New England and western communities primarily settled by Yankees, Thanksgiving widely was celebrated as the most important holiday of the year. The day was set by each governor, as there was no nationally recognized date established for the observance, but it generally fell on a Thursday in November. Late fall brought the cold weather that hog and poultry slaughtering required on the farms, and, with the harvest complete, households had the time for the extra preserving and baking and brewing expected for a true feast day.
By the mid-19th century, a harvest festival held by the first English settlers with their Native American guests in Plymouth , Mass., in 1621 provided an iconic combination of piety, legend, and patriotism that flourished particularly in the North. Godey’s Ladies Book and other popular magazines featured recipes and stories that embraced the heart and hearth of this agrarian holiday, uniquely American but with roots in ancient times. Sarah Josepha Hale, longtime “editress” of Godey’s and the 19th century’s version of Martha Stewart, campaigned for many years to have Thanksgiving declared a national holiday, seeing it as a unifying observance that could override the rising power of sectionalism. “Thanksgiving should be a national festival observed by all the people as an exponent of our national virtues,” Hale wrote in 1846, a theory she advanced for the next 17 years with ultimate success. In her popular novel Northwood, Hale describes the ideal New England Thanksgiving feast as including roast turkey with savory stuffing, sirloin beef, leg of mutton, plates of vegetables, the indispensible chicken pie, and “huge plump puddings, custards, and several pies, all washed down with cider, beer, and currant wine.”
Today we may be astounded by the quantity of food described, but most of the items appeared in the many cookbooks widely available at the time and are still familiar to us today. (Chicken pie is the exception. Ubiquitous at the Thanksgiving table in the 19th century, it has disappeared from most modern menus as a delicious holiday specialty, sadly figuring only as an often unexceptional frozen entrée.)
Individual Southern families, especially those with Yankee relatives, enjoyed Thanksgiving, but as a holiday it lacked widespread observance below the Mason-Dixon Line. For one thing, it was totally eclipsed by Christmas, a holiday increasingly popular in the 19th century. Reflecting its Puritan heritage and undercurrents of anti-Irish sentiment, Protestant New England was a hold out, sensing lingering paganism—or perhaps even worse, popery—in the revels of late December. The Massachusetts Legislature somewhat begrudgingly accorded Christmas legal status as a holiday in 1856, and while more and more families adopted the “new” tradition, it was Thanksgiving that remained central to New England heritage. Meanwhile, some Southern leaders increasingly saw Thanksgiving as a Yankee holiday laced with overtones of abolitionism, due in part to the practice of giving public speeches on that day. Politicians in New England observed the holiday by speaking at length on patriotic topics with themes of freedom and liberty. Newspapers would print and circulate the remarks, some of which referenced the evils of slavery. Henry Wise, governor of Virginia from 1856 to 1860 and later a brigadier general in the Confederate States Army, pointedly refused to recognize Thanksgiving as a state holiday, claiming the observance supported “other causes”—i.e., abolition.
When the Civil War broke out in the spring of 1861, the observance of holidays was not uppermost in the mind of any American. Securing a reliable chain of food supply for the troops, however, required immediate attention. Initially, a remarkable amount of bumbling, waste, and spoilage stalked both the Union and the Confederate armies. But the war soon threw the economic contrast between the North and the South into stark relief. During the antebellum period, the Southern states purchased large quantities of meat, dairy products, produce, and grain from their Northern neighbors. Although robust family farms were plentiful in areas such as the Shenandoah Valley, the larger cotton, tobacco, rice, and sugar plantations imported foodstuffs because it was more cost-efficient for the enslaved labor force to work on the cash crops. That left Northern farmers with excess product once war broke out, product that the U.S. government purchased to feed its troops. Responding to the demand, Northern agriculture and food processing flourished. One order from the U.S. Army could turn a small business into a national-sized food supplier.
Gail Borden ran a small innovative business featuring canned condensed milk, but his company rapidly expanded into a nationally known brand after he received his government contracts. And as early as May 1861, Massachusetts masons built 20 giant gas ovens beneath the U.S. Senate terraces so Army bakers could produce 16,000 loaves of fresh bread daily for the Union troops pouring into Washington, D.C. By the end of the war, bakers for Grant’s Army of the Potomac at City Point, Va., were producing 100,000 loaves a day.
