The first national day of Thanksgiving was observed on Nov. 26, 1863, during the midst of the Civil War. To be sure, there had been sporadic observances of bountiful harvests from the time of the first settlers. It wasn’t until Oct. 3, 1863, that President Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation would make the last Thursday in November a national holiday.
By the autumn of 1863, Washington represented the best of times and the worst of times. It was still a divided nation’s capital that, unlike its embarrassing history of military penetration by the British in the War of 1812, had not been invaded by the Confederates, although fears of such an eventuality kept residents and visitors anxious. Government jobs represented security and economic activity — from refurbishing official buildings to working on a still-unfinished dome on the Capitol building. (In fact, Lincoln insisted that completion of the dome was a priority.) Contractors proliferated to provide materials for the war, and factories and warehouses sprang up, luring workers from distant areas, almost doubling the city’s population.
Yet these outward and visible signs that the Union, as represented by the city, would be preserved were marred by the reality of war scars in the form of hospitals overrun by military patients. More than 20,000 injured soldiers were housed not only in hospitals, but even in the Capitol building and U.S. Patent Office, the latter where Horatio Nelson Taft worked. “A number of the officers,” wrote Taft in a diary he kept for the entire war, “had but one arm, and many were lame, and the men as a general thing looked rather pale and not able to stand much fatigue.” Concluding that not many of the wounded would “live through it,” Taft also observed that Confederate patients were also present. “They all receive the same attention, which our own soldiers do in every respect (clothing, etc.).”
War news was foremost in the minds of Washingtonians, who roamed Pennsylvania Avenue (familiarly known as “the Avenue”) often in great crowds waiting for daily newspapers to post updates on “Bulletin Boards” on military efforts. When the boards were bare, there was still tension, as illustrated by diarist Taft.
“There has hardly ever been so dull a time [for news] as for the past week or two. There seems to be nothing going on in the military line that we hear of that is worthy of especial notice.”
Perhaps the worst burden for residents was the high cost of living and shortage of adequate housing. Add to that substandard water supplies, poor sanitation, unpaved streets, mosquitoes and stifling humidity. By late November, however, the arrival of cool weather made residents thankful for the change of seasons.
Like the city’s population in general, the president of the United States observed a Thanksgiving that was decidedly mixed. On the one hand, the news from Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s forces in Tennessee was good. On the other hand, reports from Gen. George G. Meade indicated that once again, the military effort in Washington’s backyard had been without a decisive victory.
A week before Thanksgiving, the president attended the Gettysburg dedication ceremonies for a cemetery for those killed in a July battle between Gen. Meade’s army and that of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s. Lincoln was preceded by accomplished orator Edward Everett (minister, politician, editor, Harvard president) who spoke for two hours. The president, in contrast, read a 272-word address that was over before a photographer could complete his chores. “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame,” concluded one newspaper account of the speech, “as he reads the silly, flat and dish-watery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the president of the United States.”
Lincoln returned to Washington in ill health, suffering from a mild case of smallpox. Still, he was optimistic about the immediate future, confiding that the two weeks after Thanksgiving “would be the most momentous period of the rebellion.”
For the well-to-do, late November marked the high tide of the Washington social season, and Thanksgiving Day saw the latest fashions displayed in church services and in subsequent meandering along the Avenue. High-society chitchat centered on the imminent arrival of Russian naval officers, whose fleet had arrived in New York City in September, thwarting efforts of the British Royal Navy to intervene in the war.
For most Washingtonians, though, the first national celebration of Thanksgiving was heralded less in terms of the social circuit, economic issues or even the course of the war. Rather it centered on looking upward with pride — to the Capitol building dome, with the final touches being added. Just six days after Thanksgiving, on Dec. 2, diarist Taft recorded: “The head of the Statue of Freedom was put on today. The figure now stands complete upon the top of the Dome of the Capitol.”
Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.