Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving in Washington, 1861

While Thanksgiving was not yet universally observed throughout the country, it was widely observed in many Northern states on November 28, 1861.  As Union soldiers in camps along both sides of the Potomac enjoyed Thanksgiving feasts in camp, Washingtonians, including the First Family, marked the holiday at home with family and friends.  (For a great description of Thanksgiving in several Washington area army camps in 1861, please see this posting on All Quiet Along the Potomac.)

Although Thanksgiving was not a Federal holiday, President Lincoln issued a proclamation on November 27, 1861 giving federal workers the next day off to participate in Washington and Georgetown's observance of Thanksgiving:  "The Municipal authorities of Washington and Georgetown in this District, have appointed tomorrow, the 28th, instant, as a day of thanksgiving, the several Departments will on that occasion be closed, in order that officers of the government may partake in the Ceremonies."

The weather on Thanksgiving was unusually warm, though rainy. Most Washington businesses, including the Centre Market, shut down for the Thanksgiving observance.   The Centre Market did stay open late the previous evening for last minute shoppers procuring items to place on their dinner table.  Horatio Nelson Taft, a Patent Office examiner, noted in his diary that turkeys were very scarce and "we shall have rather slim Thanksgiving without one."  The going price for turkeys was 14 cents per pound in Washington markets.
The Washington National Republican did note that while most businessmen and "churchgoing people" of Washington suspended commercial activity, "we could not fail in noticing the fact that all the restaurants were in full blast, dealing out their poisonous drugs to soldiers and citizens... as large numbers of them were seen drunk on the public streets."  Ironically enough, The Washington National Republican published an edition on Thanksgiving day while the Washington Evening Star chose not to publish a paper that day in observance of Thanksgiving.

At the Executive Mansion, the Lincolns hosted a Thanksgiving meal with several guests, including the President's longtime friend Joshua Speed and his wife who were visiting from Kentucky.  Other dinner guests at the White House included General Sumner, General Banks, Assistant Secretary of State Frederick Seward, and Colonel Ramsney, the Commandant of the Washington Arsenal (now Ft. McNair).  A guest described champagne being served with the meal, but noted that Lincoln, as was customary for him, did not partake in the champagne.

Thanksgiving Proclamation Issued by the Mayor of Washington and published in The Washington National Republican. (Library of congress)

This photograph of Lincoln was taken sometime between March and June 1861.  Lincoln signed the photograph for Fanny Speed, the wife of his close friend Joshua Speed, and presented it her on Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 1861 when the Speeds dined with the Lincolns.

Clinton, Catherine.  Mrs. Lincoln:  A Life. Harper Collins:  2003.
Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861, 1865, (available online from Library of Congress)
The New York Herald, November 29, 1861
Washington National Republican, November 25, 1861.
Washington National Republican, November 29, 1861.

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