Thanksgiving During Civil War


Happy Thanksgiving! During your busy day of family, friends, pets, pumpkin pie and turkey, you might want to read this.

From a beautifully written essay on William Seward’s partnership in and Lincoln’s proclamation of a national Thanksgiving Holiday by Ted Widmer, former director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College and author of the forthcoming ‘Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington‘:

The Civil War is never that distant; in troubling ways, it has resurfaced in recent months as an implied threat of a conflict that may reignite someday. How reassuring it is, in this context, to read the words of forgiveness that Lincoln and Seward wrote so carefully. Even in the worst months of the fighting, with violence all around them, they saw a better day coming, when Americans would return to the same table, in the “full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”

Ted Widmer, Washington Post, 22 November 2019

A fascinating twist to this tale is that the Southern States nearly blocked a national Thanksgiving holiday because, according to Widmer, “the South distrusted a holiday tied to the history of New England.” One of the promoters of the holiday was ‘Mary Had a Lamb’ author Sarah Josepha Hale, an anti-slavery crusader, who pushed a Pilgrim-based conception of the holiday. Numerous Southern governors refused to acknowledge the national holiday in part because of her.

But Seward’s trademark realpolitik amidst the blood and treasure lost in the Civil War enters the picture:

In the fall of 1863, Seward saw an opening. After two years of brutal fighting, the tide had turned, with Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg. That was reason enough to give thanks. But what if the president issued a sweeping proclamation that gave thanks on behalf of the entire American people, including those who were at war against the United States? That would be creative statecraft, reminding Americans that they remained a single people.

America is divided now, as it has been many times in its past. I remember as a very young man the stress and cultural torrent of the late 60s. But there have been other times when our nation was deeply divided, though this round seems among the most severe.

I hope that people remember that civitas is about being on one ship, having a shared destiny, and that on that ship and around the Thanksgiving dinner table, we need to argue, and debate, and laugh, and work things out.

Here below is Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 message to Americans that every year on the third Thursday in November, they would have a holiday reminding all to be thankful and work things out:

Washington, D.C.
October 3, 1863

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

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 has 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 one 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, tranquillity 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.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

William H. Seward,
Secretary of State

— Steve Clemons


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