Thanksgiving Day

“It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. 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.” So wrote Abraham Lincoln in October 1863 in proclaiming a national Thanksgiving Day to be celebrated on the final Thursday in November. While days of Thanksgiving had been celebrated in America since colonial times, it was Lincoln’s proclamation that established the holiday as an annual event. Below are examples of how Americans—in particular Union soldiers—marked the holiday between 1858 and 1865, as depicted by artists at the time.

In 1858, Harper's Weekly published a series of images depicting typical (for the time) Thanksgiving scenes. The one above of men and boys gathering turkeys is captioned "Thanksgiving Day—Ways and Means."

In 1858, Harper’s Weekly published a series of images depicting typical (for the time) Thanksgiving scenes. The one above of men and boys gathering turkeys is captioned “Thanksgiving Day—Ways and Means.”

Another scene from Harper's Weekly in 1858 titled "Thanksgiving Day—Arrival at the Old Home."

Another scene from Harper’s Weekly in 1858 titled “Thanksgiving Day—Arrival at the Old Home.”

"Thanksgiving Day—The Dinner," another illustration from Harper's Weekly in 1858.

“Thanksgiving Day—The Dinner,” another illustration from Harper’s Weekly in 1858.

"Thanksgiving Day—The Dance," the final of the Harper's Weekly depictions of the holiday in 1858.

“Thanksgiving Day—The Dance,” the final of the Harper’s Weekly depictions of the holiday in 1858.

In its December 3, 1864, issue, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper published two scenes (above and below) that show civilians preparing to supply Thanksgiving dinners to far-away diners. The illustration above shows two men packing cooked turkeys for shipment in the cellar at Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York City.

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper also ran this image in its December 4, 1864, issue. It shows civilians “receiving contributions for soldiers’ Thanksgiving dinner.”

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper followed up its November 1864 coverage of Thanksgiving with this illustration in its December 24, 1864, issue: a depiction of Army of the Potomac sutlers processing “the people’s gift”—”Thanksgiving viands”—for distribution to the army’s V and IX Corps.


“The Soldiers’ Thanksgiving Dinner in Camp,” an illustration published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper on December 3, 1864.

Harper’s Weekly published a number of illustrations depicting how Union troops celebrated Thanksgiving in 1864. Two of them are shown above: Thanksgiving celebrations “In the Field” (left) and “On Board.”


Harper’s Weekly published this Winslow Homer illustration of Union soldiers pulling on a wishbone after finishing their turkey dinner in 1864.


Scenes by W.T. Crane, published in Frank Leslie’s, show festivities from Thanksgiving 1862 at Fort Pulaski, Georgia, including a hurdle sack race, pig catching contest, and burlesque dress parade.


Artist Alfred R. Waud captioned this illustration “Thanksgiving in camp sketched Thursday 28th 1861.”


Winslow Homer’s “Thanksgiving in Camp” shows Union troops congretating around a sutler’s tent, enjoying the food and drink available there for sale.

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