In gratitude for recent Union victories on the battlefield, President Abraham Lincoln declared a National Day of Thanksgiving to take place on Thursday, Nov. 27, 1862. The president’s proclamation came as the Civil War raged into its second year (see “Civil War Profiles,” Nov. 29, 2013).
On that date, Bishop Albert Lee honored the occasion by delivering a discourse on the meaning of thanksgiving at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Wilmington. He based his homily on Isaiah 24:15 (KJV): “Wherefore glorify ye the Lord in the fires.”
Lee, the first Episcopal bishop of Delaware, avowed that sincerest thankfulness does not come from the proud and self-sufficient of this world, but rather from those who are truly dependent on a higher power. Without God in our thoughts, “we can experience no such noble and delightful emotion.” As long as we understand that our daily bread truly comes from God, “as if received morning by morning from the hand of angels,” then our hearts can overflow with gratitude for the goodness of the Lord.
Lee emphasized to the congregation “war’s stern clarion is sounding, and not far off from us cannon are booming, and armed hosts are pressing to the conflict.” He noted that wives and mothers anxiously scanned the daily lists of casualties to see if loved ones were among the wounded or killed on the battlefield.
The overriding concern, however, was “the future destiny of our country is poised in this balance, and that issues of amazing magnitude are now dependent.” Even more reason not to withhold from God “that homage of solemn public thanksgiving.”
Though the armies were not marching on our own soil here in Delaware, Lee reminded his audience, there was no reason not to “sympathize with what is transpiring so near us; we cannot forget the beloved ones who are facing death at the cannon’s mouth.” This thought emanated from the carnage two months earlier at Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Md. when the bloodiest day of the war ended with nearly 5,000 dead and more than 18,000 wounded.
The bishop reached the crux of his discourse: “Though the fires of a devastating war are still burning so fiercely, though the flames grow lurid and red from many a hill-top, crest the summit of the Alleghenies, glare upon the turbid current of the Mississippi, flash along the shores of the Atlantic, and sweep o’er the prairies of the West, yet still glorify the Lord.” Because, “I, the Lord, form light and create darkness, I make peace and create evil, I, the Lord, do all these things.”
Thus we must remember to thank the Lord just as we did during days of peace and prosperity, and “glorify him even in the fires.” First, for the bright spots that shine out in the somber landscapes, despite being in the midst of one of the most colossal and desperate conflicts.
In gratitude for Delawareans receiving a blessed exemption from the calamities of war, Gov. William Burton appropriated the day as one of public thanksgiving. The purpose was to praise “Almighty God for His wonderful goodness and mercy extended to us during the past year.”
In the mind of Lee, the second reason to thank the Lord was because the charge that we are a mercenary and mammon-worshiping people had been fully refuted. And, although there were men who care more for money than their country’s honor and salvation, the great mass of the inhabitants of the loyal states displayed “the highest and most ennobling traits of character.”
Third, the bishop felt if those in the North were the guilty parties in this strife, he should feel impelled to cry in sackcloth and ashes for mercy. Yet, “we must be well satisfied that our cause is holy,” while knowing that suffering, self-denial and courage would not “sanctify a bad cause or atone for a public crime.” Bowing to the Creator, he steadfastly implored, “If it be his will that the nation should go down in this struggle, let her go down … with the flag of right and freedom flying at the masthead.”
Delivered with gratitude and humility, Bishop Albert Lee closed with a prayer, “O Lord … in this hour of trial and danger we pray thee look with compassion upon our beloved country … bring back alienated brethren to oneness of heart and mind … and grant us a speedy, equitable and lasting peace.”
Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” a History Book Club selection available at Bethany Beach Books. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.