Halloween and the Civil War

by Jenny Phillips

Did people celebrate Halloween during the Civil War? Well, the answer’s complicated. Halloween, ‘All Hallows’ Eve,’ or ‘All Hallow’e’en’ can trace its origins in America back to the mid-1800s, with an influx of Scottish, English and Irish immigrants. These immigrants brought with them their tradition of carving turnips and rutabagas (eventually traded in for the more prevalent—and iconic—North American pumpkin) to ward off evil spirits on the eve of “All Saints Day,” November 1st. This was all eventually paired with other traditional harvest and sugaring season activities, such as corn husking and apple peeling, costumes, and parties. Halloween wasn’t made an official holiday until 1921.

“Jeff Davis Reaping the Harvest,” Library of Congress

There are few written accounts of Halloween in the United States prior to 1860, but reference to the celebration or activities do occur. The earliest mention of Halloween, in popular periodicals occurred in the April 1836 issue of Godey’s.

The Peoria Morning Mail, on November 2, 1862 reported, “All-Hallow E’en. This old-time anniversary which took place on Friday evening was made the excuse by some of our wild boys for throwing unsavory missiles, putrid vegetables; taking gates off of the hinges, and sundry other pranks. This was probably ‘good fun’ to the boys, but for those thus attacked it was not so desirable. This is the way a ‘very quiet’ night was spent as stated by a contemporary.”

Kate Stone, in her journal, Brokenburn, described some Halloween practices. She wrote in November, 1864, “Some gentlemen called, and we had cards. After they left, Lucy and I tried our fortunes in divers ways as it was ‘Hallow’e’en.’ We tried all magic arts and had a merry frolic, but no future lord and master came to turn our wet garments.”

This Harper’s Weekly issue from October 26, 1861 depicted a grim reaper Jefferson Davis. While its intention was more a commentary on death during the Civil War/harvest time, and less Halloween/zombie specific, it does seem like the perfect spooky cartoon for Halloween. Plus a zombie Civil War? That might be a good basis for a scary movie.

For another take on spooky history, but Cottage specific, read here about Mary Lincoln’s famous seances, one that even took place in the Cottage’s library.



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