In November 1864, the Confederacy was on life support. Its leaders had held on in the early years of the conflict, hoping for recognition from Great Britain or France. They then held on in the hope that Lincoln would be supplanted by a President who would allow the South to leave the Union in peace. This last hope was dashed when Lincoln won reelection earlier in the month. Now Southern leaders were merely “holding on.”
Meanwhile, the soldiers, North and South, did the fighting and the dying. The Southern lines at Petersburg (and on every other front) stretched thin and the rations fell to near-starvation levels. The Northern lines grew stronger and the soldiers enjoyed bountiful rations when they were not dodging bullets or cannon fire. My maternal ancestors include soldiers who served in the Army of Northern Virginia, and most likely were among those men who struggled for life on the Petersburg line. But survive they did, due to the randomness of war which allows me to write this piece today.
Thirteen months earlier, President Lincoln had issued a proclamation setting aside the last Thursday of November as a national day of Thanksgiving. In 1864, the Union League of New York was determined to do something special for the Northern soldiers. My paternal ancestors likely benefitted from the League’s efforts, which produced hundreds of thousands of pounds of food of every variety (turkey, ham, pies) and $56,000 in cash (equivalent to $1.7 million in 2014). The League’s officers included Theodore Roosevelt, the father of the future President.
On this Thanksgiving Day, as we sit around enjoying one another’s company, overstuff ourselves with nature’s bounty, and finish off the day with three professional football games, all of us should set aside a few minutes to think about how the random nature of events allows us to enjoy the holiday with family and friends. You may look to any of a panoply of events – war, disease, or other catastrophes. I can look to both sides of the Petersburg line. Happy Thanksgiving!
For more detailed articles about Thanksgiving, 1864, see:
- Kenneth C. Davis, “How the Civil War Created Thanksgiving” (Nov. 25, 2014)
- Donald R. McClarey, “November 24, 1864: Thanksgiving for the Troops” (Nov. 24, 2014)