Thanksgiving, The Civil War, And Cranberry Sauce

(Or, why that goo shows up every year).

Next to turkey and stuffing, no food is more linked to Thanksgiving than cranberry sauce; you’d think that buckle-shoed Pilgrims were slipping tubes of jellied Ocean Spray onto the original Plymouth table.

In fact, the American Thanksgiving tradition of cranberry sauce started when Civil War Union General Ulysses S. Grant served the condiment to his troops during the Siege of Petersburg. This bitter, nine-month stalemate also marked the beginnings of trench warfare, with both forces stubbornly embedded, sniping from mud holes over a long, Virginia winter. The Confederate Army finally yielded in 1865, ceding the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia, to the Union Army. We commemorate Grant’s linchpin Civil War victory every year by consuming cranberry sauce.

And while we’d like to think that those Pilgrims were eating bronzed Butterball turkeys, there are no documents remaining from 1621 that describe the actual menu of the original feast. In fact, we don’t even know the exact autumn month in which it occurred—the original Thanksgiving meal might have been eaten in September or October (though we know it took three days to eat). Again, our modern Thanksgiving meal has Civil War-era origins: in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that Thanksgiving would be celebrated on the last Thursday of every November. This explains why today’s Thanksgiving meal—with stuffed game and sugary fruit compote—feels so reminiscent of 19th-century menus.

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