In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared that the third Thursday of November would, for the first time, be a national “day of Thanksgiving and Praise” to honor the “sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” of the Civil War.
Prior to 1863, Thanksgiving was celebrated on a state-by-state basis. That tradition began in 1621, when the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians shared a celebration of the former’s first harvest. Some states chose to forgo the holiday all together in favor of Forefathers’ Day, which was celebrated in December and commemorated the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620.
This Winslow Homer sketch from an 1864 issue of Harper’s Weekly shows how soldiers in camp sought to recreate the rituals of Thanksgiving while at the front. Titled “Thanksgiving Day in the Army—After Dinner: The Wish-Bone,” Homer’s sketch exemplifies his work as an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly during the Civil War. The artist spent a large amount of time at the front lines of the war, sketching both battle scenes and everyday moments in camp.
In this sesquicentennial year of the Civil War and the American Thanksgiving, the Newberry is commemorating both in our current exhibition, “Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North.” The exhibition will remain open November 29 and 30, the Friday and Saturday directly following Thanksgiving.