Civil War Profiles: Thanksgiving during the Civil War

In 1861, in the midst of a spreading conflagration in the North and South, Confederate President Jefferson Davis declared a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer for his fellow countrymen; and, later, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Prayer to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens” to take place on the last Thursday of November.

Nonetheless, war, once unleashed, stops for no one, as documented in “The Civil War Almanac,” with an introduction by Henry Steele Commager, and “The Civil War Day by Day” by E.B. Long.

In November 1861, a day of thanksgiving was observed in the Northern states, while the South’s Provisional Congress admitted Missouri to the breakaway states of the Confederacy. In Port Royal, S.C., which had been captured by Union naval forces, federal officials received authorization from Washington to seize agricultural products, as well as slaves — the latter were put to work improving the installations and defenses of that area.

Fast-forward to November 1862, when Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside called for the mayor of Fredericksburg, Va., to surrender the town. When the mayor refused, Burnside sent a warning to evacuate women and children, because Fredericksburg would soon be the scene of battle that destroyed a considerable portion of the town.

President Lincoln visited the area on Nov. 27, 1862, to confer with Burnside over strategy; however, Burnside disagreed with the president about first building up forces for an eventual three-pronged attack, and decided to conduct what turned out to be a disastrous confrontation against Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army.

In addition to the fighting in Virginia, engagements were under way in Tennessee and Missouri, as well as Mississippi.

On the last Thursday of November 1863, Union forces under Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and Gen. George Henry Thomas pursued Gen. Braxton Bragg’s retreating Rebel army from Chattanooga, Tenn., toward Graysville and Ringgold, Ga. — where the Federal troops ran into Gen. Patrick Cleburne’s rear guard and engaged in heavy fighting. Meanwhile, outside Knoxville, Tenn., Confederate Gen. James Longstreet prepared to assault Union-held Fort Sanders.

On that same day, near the Rapidan River in Virginia, Union Gen. George Meade and his Army of the Potomac maneuvered to turn the right flank of Gen. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the vicinity of Raccoon Ford and Morton’s Ford. Meade had the advantage of 85,000 troops vs. Lee’s 45,500.

Other actions were taking place around Woodson, Mo., and Brentsville, Va., as well as Plymouth and Warm Springs, N.C.; and, in Kentucky, Union scouts were operating from the area of Columbia to the south side of the Cumberland River. For those engaged in these encounters, there was not a lot of time to offer thanks to God in heaven.

On Nov. 24, 1864, although Thanksgiving Day was celebrated in the North, warfare continued throughout the South.

In central Tennessee, a detachment of Union Gen. John Schofield’s forces marched northward from Pulaski and drove Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry away from the town of Columbia. Clashes took place near St. Charles in Arkansas and Prince George Court House in Virginia, and President Davis exhorted Confederate troops to discover the “purpose of the enemy” and “obstruct the route on which he is moving….”

In 1865, three momentous events occurred: the American Civil War was brought to a close, President Lincoln became the victim of an assassin while attending Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., and the state of South Carolina — the birthplace of the rebellion over the issue of slavery — ratified the 13th Amendment, which freed the slaves.

On Thanksgiving Day 1865, Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson, issued a proclamation: “Whereas it has pleased Almighty God during the year which is now coming to an end to relieve our beloved country from the fearful scourge of civil war and to permit us to secure the blessings of peace, unity, and harmony, with a great enlargement of civil liberty …; [I] recommend … the whole people make confession of our national sins against His infinite goodness, and with one heart and one mind implore the divine guidance in the ways of national virtue and holiness.”

This country was much in need of prayer. Difficult decades of healing the wounds of this devastating war remained in its future.

Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War,” of which signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach, and Allison’s Card Smart in Milford. Contact him at or visit his website at


By Tom Ryan

Special to the Coastal Point