Autumn of War
Autumnal themes proliferated in Northern visual culture during the final years of the Civil War. Autumn was especially prevalent in landscape paintings, but it also appeared frequently in short stories and magazine illustrations. Even war-era cookbooks offered alternatives for recipes that required apples, the quintessential autumn fruit, because of the difficulty of providing fresh fruit to US troops in the South. Autumn, with its spectacular displays of brilliant foliage unlike any seen in Europe, had long held pride of place as the most typically and uniquely American season. During the Civil War era, it acquired deeper patriotic meanings.
The symbolic value of autumn landscapes, domestic rituals, and food all came together around Thanksgiving, which Abraham Lincoln declared a national holiday in 1863. (Before 1863, each state scheduled its own Thanksgiving holiday at its own selected time.) The president’s proclamations about the holiday cast it as civil religion. Articles in the pages of popular magazines advised middle-class women how to mark the holiday at home appropriately, offering advice about gathering family, maintaining wholesome traditions, and, of course, baking apple pie and other seasonal dishes. Soldiers in camp commemorated the holiday in the absence of their families. Wartime engravings communicated the power of Thanksgiving rituals both at home and on the battlefield, emphasizing Americans’ shared purpose and destiny as a nation.