Lincoln, Mrs. Hale, and Thanksgiving Day (Article 13)

On October 23, 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation declaring the final Thursday in November as a “Day of Thanksgiving,” and our nation has continuously celebrated this special day as Lincoln prescribed; with the exception of two years when Franklin D. Roosevelt tinkered with tradition by moving Thanksgiving to the third Thursday. It was not well received. Later Congress adopted a resolution making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November, as it was in 1863, to avoid confusion in those infrequent years when there are five Thursdays in the month.

Most of us were taught in school that Pilgrims in North America declared a Day of Thanksgiving in 1621 to celebrate their first harvest.  Actually, both the Pilgrims in Plymouth and the Puritans in Massachusetts Bay frequently organized special days for prayer to give thanks for welcome events such as the arrival of a new ship, a harvest, and survival of a harsh winter.   By the early 1700s individual colonies began declaring a Day of Thanksgiving for various reasons and at various times of the year.

On a national level, in 1777, while the Revolutionary War was still being waged, the members of the Continental Congress were grateful that their rebellion still held promise for independence and they issued a proclamation designating Thursday December 18, as a Day of Solemn Thanksgiving.

On October 3, 1789, President George Washington proclaimed a Thanksgiving Day for Thursday, November 26.  However, since Washington was meticulously pragmatic and not prone to issue any type of religious or celebratory orders, he began the proclamation with this disclaimer, “Both houses of Congress have requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed.”

Thereafter, a few Presidents and the Governors of several states periodically issued Thanksgiving Proclamations, however none designated a November date.

Enter a determined woman named Sarah Josepha Buell Hale!  A well-known editor, novelist, and poet, her most enduring literary contribution to Americana was her poem “Mary’s Lamb,” later titled “Mary’s Little Lamb.”  In 1828, Mrs. Hale wrote a popular novel, “Northwood, Life in the North and the South” in which she envisioned a future of regional reconciliation after an end to slavery; this was nearly twenty five years before Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the more impassioned, and more famous, anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”  Sarah was a strong proponent of women’s education and is known in academia as a founder of Vassar College.  But few Americans are aware that, for over thirty years, she used her public persona to lobby individual states and Congress to declare a national Thanksgiving Day and, by 1860, thirty one states had done so; however, she had no success with Congress or with the four Presidents who preceded Lincoln.  As editor of the “Godey’s Lady Book” and “The Ladies Magazine,” which combined had the largest paid circulation of any women’s periodicals, she and her readers continued to “encourage” (her word) and “pester” (one recipient’s word) national politicians, including President Lincoln to establish a specific day for Thanksgiving.

Before hearing from Mrs. Hale, Abraham Lincoln, and even Confederate President Jefferson Davis, had issued several Thanksgiving proclamations during the first two years of the War but they were to celebrate a military victory. On the other hand, Sarah Hale wanted a designated day “for all Americans to put aside sectional feelings and local incidents” and “to be thankful for the blessings of life, not of war.”  She wrote of her hopes in a letter to President Lincoln, which he promptly shared with William Seward, the Secretary of State. After discussing the matter, Lincoln asked Seward to draft a Presidential Proclamation which would include the universal and conciliatory themes that Sarah Hale had proposed.  President Lincoln only made a few changes to Seward’s draft which, for the first time, established a fixed date of the last Thursday in November for the national observance.  It was signed by Lincoln on October 3, 1863 and the tradition of a national Thanksgiving Day has endured ever since.

Sarah Hale lived a long and productive life and saw her vision become a treasured special day “to be thankful for the blessings of life.”  And, as she hoped, it is observed across all lines that, on other matters, may divide us; such as politics, geography, ethnicity, and religion.  What a wonderful legacy.

For that we should be grateful to William Seward, Abraham Lincoln, and especially Sarah Josepha Hale.

Have a wonderful, and reflective, Thanksgiving Day.

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Lincoln through a Southern Lens (Article 12)

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) told of a dialogue with a Southern lady one evening twenty years after the Civil War. Hoping to start a casual conversation, Clemens said, “Madam, what a splendid moon.” To which the lady responded in a most pleasing southern drawl, “Bless you dear, but you should have seen the moon before the War.”

As I researched material for my books about Abraham Lincoln, I became curious about the perceptions toward Lincoln and the Civil War held by those individuals with a long and deep Southern heritage. I began to seek people who grew up in the South and whose families had lived in the Southern states since at least the mid-19th century. I inquired as to their own thoughts about the War and Lincoln’s legacy and asked if they could articulate the perceptions of their friends, teachers, and relatives; going back as far as they could remember. Some could recall commentary by great grandparents and others were, fortunately, able to refer to written records their ancestors had left for posterity.

While I expected to seek answers in private conversations, I received one “view through a Southern lens” at a meeting of a civic club in early 2012. The discussion at our table turned to the recently announced movie “Lincoln” which was expected in theaters in a few months; and one visiting couple joined in the conversation. The woman, with her face tightened in resolve and in a very measured voice said, “Abraham Lincoln was a despicable man” and waited for one of us to respond. Her husband hesitated for a moment before saying, “My wife is from Georgia and her family has not yet conceded the Civil War.” She was not amused.

