This Thanksgiving, Susan Evans reflects on how the holiday can be a taste of home for those serving in the U.S. military.
On October 3, 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring the third Thursday in November a "day of thanksgiving and praise." Inspired by the campaign and letters of Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey's Ladies Book, to declare a national Thanksgiving holiday, Lincoln chose to issue his proclamation during, as he called it, "the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity." For Lincoln, the Thanksgiving holiday was about bringing Americans together around their shared ideals.
From its start during the Civil War, the Thanksgiving meal has always held special meaning to those serving in the military. Spending this family holiday away from home is difficult, and the Thanksgiving meal on base and at sea wards off homesickness and brings troops together.
In fact, several printed Thanksgiving Day menus from military bases and ships are part of the museum's collection. What I love about these menus is their overwhelming similarity. No matter what year or what conflict, you can rest assured that America's armed forces were eating turkey, cranberry sauce, and gravy on Thanksgiving, just like their families at home. Beyond a change of pace from the functional foods of the mess hall, coming together at the Thanksgiving table was an occasion to celebrate and reconnect with the classic American foods of Thanksgiving.
The above 1918 menu from the U.S.S. Georgia, a U.S. Navy Virginia-class battleship, illustrates a true special occasion. Bananas, an exotic fruit in 1918, and cigars, a luxury usually reserved for officers, were served to all of the crew to celebrate. Just 12 days after this menu was served on board, the U.S.S. Georgia began making trips from Virginia to France to bring home American troops during World War I. Between December 1918 and June 1919, the ship brought home nearly 6,000 soldiers who went on to enjoy many more Thanksgiving dinners with their friends and families.
In November of 1944, the U.S.S. Randolph was heading towards the Panama Canal en route to the Pacific Theater of Operations during World War II. Much like the World War I Thanksgiving meal, this meal was also a cause for celebration, with stuffed olives, ripe olives, and chilled celery in addition to the turkey and cranberry sauce.
This Thanksgiving meal, held at the Fort Gordon United States Army installation in Augusta, Georgia, in 1965, was another opportunity for American troops to reconnect with home and with each other during a difficult time in history. Conflict in Vietnam had escalated in 1965 and the Thanksgiving message at this dinner encouraged the troops to, "pause for a moment and in your own hearts and in your own way express thanks for the food, for your place of service to our country, for health and happiness, and for the love of family and friends."
Even as times and circumstances change for American troops, the menu does not. Wherever you are this Thanksgiving, we hope that you enjoy the comforts of the Thanksgiving meal and are celebrating as President Lincoln encouraged in 1863: "...with one heart and one voice by the whole American People."
Susan Evans is the Program Director of the museum's American Food History Project. She has previously blogged about the influence of agriculture on American life and connecting with family traditions through objects. More historic Thanksgiving menus in this Smithsonian Magazine post. Take a closer look at these menus on Flickr.