Setting aside a day to give thanks is an American tradition deeply rooted in the history of our country. Every year, many look back to the Pilgrim’s and their arrival in Massachusetts as the beginning of the holiday we now know as Thanksgiving. Indeed, the Pilgrim settlers did have a feast in 1621 to give thanks to God for their blessings upon arriving in Plymouth. Native Americans were present on that occasion, though it was not the grand moment of cultures coming together to embrace peace and prosperity that popular history often alleges it to have been.
While the tale of the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving is deeply ingrained in our modern understanding of the holiday, few realize that Thanksgiving is also deeply rooted in the American Civil War. In October 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation of thanksgiving, calling upon the nation to set aside the fourth Thursday of November to pause and give thanks to God. Lincoln was far from the first to do this; during the Revolution, the Continental Congress set aside several days for giving thanks, and George Washington issued a similar proclamation in 1789 during the first year of his presidency. John Adams and James Madison also issued similar proclamations, meaning that Lincoln was reviving an old American tradition that had been dormant for many years. Even earlier in the Civil War, Lincoln himself had issued similar proclamations in April 1862 and July 1863, giving thanks for military victories over the Confederacy. Confederate President Jefferson Davis had also issued proclamations of thanksgiving.
Yet, Lincoln’s proclamation of October 1863 stood apart from those earlier in the war; indeed, it still stands apart today. The incredible events of that year provided incredible context for Lincoln’s words of thanksgiving. While the nation had gone through difficult times before, especially during the darkest days of the Revolution, the challenges which Lincoln and the country faced in 1863 were unique in many ways.
152 years ago, our nation was in the midst of the bloodiest conflict in American history. Hundreds of thousands had already died during the Civil War, with hundreds of thousands more having been afflicted by the effects of battle, both at home and on the battlefield. Millions wondered over what their ultimate fate would be at the conflict’s end: would they gain their freedom promised by the Emancipation Proclamation, or, would their masters reclaim them as property once again.
It would seem, in the midst of so much suffering and peril, that the country would not have anything to rejoice in as 1863 drew to a close. But yet, the year had provided glimpses of hope for the Union. It began with William Rosecrans and the Army of the Cumberland delivering a victory in Murfreesboro, Tennessee at the bloody battle of Stones River. Several months later, in the midst of that summer, Rosecrans and his army outmaneuvered Confederates in the Tullahoma Campaign, securing central-Tennessee for the Union. Rosecrans’s victory had been simultaneous with two much grander Union successes. On the first three days of July, the Union Army of the Potomac met Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg in the biggest and bloodiest battle of the war. The three-day fight saw over 50,000 casualties and a war changing victory for the Union. The following day, on July 4, Ulysses S. Grant secured the surrender of Confederates in Vicksburg, giving the Union control of the Mississippi River once again.
Even into that fall, the bloodshed continued. September saw an enormous toll at Chickamauga in Georgia, where over 34,000 men were casualties over two days. In November, Union and Confederate forces were squaring off at the crucial city of Chattanooga. By year’s end, 1863 had proven to be the bloodiest year yet of the war, though the fighting was still far from over.
In the midst of this fighting and bloodshed, President Lincoln decided it was time to revive and formalize a long-standing American tradition of giving thanks in times of plenty and peril, beginning the annual day of Thanksgiving that we observe today. As Lincoln’s proclamation explains, in spite of all the carnage and fighting tearing the nation apart, the country was weathering the storm of the war. Elections, commerce, and industry were still proceeding in the North, showing that American democracy was stronger than the threat of rebellion and war. Even in the darkest days of American history, Lincoln still found resilience and hope.
In the years following Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation, presidents continued to issue similar measures. The holiday was formalized as the fourth Thursday in November by an act of Congress in October 1941, just weeks before America would once again find itself engaged in a war testing its fundamental values. Even in the darkest days of American history, with thousands of men dying on battlefields hundreds of miles from home, or thousands of miles from home, whether in times of war or peace, Americans have still found time to pause and give thanks for what we have.
By the President of the United States of America.
The year that is drawing toward its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watching providence of Almighty God. 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 theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe 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 battle-field; 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 testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth.
By the President: Abraham Lincoln
William H. Seward,
Secretary of State
Gettysburg National Military Park