Civil War Profiles: Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation: The 150th anniversary

Although it is generally believed that the idea of offering thanksgiving originated with the Pilgrims who settled here from England in the 17th century, it was not until the 18th century that days of thanksgiving were promulgated in this country. In 1777, the Continental Congress declared a national day of thanksgiving for the 13 states, but for just that year. Otherwise, individual governors declared observance if they desired a day of thanksgiving. (The Pilgrim Story, Plimoth-on-Web).

In the 19th century, setting aside a day of thanksgiving was popular in the North, but the Southern states were dubious about this practice. According to the History Channel’s “Thanksgiving and the Civil War,” the South saw it as too closely aligned with those who advocated the abolition of slavery — especially impassioned voices in New England. In contrast, the Southern states emphasized the celebration of Christmas.

When the union of states disintegrated beginning in December 1860, after South Carolina seceded, citizens resorted to prayer and religious observance, imploring God to intercede on their behalf. By 1862, a woman in Wilmington, Del., confided to her diary on Nov. 27:

“Thanksgiving Day, & 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 more perhaps by fasting & supplication.” (Delaware History, April 1961)

It was President Abraham Lincoln, however, who officially promulgated an annual day of prayer and thanksgiving. By mid- to late 1863, the momentum of the Civil War had swung dramatically in favor of the North, following the victory at Gettysburg and the fall of Vicksburg. Therefore, on Oct. 3, 1863, the president issued a Proclamation for Thanksgiving.

In Lincoln’s words (excerpted from Roy P. Basler, “Abraham Lincoln, His Speeches and Writings”), “The year [1863] … has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger [during this Civil War] for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. I do, therefore, invite my fellow citizens … to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a Day of Thanksgiving.”

One person who deserves recognition for encouraging issuance of a Thanksgiving proclamation was Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor Godey’s Ladies Book, a popular publication. She had been campaigning for many years to have Thanksgiving declared a national holiday. She believed that, because sectionalism was on the rise in this country, the observance of Thanksgiving would be a unifying factor.

Hale wrote a letter to the president, asking him to declare a national day of Thanksgiving. As it turned out, her efforts were rewarded.

When Lincoln issued his proclamation, his purpose was to praise God and to implore God “to heal the wounds of the nation.” In response, great efforts were made in the North to demonstrate appreciation for those military personnel who were suffering and dying to preserve the country.

By 1864, an affluent New Yorker named George W. Blount led a campaign to ensure every Union soldier and sailor fighting in Virginia would celebrate and enjoy the Northern prosperity on Thanksgiving Day. As a result, when newspapers and charities publicized the campaign, businesses in the food and shipping industries pledged support.

An enormous effort got under way to deliver tons of eatables to the troops, such as turkeys, pies, and all the other specialties to insure the fighting men enjoyed a bountiful Thanksgiving dinner. Ladies organizations prepared delicious meals for their local army posts and veterans hospitals.

Reacting to publicity emanating from the North regarding this massive effort to reward the troops for their service at Thanksgiving, the authorities in Richmond focused on the upcoming Christmas holiday to show appreciation to Southern military personnel who had been fighting against great odds.

But, despite their good intentions, the South was unable to organize sufficient resources to duplicate the Northern celebration. Food shortages and an unreliable logistical system prevented the Army of Northern Virginia from enjoying a hearty Christmas feast.

The observance of Thanksgiving this week falls on the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s wartime proclamation. As Lincoln scholar and spiritual leader Duncan Newcomer observed, in 1863 the president also issued the Emancipation Proclamation and delivered the Gettysburg Address. All three of these initiatives helped lay the groundwork for eventual peace and reconstruction of the nation so that freedom and union could reign.

Thomas J. Ryan is a Civil War historian, speaker and author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War: A Political, Military and Social Perspective.” Contact him at