In Starving the South: How the North Won the Civil War, food historian Andrew F. Smith points out that immigrants and young families started more than 400,000 new farms in the North during the four years of warfare. Productivity on the Northern farms rose, largely thanks to the McCormick reaper and the John Deere plows and cultivators. The South originally had access to these machines, but once the war began, they could not repair or replace the modern equipment. (Even though Cyrus McCormick invented his reaper in Virginia, he moved its manufacture to Chicago in the 1840s.) Meanwhile, Union troops did their best to round up livestock, destroy warehouses, and ruin harvests of the enemy population. The New York Times in 1861 noted that the Confederates “had cotton, but not food, drink, or the ability to make cloth.” In the North, although many soldiers’ families and widows faced true hardship, there were few chronic scarcities. Sugar became a luxury product, with the abandonment of the Louisiana sugar plantations, and the price of rice rose prohibitively. Other than missing a few items like these, though, most Yankee larders stayed lean but adequately stocked. South of the Mason-Dixon Line, a growing lack of food led to widespread malnutrition. Hungry civilians, led by angry wives and mothers, rioted in Mobile, Ala.; Richmond, Va.; and other cities. In 1863 die-hard Confederate Edmund Ruffin wrote, “…Our country and cause are now, for the first time during the war, in great peril of defeat and not from the enemy’s arms butfrom the scarcity and high prices of provisions.”
Of course it was the enlisted men, not the civilians, who bore the true hardship and destruction of the war. Both sides followed the guidelines for rations established by the U.S. Army prior to the outbreak of hostilities, with Confederate troops receiving cornmeal rather than the wheat-flour soft bread or hard bread, a Union staple. The ubiquitous hard bread became known infamously as “hardtack” soon after the war began. Hard Tack & Coffee, a first-hand account of army life by Massachusetts veteran John D. Billings, provides several versions of how the soldiers managed to eat hardtack, which could be moldy, maggoty, or weevil-laden. In the last case, Billings recommended putting the hardtack in a hot cup of coffee. The weevils, drowning, would rise to the surface, where it would be easy to skim them out of the cup. And the hot coffee would soften the wooden texture of the wheat-flour biscuit. Although America was primarily a tea-drinking nation in the antebellum period, the Northern soldiers’ reliable supply of coffee—even on the march—might have turned the tide in favor of the stronger stimulant later in peacetime.
To fight scurvy and other nutritional diseases, the U.S. Army purchased desiccated (dehydrated) vegetable cakes that could be boiled into a vaguely nourishing soup. The soldiers called them “desecrated vegetables,” but ate them willingly enough, along with supplemental servings of pickles, beans, and dried fruit. For protein, soldiers vastly preferred salt pork and bacon to the “vile” salt beef that was occasionally substituted. Herds of cattle and swine followed behind some marching regiments, providing fresh meat. Immediately after slaughtering, the cooks handed out rations of raw beef that the men could sear over small campfires. Sutlers, the dry-goods salesmen who set up shop near an encampment, offered a variety of extras—including expensive canned goods—to men with ready cash, usually officers. Once a luxury product with a sinister reputation for bouts of food poisoning, canned food found a new popularity among Yankee soldiers in camp and was widely adopted in the North after the war. Occasional boxes of food from home, traveling long distances through the supply lines, brought alternating waves of comfort and homesickness along with stale pies and sausages. But the universally shared menu among the Yankee soldiers started and ended with coffee and hardtack.
Meager food supplies plagued the CSA throughout the four years of conflict, with a long list of causes. Two main factors for this chronic food shortage are that the war was fought on Southern soil and that Southern territory shrank as the war progressed. (The list also includes reliance on plantation monoculture, reduced labor supply, poor transportation systems, and inadequate administration.) Initially, a Rebel soldier’s daily rations contained about the same 3,000 calories as his Yankee counterpart, but within the first year of fighting Southern rations were reduced. Once Union troops outdistanced their supply lines in the West and Deep South, they also could face food shortages. These were rarely more than a few days as troops grew skilled in the ways of foraging. The chronic hunger of the CSA forces, however, was on a deeper, more pervasive level. Rebel forces found tobacco to provide some of the comfort that Yankee troops found in their coffee. But inadequate supply formed the one constant of the Southern soldier’s diet.
