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National Observance of Thanksgiving Day Spurred By The Civil War

Updated on July 21, 2012
Sarah Josepha Hale  1788 - 1879
Sarah Josepha Hale 1788 - 1879

When green summer leaves begin to turn to gold and bright orange, and the weather becomes cooler, the evening chill bringing forth a need for a fire in the fireplace, or warm sweaters to be brought out of closets, most Americans begin thinking about planning for the annual Thanksgiving Day dinner. For most families, it's an opportunity to gather together with close family relatives and friends who might be living too far to visit often during the rest of the year.

All of us are familiar with the story of the first Thanksgiving celebration in 1621 when the settlers of the Massachusetts Bay colony gathered together to give thanks for having survived their first year in the New World, and to extend that thanks to the local native Indian tribes, without whose help they all would have surely perished.

While Thanksgiving celebrations were known to the New England states, only a few of the other northern states set aside a day of celebration, and it was virtually unknown to the southern states. In 1789, President Washington issued a proclamation calling for Thursday, the 26th of November to “be devoted by the People of these States to the the service of that great and glorious Being...” He again called for a day of thanks to be observed on January 1, 1795.

John Adams also called for observation during the years 1798 and 1799. However, these days were not at all for the purpose of gathering together to share a meal and give thanks to a higher Being. Instead, he called for “A day of Fasting and Humiliation.” During the War of 1812, James Madison issued his own proclamations for days of giving thanks, both in 1814 and again in 1815. It wasn't until 1862 that another day was officially set aside for giving thanks.

Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States, issued his own proclamation in 1861, but this was for a day of fasting and humiliation, as John Adams had done previously, and was in connection with giving thanks to “the Sovereign Disposer of events” for their early victories at the start of the Civil War. Recognizing that a great conflict was imminent, Davis asked that all set aside the 15th of November for the purpose of appealing to “Him, that He may set at naught the efforts of our enemies, and humble them to confusion and shame.” The victories enjoyed at Second Manassas and the Battle of Richmond, Kentucky, gave cause for Davis to set aside another day of giving thanks. There was no way for Davis to know that the designated day of September 18th would fall one day after the crushing defeat of the southern forces at Antietam with more than 10,000 confederate soldiers becoming casualties in a single day.

Newspaper/magazine notice for November 26, 1863, the first national celebration of Thanksgiving Day
Newspaper/magazine notice for November 26, 1863, the first national celebration of Thanksgiving Day

And although Abraham Lincoln issued Thanksgiving Proclamations in the spring of 1862 and again in 1863, they are not to be confused as part of the push to make Thanksgiving Day a national holiday. Both of these days of thanksgiving were in relation to issuing prayers toward a peaceful end to the war, and a changing of heart for the “insurgents.” The 1863 proclamation was made just 12 days following the Battle of Gettysburg, and in part, was for the purpose of giving thanks for the bloody victory.

Lincoln received a letter dated September 28, 1863 from Sarah Josepha Hale, the 74 year old editor of Godey's Lady's Book, a women's magazine. Previous to 1863, none of the states who chose to celebrate a Thanksgiving Day did so on the same day. Each state set aside a day of their choosing for the purpose, some as early as October and others as late as January. Mrs. Hale expressed her wish that the celebration be recognized as a national holiday with a standard day set aside that all might observe it together. She had been advocating the issue for the prior 17 years, contacting Presidents Zachary Taylor, Millard Filmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and finally Abraham Lincoln. Previous attempts in her cause had failed to persuade, but President Lincoln responded immediately.

The first national observance of Thanksgiving Day took place exactly one week following the dedication of the Soldiers National Cemetery at Gettysburg. The following proclamation was written by Secretary of State William Seward for President Lincoln, and was in Seward's handwriting. The original manuscript was sold a year later to benefit the Union troops.

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards 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 watchful 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 to provoke their aggression, 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 consiousness 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, tranquillity 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 Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

William H. Seward,
Secretary of State


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