Little Rock Air Force Base's collection of feature articles

Feature Search


Thanksgiving’s roots grounded in American Profession of Arms

  • Published
  • By Dr. Jeremy Prichard
  • 19th Airlift Wing Historian

This year marks 154 years since President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring the third Thursday in November “a day of thanksgiving,” thus establishing the occasion as an official holiday.

It’s hardly a coincidence Thanksgiving’s national recognition was born during a military conflict – “in the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity,” as Lincoln claimed in that same proclamation. Though Congress passed a law in 1941 marking the occasion on the fourth Thursday of the month along with football and Black Friday deals, the roots of the holiday are grounded in American military history and tradition that predate the nation’s existence.

American colonists observed days of thanksgiving before independence from Great Britain, but they were often local rituals. The celebrations continued and expanded during the Revolutionary War, particularly after Continental Army military victories. Even men serving far from home in Saratoga, N.Y., and Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, participated in these observances that increasingly bore a unique American character. Yet after the war, individual states and territories retained control over when such holidays occurred.

Not until the American Civil War did Lincoln issue his proclamation inviting “fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe … a day of thanksgiving.” Sporadic celebrations transpired that first year due to the difficulty of supplying troops stationed across the Southern states with a special Thanksgiving dinner. By the following year, however, various Northern organizations successfully appealed for and received donations of nearly 375,000 pounds of poultry to be delivered to Union soldiers.

The historical record since is filled with anecdotes of American service members receiving a traditional Thanksgiving meal while serving abroad.

A few weeks after the armistice brought an end to World War I, Army Gen. John Pershing declared victory in that conflict as “the Thanksgiving gift to the American nation.” Many American “doughboys” – a term commonly applied to U.S. troops who fought in that war – ate that year’s Thanksgiving meal aboard a naval vessel either returning home from Europe or simply awaiting passage stateside.

During World War II, the U.S. government pledged to provide a proper Thanksgiving dinner to its armed forces regardless of overseas assignment with the following commitment: “Thanksgiving turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie … American food for the American soldier in England, Iceland, India, Australia, in Malayan jungle, and African deserts — wherever he is fighting in this global war, the Army endeavors to feed him the food he likes, the food that makes him feel at home.”

Those efforts remain to this day.

Predictably, the meal hasn’t always been served in ideal locations or settings. Food spoiled before reaching U.S. service members fighting overseas in the Spanish-American War; Marines fighting near the Chosin Reservoir had trouble enjoying their feast in sub-zero temperatures during the Korean War; and during World War II, German artillery killed food-runners attempting to bring a hot turkey dinner to American forces engaged in the Battle of Hürtgen Forest.

These accounts notwithstanding, the military’s entrenched roots in the holiday assure us America’s armed forces – no matter the year, conflict, or the location – will probably be eating turkey, cranberry sauce, and gravy on Thanksgiving, much like their military forebears.