Even in the comparatively well-fed North, the Civil War was a bleak time. Both sides experienced enormous losses. Historians estimate that a Civil War soldier’s chance of not surviving the war was almost one in four, with the South experiencing a higher mortality rate than the North. On both home fronts, nearly everyone was directly affected by death and mourning. The observance of family oriented holidays such as Christmas and Thanksgiving seemed only to emphasize the nation’s sorrows. In the South, newly impoverished families were hard pressed to share an adequate meal, much less a festive one. And while private charities in the North sought to help the neediest, widows, orphans, and wounded veterans faced previously unimagined hardships.
In September 1863, two months after the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, President Lincoln proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving to be celebrated as a feast day. That month also witnessed an especially fruitful harvest throughout most of the Union. Today, in hindsight, the tide of war was turning, but at that point there was no guarantee of Northern victory. Lincoln may have wanted to reap some political gain from this relatively happy moment. Sarah Josepha Hale’s campaign finally bore fruit—she had written to the president personally, asking him to declare a national Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November. The timing of her request was perfect, whether she realized it or not. Lincoln’s proclamation acknowledged the bountiful harvests, robust economy, and alluded to the military victories, giving him the opportunity to let the Union bask for a moment in “the providence of Almighty God.”
The following year, prosperous New Yorker George W. Blount led a civilian campaign to bring Thanksgiving to every Union soldier and sailor fighting in Virginia. Local newspapers and
charities embraced the call, while shipping agents, produce sellers, and packers pledged their support. Soon the goal blossomed into reaching as many Yankee soldiers and sailors as possible. The North witnessed an enormous outpouring of bounty. In Starving the South, Smith describes this unprecedented effort, such as the “Soldiers Aid” of Norwich, Conn., which organized the shipment of 215 turkeys, 199 pies, and a long list of other comestibles to Connecticut regiments fighting in the James River and Shenandoah Valley theaters. Ladies’ organizations across the Union cooked sumptuous Thanksgiving feasts for their state army posts and veterans hospitals. Yankee supply steamers delivered barrels of food to sailors along the coast and up the rivers of Dixie. And New Yorkers sent more than 300,000 pounds of poultry with literally tons of other festive ingredients to the Army of the Potomac. Judging by the letters and journals of the appreciative Yankee troops, the Thanksgiving of 1864 was an immensely popular success, and the majority of the shipments reached their intended audience. When Sherman’s army reached Savannah on Dec. 10, the Union supply ships furnished them with the Thanksgiving dinner they had missed during their march to the sea.
Fulsome newspaper accounts of the Yankee Thanksgiving drive reached the Confederate capital of Richmond, where citizens pledged to outdo their enemy by delivering Christmas dinners to CSA troops. Despite efforts to organize rapidly, the well-meaning residents ultimately pushed the date back to New Year’s Day, and then to Jan. 2, 1865, when they promised Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia would receive the finest victuals available. Money was pledged, and livestock was slaughtered and shipped, but somehow only a few enlisted men enjoyed anything more than a rich snack. Cold, hungry, and weakened, Lee’s soldiers began to desert in higher numbers as the winter progressed. The troops’ disappointment when the much-heralded dinner failed to appear could only add to the general sense of desperation. Those who stayed until the surrender in April—a fraction of the original Army of Northern Virginia—received food plentifully distributed by Grant’s men, before beginning the long journey home.
Historians may debate the primacy of food and nutrition in the outcome of the Civil War, but the starving condition of Lee’s troops clearly hastened the events at Appomattox. With the coming of peace, Thanksgiving and Christmas grew in popularity across all regions, reinforcing a shared American culture.
Dr. Libby O’Connell is chief historian and senior vice president for corporate outreach at HISTORY.