It is not generally appreciated, but Thanksgiving as we now know it began, not with the Pilgrims and still less with the Puritans, but during the four bitter years of the American Civil War.
The so-called First Thanksgiving of 1621, the standard fare of grade school celebrations, was by no means the first thanksgiving feast in America. Jamestown had several thanksgivings prior to that and the Spaniards had them earlier still. Moreover, there were other sporadic celebrations called thanksgiving all the way up to 1863, but these were generally more religious than secular in nature, and by no means national in scope.
In fact, it was only after a series of articles by Sarah Josepha Hale, a pioneering Feminist, crusading editor, and best-selling author. It was to Ms. Hale that we owe–or have to blame–for the ever-popular nursery rhyme, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
Ms. Hale became Editor of the influential Godey’s Ladies Magazine, which was the major arbiter of women’s fashion during the 1860’s. This magazine not only gave a number of struggling young women authors their start, but also featured works by established male authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Washington Irving. While generally ignored by scholars of American Literature in the modern era, Godey’s was tremendously important in the development of early American literature.
Sarah actually began pressing for a national Day of Thanksgiving in 1846 and badgered five presidents in succession for the creation of it as a national holiday. Finally Ms. Hale found a sympathetic ear in Abraham Lincoln. Besides the persuasive lady’s letters and editorials, Lincoln saw the need for a national holiday as a unifying force in this time of division and disunion. So Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November of 1863 as the first national Thanksgiving. The war was dragging on and many homes were missing loved ones away at the front; but after Gettysburg, Vicksburg and the Union capture of Chattanooga, Lincoln could at last see an end in sight. Lincoln’s proclamation (actually drafted by Secretary of State William Seward) read as follows:
Proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln, October 3, 1863
“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 unequalled 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 had 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 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.”
For a nation weary of war and longing for home and loved ones, Lincoln’s proclamation struck a chord which has resonated ever since. Artist’s such as Thomas Nast and Winslow Homer easily turned out illustrations which struck to the heart of a nation at war yet earnestly desiring peace.
Christopher K. Coleman is author of two books on the Civil War: Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (Harper/Collins), and the The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer). His latest effort, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, is now out and available from all the better books stores. It is published by University of Tennessee Press.