Our nation’s “Thanksgiving Story” may be rooted the Pilgrims of Plymouth, but the annual holiday we observe this week finds its origins in the struggle of the Civil War.
It had been a very mixed year on the battlefield. The battle of Antietam in September 1862 had been a Union victory, but the December 1862 battle of Fredericksburg had been a complete disaster for the Union. Looking to rally the nation’s lagging zeal, the president issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, transforming the Civil War from a conflict about federal power and states rights into a contest of wills over slavery. The Union began a very unpopular draft in March 1863 and suffered another terrible loss at Chancellorsville in May. In July, the Union achieved two of its greatest victories – Gettysburg and Vicksburg – but suffered another setback in September when Union forces failed at Chickamauga in northwest Georgia. Worse yet, the Army of the Potomac could not (or would not) capitalize on the victory over the Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg. The outcome of the conflict was by no means a settled fact in late 1863. The cost in lives had been staggering: Antietam (2108 Union KIA), Fredericksburg (1284 Union KIA), Chancellorsville (1574 Union KIA), Gettysburg (3155 Union KIA) and Chickamauga (1657 Union KIA). If Lincoln could see into 1864 at all, he knew that things would only get worse, both for the Union and for the Confederacy which he hoped to reunite with his nation.
Despite the horrors and uncertainty of the war, Lincoln issued issued a proclamation on October 3, 1863 establishing a national Thanksgiving Day, to be observed on the last Thursday of November. Until this time, Thanksgiving had been observed only sporadically and regionally. The 1621 Pilgrim celebration was a one-time event and not the beginning of a yearly tradition. It was the president’s 1863 proclamation that began an unbroken chain of presidential Thanksgiving proclamations and inaugurated the national holiday we know today. It’s interesting to note that the 1863 Thanksgiving took place one week after Lincoln dedicated the resting place for thousands who died at Gettysburg.
In his 1863 proclamation, Lincoln recognizes God for his goodness and mercy, even in the midst of a terrible and costly war. Lincoln concludes:
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.
Thankfulness. Penitence. Remembrance. Healing. Comfort. Restoration. Peace They all still seem like good suggestions for prayer to me.
And while Thanksgiving is a national holiday, the theme of giving thanks in hard times is not foreign to the Judeo-Christian tradition. From the first Passover Seder to the last supper of Jesus, God’s people have known that faith calls us to give thanks in times of adversity as well as in times of ease. It is perhaps those in the midst of conflict and struggle who best know what it means to be thankful.
See the full text of Lincoln’s proclamation here.