As Americans prepare for their annual Thanksgiving feast, few will stop to consider the holiday’s Civil War origins. Although George Washington declared the first national day of Thanksgiving in 1789, it wasn’t until 1863 that it became a formal federal holiday. In his “Proclamation of Thanksgiving,” President Abraham Lincoln set aside the last Thursday in November as a “day of Thanksgiving and Praise” where the country could express gratitude not only for the sacrifices of soldiers and their families but also the economic blessings that continued to make the country one of the wealthiest in the world. The following year, he repeated his proclamation, this time singling out the end of slavery as one of the great blessings bestowed upon the nation. “He has largely augmented our free population by emancipation,” Lincoln said as he urged the American people to look forward to the culmination of war, which was growing ever closer.
Although Lincoln didn’t mention him explicitly, the president was perhaps most grateful for General William Tecumseh Sherman who, by November 1864, was well on his way to Georgia’s sea coast. After capturing the city of Atlanta in September, Sherman had set out to “make Georgia howl” on November 15, driving two columns of 60,000 men toward the Atlantic Ocean. On his way, he would supply his men from Georgia’s countryside, foraging for food, livestock, and other supplies to support the army on the march. While Sherman’s “March to the Sea” became infamous among southerners, historians have noted that accusations of widespread rape and pillage are more myth than reality. Yet Sherman’s foraging campaign, along with that of his counterpart in the Shenandoah Valley, Philip Sheridan, and the on-going U.S. naval blockade, resulted in considerable shortages of food in the Confederacy. As Americans in the North prepared to tuck in to their Thanksgiving meals that year, those unfortunates caught in the path of the Union Army could only look forward to a long, cold, hungry winter.
This was especially true of the newly freed slaves in Georgia and the Carolinas. A meager diet had been a hallmark of southern slavery, putting the Confederacy’s enslaved population in a uniquely vulnerable position once Union foraging began. Bodies already malnourished from forced labor and meatless rations of corn meal and molasses could not endure the winter of 1865. Violet Guntharpe, who had been a slave on a plantation near Winnsboro, South Carolina, recalled seeing black children “sucking their thumbs for want of something to eat” after Sherman’s men carried off everything edible from the place in February 1865. She and others scoured the nearby woods for nuts, roots, and any wild greens that might have poked their heads through the frozen ground. “Lots of the children die,” she remembered, as did the old folks whose health deteriorated rapidly after what little food they had was taken away. Barnett Spencer, a slave on an Alabama plantation, told a similar story. Although Alabama had been spared Union occupation until very late in the war, once the men in blue arrived, they burned every building on Spencer’s plantation, including the slave quarters. “The Yankees starved out more black faces than white at their stealing,” he remembered, leaving them to “die in piles.”
Perhaps the slaves on Spencer’s plantation had been somehow unwelcoming to the Union soldiers. If slaves were slow to reveal the location of hidden valuables, including food, they might be perceived as aiding the enemy, thus becoming the target of Yankee hostility along with their masters and mistresses. Spencer did not recall what drove the soldiers to burn out the slaves along with their rebel masters, but the reasons hardly mattered to people with nothing to eat. Hunger left freedpeople like Spencer and Guntharpe with less than jubilant memories of emancipation. “De Yankees sho’ throwed us in de briar patch…all us had to thank them for was a hungry belly, and freedom.”
Among the many ghosts that haunted the former Confederacy in the first two years after the war, hunger shadowed the region with a desperate immediacy. Shortly after the South’s surrender, Congress authorized the Assistant Commissioners of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (Freedmen’s Bureau) to requisition surplus food, clothing, and medicine from local army commanders. In South Carolina, where Violet Guntharpe scoured the woods for food, the Bureau began to distribute rations to both white and black southerners almost immediately; by mid-summer, at least 9000 people had received some 300,000 rations. By the end of the year, the number of rations more than doubled, reaching a total of 25,000 individuals. One year later, it would be nearly a million rations. In 1867 – perhaps the leanest and meanest year in the postwar period because of crop failures – public and private aid in South Carolina would exceed $300,000.
Similar conditions existed across the South: tens of thousands destitute, without adequate food, clothing or shelter. Donations from northern churches and aid societies, such as the American Union Aid Commission, augmented federal relief, but they could not come close to matching the government’s ability to procure, organize, and distribute the staggering amount of relief necessary to alleviate the extreme want in the postwar South. Although accounts are incomplete, a very conservative estimate for the number of federal rations issued by the close of 1866 hovers around twenty million; the cost of those provisions somewhere in the range of two to three million dollars. As one historian of the Freedmen’s Bureau concluded, “Never before in American history had there been such an organized effort towards such a humanitarian end.”
As northerners gave thanks for the fall of the Confederacy around their Thanksgiving tables, they did not realize the plight of hunger their armies unleashed upon those they aimed to liberate. One of the great ironies of the Civil War is that freedom brought with it so much suffering for those who had already born so much pain and loss. Without the ferocious feeding of the Union Army as it ate away at the Confederacy in 1864 and 1865, slavery might have continued indefinitely. While enslaved people like Violet Guntharpe and Barnett Spencer insisted that they preferred freedom to slavery any day, the way freedom came brought with it unexpected hardships that overshadowed the jubilation of the moment. For the rest of their lives, they would remember that freedom came on the winds of war. Their feelings of thankfulness would always be tinged with tribulation.