Civil War Thanksgiving

National Day of Thanksgiving

national day of Thanksgiving proclaimed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863The first Thanksgiving dinner was held by the Pilgrims in October 1621, as a harvest festival in Plymouth Colony. President George Washington declared a day of Thanksgiving for the new nation in 1789, and another in 1795.

Image: Thanksgiving in Camp
Drawing by Alfred R. Waud
Thursday November 28, 1861

However, our national day of Thanksgiving came not from the Pilgrims, but from President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, and from Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of a popular women’s magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book. For 40 years Hale had written editorials and letters to governors and presidents, trying to have Thanksgiving declared a holiday.

Sarah Josepha Hale, born in 1788, was also known for her fight for the education of women. Her brother, Horatio, attended Dartmouth College. Every day when he came home from school, he taught Sarah everything he had learned that day. At the age of 18, Sarah opened a private school and taught there, as well, though women were not accepted as teachers at that time.

Hale married a young lawyer, who encouraged her to become a writer. In 1827, her book, Northwood: A Tale of New England, was published, the first novel to use the issue of slavery in its plot. She became the first female editor of a magazine, and fought for women’s rights throughout her life.

But, I digress. In the autumn of 1863, President Lincoln was concerned about the coming elections. The Civil War had not gone well for the North. The Yankees had won a decisive victory at Gettysburg the previous July, but General George Meade was soundly criticized for not pursuing General Robert E. Lee. The Southern army was allowed to slip away and lick its wounds.

The Union had suffered a critical defeat at Chickamauga that fall, and President Lincoln realized that his country was weary of the war and the carnage it wrought. The losses at Chickamauga alone were estimated at 35,000. A Civil War Thanksgiving might lift the spirits and restore the faith of those who were beginning to doubt that the Union would survive.

President Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation stated, in part:

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and provoke their aggressions, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict, while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

Needful diversions of wealth and strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.

And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.

In 1864 special meals were provided for the Union soldiers. A picture of Thanksgiving among the Troops appeared in Harper’s Weekly magazine.

Thanksgiving was decreed by every president after Lincoln. The date was changed several times, until 1941, when Thanksgiving was finally approved by Congress as a legal holiday on the fourth Thursday in November.

I sincerely wish my readers and their families a very Happy Thanksgiving.

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