Civil War Profiles — Congress gives thanks during the Civil War

Date Published: 
Nov. 24, 2017

On Oct. 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued Proclamation 106, which established a national day of thanksgiving. In midst of the Civil War, he took time to “invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States … 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.”


To the men who fought the war, however, receiving thanks rather than giving it was a more important and practical occurrence. A thank you from Congress of both the United States and the Confederate States of America not only recognized achievement, but also advanced careers in the military.

The Congressional Record published Thanks of Congress citations to honor officers and enlisted men of the U.S. Army and Navy from late 1861 through May 1866. Congress limited their official thanks to just 15 army officers during the entire Civil War.

Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon became the North’s first military hero and recipient of the award posthumously. Congress cited him for leadership at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek in Missouri on Aug. 10, 1861, during which he made the ultimate sacrifice.

The Confederate Congress issued its first official thanks to the State of Alabama on Feb. 8, 1861. Alabama had hosted the Confederate government at Montgomery and approved a loan of $500,000 to the Confederacy.

Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard received the thanks of the Confederate Congress for his bombardment of Fort Sumter, S.C., that forced its surrender in April 1861 and initiated the Civil War. Beauregard, along with Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, also garnered congressional approval for defeating the Union army in the Battle of Bull Run at Manassas, Va., in July 1861.

The U.S. Congress thanked Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside for gallantry, good conduct and soldier-like endurance, and Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker for his defense of Baltimore and Washington. Given that Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee defeated these generals in spectacular fashion at Fredericksburg in 1862 and Chancellorsville in 1863, respectively, these awards were more political than military in nature.

Two Union officers received congressional citations in 1863: Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans for gaining a nominal victory at Stones River in Tennessee when Rebel forces withdrew, and Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant for his gallantry and good conduct, as well as that of his officers and men.

At the same time, Grant received a Congressional Gold Medal — the only one awarded during the Civil War — for his string of victories at Fort Henry, Fort Donelson and the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee, and forcing the Confederate defenders to surrender at Vicksburg, Miss.

Gen. Robert E. Lee did not go unnoticed by the Confederate Congress, which thanked him on several occasions. Rebel naval officers John T. Wood (Chesapeake Bay), Ebenezer Farrand (Drewry’s Bluff), Issac N. Brown (Vicksburg) and Raphael Semmes (C.S.S. Alabama) also received congressional recognition.

The Confederate Congress thanked Englishman John Lancaster for “gallant and humane conduct” in using his personal yacht to rescue the crew of the commerce raider C.S.S. Alabama. The U.S.S. Kearsarge sank the famous, or infamous — depending on your allegiance — Alabama off the coast of France on June 19, 1864, gaining a U.S. Congressional thank-you for the Kearsarge’s Capt. John A. Winslow.

Union naval personnel won their share of Congressional citations, including Adm. David D. Farragut and Adm. David G. Porter, who received them on more than one occasion. The epic duel between the ironclads the U.S.S. Monitor and the C.S.S. Virginia (Merrimack) brought thanks to Lt. John L. Worden, who commanded the Monitor.

The U.S. Congress saw fit to issue a blanket commendation in thanking “the officers, soldiers and seamen of the Army and Navy of the United States for the heroic gallantry that … has won the recent series of brilliant victories over the enemies of the Union and constitution.”

The issuance of thanks by the U.S. and Confederate Congress can be found in the “Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War,” Patricia L. Faust, ed., and Boatner’s “The Civil War Dictionary.”

Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books, and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.