Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving and the Civil War


Robert Moss discusses the abolitionist origins of our modern-day version of Thanksgiving:

For her part, Hale hoped a national Thanksgiving holiday would foster national unity and encourage compromise. But the same evangelical Protestant denominations who most strongly advocated for Thanksgiving were also among the most ardent abolitionists. As Diana Karter Appelbaum puts it in her book Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, an American History, more and more Southerners were beginning to view Thanksgiving as a “Yankee abolitionist holiday.”

Virginia was the hotbed of anti-Thanksgiving sentiment. In 1853, Governor Joseph Johnson declined to declare a day of Thanksgiving for his state, citing Thomas Jefferson’s firm doctrine of separating church and state. Johnson’s successor, the slave-owning fire-brand Henry A. Wise, was even more intransigent. In 1856, he received the same annual letter from Sarah Josepha Hale that every other governor did, encouraging him to declare a general day of Thanksgiving. Wise not only declined to make the proclamation, but fired back a testy refusal.

“This theatrical national claptrap of Thanksgiving,” he declared, “has aided other causes in setting thousands of pulpits to preaching ‘Christian politics’ instead of humbly letting the carnal Kingdom alone and preaching singly Christ crucified.” By “other causes,” of course, he meant abolitionism.

Anti-Thanksgiving sentiment wasn’t confined to Virginia. In 1855, William H. Holcomb, a homeopathic physician in Natchez, Mississippi, recorded in his diary, “This was Thanksgiving day…I am sorry that the Yankee custom has crept in among us. I object to it because it makes gratitude to God a matter of civil ordinance, and limits to a single day the exhibition of feelings which should be a portion of our daily life.”

Other commentators noted that the South already had a holiday of feasting and celebration late in the calendar year: Christmas. In New England, which inherited a legacy of Puritan dogma that considered Christmas a secular abomination, Christmas was not observed as a celebratory occasion until the 1870s. To Southern eyes, a day of feasting in late November was redundant and a loss of a day’s income for its workers and merchants.

On the eve of the Civil War, the adoption of Thanksgiving in the South remained inconsistent at best, and those who chose to observe the holiday treated it more as a religious occasion and a day of relaxation than a time of feasting and homecoming.

I suppose we shouldn’t overstate the case: as Moss notes, by 1858 (i.e., two years before the beginning of secession), “the governors of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and North and South Carolina all followed Mrs. Hale’s recommendations and declared Thursday, November 25th to be a day of Thanksgiving.”

Please do read in full. (H/T: Erik Loomis at LGM.)

Happy Thanksgiving, y’all. Safe travels, eat well, and enjoy all the in-state-rivalry college football games. See ya in December.

Image Credit: Photo by Ben Franske, November 2002, and used under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license. Source: Wikimedia Commons.



  1. […] War many (if not all) Southern states refused to celebrate Thanksgiving, as it felt like a “Yankee abolitionist holiday,” but by 1874, Southerners — and Texans — were willing to give it a […]

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