Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Few of Our Favorite Things, Part Nine: Thanksgiving 1864 – A Spectacle of Giving

Today, November 26, 2013, is the 150th anniversary of what many regard as the first official national celebration of Thanksgiving, as proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln.  In fact, Lincoln proclaimed many days of national thanksgiving during his time as president, as did others before him.  It was not until the country was involved in another great war that Thanksgiving was officially established as the fourth Thursday in November. Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed it into law in December 1941, a few weeks after our entry into World War 2. 

It is, I think, worth noting that, during two of the most violent episodes in our nation’s history, our leaders saw fit to focus some of their energy on bringing our citizenry together in appreciation of what we have, and in acknowledgement of the wants of others.  A story from Thanksgiving 1864 most powerfully speaks to me of the meaning of the holiday, as Lincoln intended it, and we hold a pamphlet in our collection that tells that story.  It is one of my “favorite things.”

Report of the Committee on Providing a Thanksgiving Dinner for the Soldiers and Sailors was presented by the Union League Club of New York in December 1864 and published in 1865.  It tells of an almost incomprehensible feat of philanthropy accomplished by that League in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, held that year on November 24th.  In their meeting on November 3, the League decided to raise funds and food to ensure that all Union troops then in battle and lying in hospital would have a feast on Thanksgiving.  Which was in three weeks.  In the middle of a war.  In the middle of the 19th century. 

In those three weeks, the Union League of New York collected over $57,000 in monetary donations (minus $47.50 in counterfeit bills).  They also received hundreds of thousands of pounds of in-kind donations.  Contributions came in from as far away as Michigan.  Furthermore, in what seems to me like an absolute impossibility, they managed to distribute the food to the troops in time for Thanksgiving.  The Report states that the League “received and forwarded at least 225,000 lbs. poultry. This was in addition to 148,586 pounds purchased by the Committee, and was in addition also to an enormous quantity of cakes, doughnuts, gingerbread, pickles, preserved fruits, apples, vegetables, and all the other things which go to make up a Northern Thanksgiving Dinner.”  The Report also makes clear that this was all done despite “the failing of [the Union League of] Philadelphia to co-operate.”

One of many pages listing the in-kind contributions received by the Union League of New York.

The report includes some anecdotes about specific contributions (“The savings of two little children, from their weekly allowance, $2”) and a few letters from grateful recipients.  One of the most charming was written from Petersburg, Virginia, by a member of the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry, to a Mrs. C.H.  He wrote, “In the final distribution of the delicacies … a can of tomatos [sic] was sent to my tent as my share.  In looking upon it, I could not but wonder who had been so kind. …  I wish my dear good mother knew you.  She too gave towards the great undertaking; but how she would take you by the hand, and from her heart thank you who, though perchance inadvertently, done this for her son.”

So when you give thanks this week for all that you have, remember to think also of those who have less.  And after the spectacles of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, consider celebrating the second annual Giving Tuesday.  Follow the lead of those Americans who, celebrating the second annual Thanksgiving 149 years ago, created a spectacle of giving and a spectacle of love.

And have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Rachel A. D’Agostino
Curator of Printed Books

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