In other, more private exchanges, I interviewed Southerners whose families had lived in the region since before the Civil War, with some pre-dating the Revolutionary War.  Their personal thoughts, as well as their speculation about the views of their contemporaries, ranged from a barely controlled hatred of Lincoln, the War, and the aftermath, to an appreciation that the United States was preserved and slavery ended. However, most said that their relatives who lived through the War, and the next few generations, deeply resented Lincoln, the “War of Northern Aggression,” and the subsequent “Yankee” re-construction policies.

I was very fortunate to interview two men who were also from Georgia, as was the lady at the civic club. Both went to grade school and high school in smaller communities in the 1940s and 1950s and then became acquainted at a Georgia university; and have since remained life-long friends. These men epitomize the term “Distinguished Southern Gentlemen” by the honorable way they have conducted their lives. Both said that their great grandparents, and even grandparents,  might have agreed with the lady’s assessment and one commented that, “Even in the 50s, nothing could start an inflamed conversation at family gatherings like the North’s invasion of the South, Abraham Lincoln, and re-construction; even after a hundred years!”

Both of these men said, however, that most of their contemporaries had a nuanced view of Lincoln and the Civil War, agreeing that the preservation of the Union and the end of slavery were positive outcomes. But, they both were critical of the intentional mass destruction of Southern Infrastructure during the War and the unnecessarily harsh penalties of re-construction after the War ended. In their elementary and secondary classrooms, the history of that period tended to focus on the noble effort of the Confederate cause, admiration for its civilian and military leaders, and the unfair policies toward the South in the aftermath; but neither recalled descriptions of Lincoln as “despicable” or other similar derogatory terms. Neither thought Lincoln was to blame for the debilitating re-construction policies and, to the contrary, both thought Lincoln, had he lived through his second term, would have been a moderating force. One said that, “In all wars the victor sets the terms for reconciliation, but the Union’s policies were more retaliatory and focused on retribution, rather than the best path to reconciliation.”  Both acknowledged that, for a few generations after the war, there were still those who defended slavery as a historical right, a practical labor source, and the relationship of owner to slave as benevolent. However, they said that those they personally knew, including grandparents, parents, friends, and teachers, while proud of their Southern heritage, never attempted to defend the institution of slavery.

By contrast, I also had an exchange with a “serious student of the Civil War,” a term he applied to himself, who was a direct descendent of men who fought for the Confederacy. He said, “I take great pride in their service and their sacrifices and the Southern officers conducted themselves more honorably than their Union Counterparts.”  He further stated that, “Secession was a legal and appropriate response to abuses by the Federal government, and the Union conducted an undeclared war on a new country.”

As an aside, while we disagreed on most points, I appreciated that his tone was always reasoned and calm, unlike some of the “new Confederates” and “Southern Avengers” who seem to shout out their arguments in sound-bite slogans with a string of epithets. My experience with these groups began when they coordinated a mass of spiteful comments about Lincoln and the War on the sales pages for my books and on my web-site; causing us to temporarily shut down comments. To add insult to injury, I don’t think any of them ever paid for one my books!

However, while the “serious Civil War student” was more measured and polite, he was absolute in his belief that the United States (what remained of it) and the Confederate States of America could have co-existed as separate countries for years. If so, the Civil War could have been avoided and, perhaps, the two countries might have re-formed a new Union later. He said that he had “bought into the mythology of Lincoln” until he began his independent research at the age of thirty, when he determined that “Lincoln was no Great Emancipator but only a tyrant who was predetermined to destroy the South.” When he added that, “Slavery would have died out anyway over the next fifty years,” I asked if he had any concern for the four million slaves in 1865 and the thousands more who would have been born into slavery under his scenario.  He replied, “The slaves were totally unprepared for freedom, and over that fifty years slaves could have been gradually assimilated as the South modernized; which would have been preferable to the War waged by Abraham Lincoln’s armies.” After reviewing his commentary, I thought that he demonstrated an old proverb that someone can study a lot but still not learn anything at all!

Fortunately, based on my interviews, these “new Confederates” are a small, but noisy, minority of those with a Southern heritage. One person told me that, “We refer to these so-called new Confederates as the ‘crazies’ and they are an embarrassment to the South.” Another said, “We can be proud of many aspects of our Southern heritage without overlooking the terrible injustice of slavery, which is a stain that can not be erased and must not be forgotten.”

After all of these interviews and other interactions, my limited research revealed to me that there may be as many opinions about Lincoln and the Civil War as seen “through a Southern lens” as there are fireflies on a southern night; and that would be too many to count.

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Confederates Raid St. Albans, Vermont! (Article 11)

Throughout the Civil War there were Confederate operatives based in Canada. Some were on diplomatic missions to observe Canadian and British neutrality, while others were merchants who brought Southern cotton, rice and tobacco into Canada for sale or barter to return funds to the Southern states.

