THE first national celebration of Thanksgiving came during the midst of the Civil War on Nov. 26, 1863. There had been sporadic observances of bountiful harvests ever since the nation's first days. But it wasn't until October 1863 that a presidential proclamation would make Thanksgiving a national holiday. By the autumn of 1863, Washington, D.C., represented the best of times and the worst of times. The city was a secure harbor of sorts in a sea of war, but that fact exacted a high price. It took more than $1,300 a year for a family of five to live modestly. Some government workers had seen their hours increased without commensurate increases in salary. And a few in the Treasury Department went to the mat: They struck over the issue of a decrease in their lunchtime from an hour to 30 minutes. The matter was resolved, but not without a stern warning from the secretary of the department that henceforth strikers would be let go.
Workers in the Navy yard and arsenal had reason to be thankful for pay raises they received, but others were not so fortunate as Thanksgiving approached. They had secure jobs, however, and the sounds of economic activity made resident and visitor alike recognize that Washington was a capital city in more ways than one. Even work on the Capitol continued, in part as an outward and visible sign that the Union, as represented at once by the city, would be perserved.
There were have-nots in Washington for whom the holiday would have little meaning. And two weeks before Nov. 26 cold northwest winds made their entry into the city, along with a few snowflakes, making the poor recall that even a humid summer was preferable to a bitter winter. The price of coal would skyrocket from its November level of $12 a ton, flour and meats to as much as twice the price in other cities. ``The back slums and alleys of Washington,'' a correspondent noted on Nov. 11, ``are full of squalid misery and distress, and none but those who go to look for it know of the poverty which is silently endured here at the national capital by the hundreds of homeless and houseless ones....''
The President had a Thanksgiving that was decidedly mixed. The news from Gen. Ulysses Grant's forces in Tennessee was good. On the other hand, reports from Gen. George Meade indicated that once again the military effort in Washington's backyard had been without a decisive victory.
A week before Thanksgiving the President attended the Gettysburg dedication ceremonies, reading a 268-word address that was over before a photographer could complete his chores.
``The cheek of every American must tingle with shame,'' concluded one newspaper account of the speech, ``as he reads the silly, flat and dish-watery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.''
For the well-to-do, late November marked the high tide of the Washington social season, and Thanksgiving Day saw the latest fashions displayed in church services and meanderings along Pennsylvania Avenue. High-society chitchat centered on the imminent arrival of Russian naval officers and the attendant parties that would make December a month of so much social activity that war seemed quite distant.
For most Washingtonians the first national celebration of Thanksgiving was heralded less in terms of the social circuit, economic activity, or even the course of the war: Nov. 26, 1863, just happened to be a clear, beautiful late-autumn day.
Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.