After two and a half years of sectional conflict, President Abraham Lincoln believed it prudent to “give thanks for the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.”
On Oct. 3, 1863, the president instructed Secretary of State William H. Seward to issue a proclamation, because “these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come … that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”
Lincoln invited “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.”
At this point in the Civil War, the Northern states and the seceded Confederate states had sent tens of thousands of their citizens to die or sustain serious wounds in this conflict. With this in mind, the proclamation recommended that the people, “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.” (http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/thanks.htm)
As Garry Wills records in “Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America,” on Nov. 19, a week prior to the first official Thanksgiving Day, Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg, Pa., to help dedicate a cemetery for the thousands of Union soldiers killed during the battle four months earlier. His speech on that occasion lasted only two minutes.
What is known as the “Gettysburg Address,” however, is memorialized for its powerful effect on the national consciousness. It praised “the brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, [and who] have consecrated [this ground] far above our poor power to add or detract.” He called for resolve “that this nation, under God, shall have a new a new birth of freedom.”
While the Thanksgiving Day proclamation did not have near the historical impact as Lincoln’s brief dedication speech at Gettysburg, it carried a similar spiritual message. On Sept. 28, 1863, a magazine editor, Sarah Josepha Hale, had urged the president in a letter to have the “day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.”
She told the president, “There has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs … to become permanently an American custom and institution.” Prior to this, each state scheduled its own Thanksgiving holiday at different times.
George Washington was the first president to proclaim a day of thanksgiving, issuing his request on Oct. 3, 1789, exactly 74 years before Lincoln’s. Lincoln took Mrs. Hale’s letter to heart and instructed Seward to draw up the proclamation to set apart a day of thanksgiving and praise.
John Nicolay, Lincoln’s secretary, wrote in a letter dated April 1, 1864, that the proclamation was written by Secretary of State William Seward, and the original was in his handwriting. Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, recorded in his diary how he complimented Seward on the wording of the document.
The proclamation ends with a prayer for national redemption, for which Lincoln said the people should “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.”
Wilmington native Anna Ferris recorded in her diary, “Thanksgiving Day [is] very generally observed throughout the loyal states. In the midst of this terrible crisis of our history, there are still many causes for thanks — though [we could show our gratitude] more perhaps by fasting & supplication.”
Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books and at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.