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Thanksgiving During War

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 22, 1999 – Military dining facilities go all out to give service members a taste of home on Thanksgiving Day. It hasn't always been that way.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln a Thanksgiving proclamation following the Union victory over the Confederates at Gettysburg, Pa.

The idea of a Thanksgiving meal for Union soldiers didn't happen in 1863. But in 1864, with Union forces occupying trenches around Petersburg, Va., the idea came to many on the homefront to give the "boys in blue" a Thanksgiving feast.

"It wasn't an organized effort," said James H. Blankenship, a historian at the Petersburg National Battlefield. "The units all came from the same geographic location, and the people back home decided to send special foods to the soldiers for Thanksgiving."

The Army did not go out and order special Thanksgiving food, but did allow the localities to ship food using the Army supply lines. Folks back home sent down barrels of turkeys, sauces and fixings. "It was traditional holiday fare," Blankenship said. "If they couldn't get turkeys, they sent ham or beef."

The food came to City Point, Va., on the James River via "ice packets" -- an early example of refrigerated transit. With the food from home and Army rations, which included canned foods and dried vegetables, the soldiers made a good meal during the holiday.

Union soldiers regarded oysters as a delicacy. "There was an oyster house at City Point that many soldiers frequented," Blankenship said. "Oysters were probably a big part of the Thanksgiving feast."

The troops along the Mississippi River also received Thanksgiving food, but other Union soldiers did not fare quite as well. The Union Army of the Cumberland was sparring with the Confederate Army of Tennessee and would do battle with them at the Battle of Franklin, Tenn., on Nov. 30.

The Union Army of the Tennessee was on its march to the sea. Every day was a feast for them as they were stripping the Georgia countryside.

Sailors enforcing the blockade of Southern ports received special foods from home, but it was a hit-or-miss proposition if the food arrived on time.

But whether they feasted or fasted, Union service members could still follow part of Lincoln's proclamation. "I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens," Lincoln wrote.

"And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union."

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