But there were also Confederate military forces based in Canada which, despite that nation’s neutral position, conducted raids into the northern most parts of the United States. Confederate Captain John Yates Beall led a group that harassed docks on Lake Michigan, damaged rail tracks, and even planned, but failed to initiate, an attack to free Confederate prisoners of war held in Ohio. Captain Beall was captured in the United States and charged by the regional military commander as a spy, rather than held as a prisoner of war; and he was sentenced to death by a military court. President Lincoln was asked by numerous northern politicians and citizens, who knew Beall’s family before the War, to commute the sentence but he refused to intercede. Later, Lincoln said, “It was a lack of decision I now regret because the boy was surely a soldier.”

However, the most audacious raid by Confederate soldiers, and the one farther north in the United States than any other, was at St. Albans, Vermont on October 19, 1864.

Lieutenant Bennett Young, a Confederate officer stationed in Canada, had proposed to his superiors in the South that his unit of about twenty men conduct various raids in Maine, Vermont, and New York, but had not received permission to enter the United States. The Southern leaders were concerned that Canada, and the rest of the British Empire, would consider such forays as a breach of their neutrality.

By 1864, however, the Confederate government’s financial situation was grim with their currency devalued to near zero and no new opportunities to raise money from other countries. Further, they desperately needed a successful military action which might demoralize northern citizens, energize their own people, and distract Union forces which were pushing deep into the South. So, they gave Lt. Young permission to raid into the U.S. from his base in Canada.

The military action he chose was never anticipated by any Union officials, authorities in the state of Vermont, and certainly not by the people of small towns in upstate Vermont; and probably not even by his superiors down in Richmond. He decided to rob banks!

His target was the town of St. Albans, Vermont, about 15 miles from the Canadian border, which was a central commercial hub for the area and boasted three banks. Also, the Governor of Vermont had a residence there and Lt. Young planned to burn that house and other buildings in the town, as retaliation for similar acts by Union troops in the South.

Lt. Young sent several men into town to scout the banks, any police or military presence, and find the best escape route back into Canada. They checked into two hotels in town and some passed themselves off as Canadian businessmen looking for opportunities, while others claimed to be part of a group planning a hunting trip. On October 19th, the rest of Lt. Young’s men, dressed in civilian clothes, rode into town and joined the group already there waiting on horseback. The combined force began riding through town firing their weapons and rounding up citizens who were on the streets or in nearby buildings, and herded the crowd into the town’s central park. The raiders told their captives that they were only a part of a larger force of 100 Confederate soldiers who were there to take over the town; not a true number, but certainly effective crowd control, at least for a while. Selected soldiers in three teams then charged into the three banks at the same time, overwhelming the small staffs and a few customers. In later testimony, one soldier said that they did not expect much resistance, and had no intention of hurting anyone; however, they were heavily armed and had additional men stationed on the outskirts of town to fend off any pursuit by citizens or authorities.

The first few minutes of the robberies went as planned and all three units emerged from the individual banks and onto the streets at about the same time, with their bags full of cash; a surprising amount of over $200,000! (Adjusted for inflation, the haul was worth over $5 million).

But then, Captain George Conger, a Union officer on leave, broke free from the containment at the park and ran through several buildings to an area not controlled by the soldiers. He rounded up a few men and they all quickly found arms and began firing at the Confederates. In the exchange of gunfire, one citizen was mortally wounded and died three days later, while one Confederate soldier also died a few days later of wounds. As they hastily retreated from St. Albans, Lt. Young’s men, on orders to burn the town, threw incendiary devises into several buildings, but they failed to ignite and the raiders never even made it to the Governor’s house.

The Confederate force returned into Canada where all were eventually captured by Canadian authorities and most of the money was confiscated as evidence. But, using a defense that theirs was a military mission, carried out only in the United States, the Canadian prosecutors and courts determined that no crime had been committed in their territory. When Secretary of State William Seward demanded that the soldiers be extradited to the United States, Canadian courts again blocked the move. Some politicians and other leaders in the U.S. recommended that Union soldiers be sent into Canada to capture and return the Confederates; however, President Lincoln would not allow any such action across the border. In the long term, Lincoln’s careful response was appreciated by the British who made it clear to the Confederate government that further “expeditions” from Canadian territory would be considered a “belligerent act” upon the British Empire. In 1865, Canada returned some of the stolen funds, but, in the year since the raid, much of the money had just mysteriously disappeared.

In 1911, when he was seventy one, the former Lt. Young returned to Canada and a contingent of St. Albans citizens met with him in Montreal. He told the group that despite the controversy his raid caused in Canada, he appreciated that a few sympathetic Canadians had helped him get some of the money to Richmond. And, he said, that while he regretted the loss of life, it was a wartime raid and he considered his mission a success.

On October 19, 2014, St. Albans commemorated the 150th anniversary of “The northernmost military action by Confederate forces.”

One resident noted that, this time, although there were several “Southerners” in town again, the only shots were taken by photographers and bar patrons.

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