Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Messages (Article 46)

“ I..invite my fellow-citizens to..observe the last Thursday in November as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father. And…I implore the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and restore it.. to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and Union.” Excerpt from the 1863 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation.

During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued several proclamations establishing special days for Prayer and/or Thanksgiving. Each asked the public to set aside time to reflect upon the challenges the country faced and to follow their own religious creed to express hope for peace and gratitude for the blessings bestowed on the Nation. The proclamations summarized below were actually collaborative efforts between Lincoln and William Seward, his Secretary of State. The two men had been rivals for the Presidency but, by late 1861, had learned to respect and trust each other’s political instincts and writing skills. Seward was a devout Episcopalian and his intonements tended to be more ecclesiastical and flourishing. Lincoln, on the other hand, while no less spiritual, tended to use simpler implorations; and the reader can usually discern which phrase was more likely Seward’s or Lincoln’s.  Unfortunately, over time, some writers, especially in internet posts, have confused the various proclamations and presented erroneous text as “Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Day Proclamation.”

It is important that we maintain a correct historical record of these proclamations or, over time, the false texts become the “new” history. Lincoln and Seward prepared four related proclamations. For ease of identification, most scholars refer to these as the 1861 Proclamation for Prayer, The April 1863 Proclamation for Prayer, The 1863 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, and The 1864 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation. The following are summaries, as each original document is lengthy; however, the full titles are included for reference.  For those who would like to read the complete (and authentic) texts, the best sources are the web-sites of several Lincoln Historical Societies, the Lincoln Presidential Library, and the Library of Congress.

In August 1861, when the awful realities of the Civil War were becoming evident, Lincoln and Seward felt that the people might be comforted by a special day on which the nation as a whole would turn to their religious faith, in whatever forms that may take, to ask for guidance in restoring the forefathers’ vision for the United States. That Presidential proclamation was officially titled The Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day and read (in part):

“..And, whereas our own beloved country, once by the blessing of God, united, prosperous, and happy, is now afflicted with faction and Civil War, it is particularly fit for us to recognize the hand of God in this terrible visitation, and in sorrowful remembrance of our faults and crimes as a nation, and as individuals, to humble ourselves and pray for His mercy….and that the inestimable boon of civil and religious liberty…earned by His blessing and the labors and sufferings of our forefathers, may be restored in all its original excellence.” The Proclamation went on to declare the last Thursday in September as a day of humiliation, prayer, and fasting and urged “all ministers and teachers of religion of all denominations and the heads of all families to observe and keep that day according to their creeds and modes of worship.”

Not quite an official “Thanksgiving Day” but a good start!

On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation became effective changing forever the context of the Civil War. By then, Lincoln and Seward believed that the North would eventually prevail and the Union would be restored; but neither had reason to hope the War would end soon. In April, 1863, they decided to issue another proclamation of prayer; however, this one was officially titled “Proclamation for a Day of National Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer.” Hardly a catchy title, which most historians suspect was Seward’s choice, as was much of the text. But, it was signed by Lincoln and, in summary, read as follows:

“..It is the duty of nations as well as men, to owe their dependence upon the ruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions, in humble sorrow…By his divine law nations, like individuals, are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world…. We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven. We have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity….But we have forgotten God.…We have vainly imagined….that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own (and) we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving Grace. It behooves us to humble ourselves before the offended Power. I do, by this proclamation, set April 30, 1863 as a day of national humiliation, fasting, and prayer. And I do request that all the people abstain that day from their ordinary secular pursuits and to unite at their several places of public worship and in their respective homes, in keeping that day Holy to the Lord, and devoted to the humble discharge of the religious duties proper to that solemn occasion. Let us rest humbly in the hope authorized by the Divine teachings that the united cry of the nation will be heard on High, and (provide) the restoration of our now divided and suffering country…”

By the fall of 1863, the Civil War was still being fought, but the Union was beginning to see significant victories (especially at Gettysburg and Vicksburg) and Lincoln and Seward discussed declaring a “National Day of Thanksgiving.” It was not their original idea, nor one that they quickly accepted. It took a forceful campaign by Sarah Josepha Hale to convince the two men that the time was right. Mrs. Hale had almost singlehandedly convinced the Governors of most Northern States and Mayors of several of the larger cities to declare a “Thanksgiving Day” in their jurisdictions. Her ultimate goal was to create one day, throughout the entire country, which would be set aside for prayerful Thanksgiving for the blessings bestowed by the Creator. She implored President Lincoln to take action; and over a few days in September, 1863, he and Secretary Seward wrote the first “Thanksgiving Day Proclamation. It reads (in part):

“In the year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies…bounties which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come. In the midst of Civil War of unequaled magnitude and severity, peace has been preserved with all (other) nations, laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has been preserved except in the theater of military conflict; while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.” Lincoln went on to describe the wealth that was building in the north from farming, mining, and transportation, and advances in bringing in new states from western territories; while still keeping up an aggressive war effort against the Confederacy. (That last portion was decried by Southern politicians and newspaper editors). But then Lincoln and Seward returned to the basic theme of gratitude and Thanksgiving. “No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the most gracious gifts of the most High God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It seems fit and proper that they should solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledge as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens to…observe the last Thursday in November as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father. And I recommend to them that they do so with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and implore the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and restore it as soon as may be consistent with Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and Union.”

While the 1863 Proclamation was widely reported in Southern newspapers, rather than inspire people as it had in the North, it offended many in the south by its references to “all Americans,” successful military campaigns against the Confederacy, and restoration of the Union. The people of the South were being devastated by the many battles pushed by the Union, almost all fought on their lands, and in their communities. The fact was that after mid-1863, almost all military engagements favored Union forces and the economic engine in the north continued to expand; in stark contrast to the travails and suffering within the Confederacy.

A year later, on October 20, 1864, President Lincoln issued his second Thanksgiving Day proclamation, again declaring the last Thursday of November for the special Day. (Since November occasionally has five Thursdays, Congress later changed the date from the “last” Thursday” to the “fourth” Thursday because business and labor leaders wanted a longer separation between the two holidays).  Again, Lincoln and Secretary Seward collaborated to issue a memorable document, which read (in part):

“It has pleased Almighty God to prolong our national life another year, defending us with His guardian care against unfriendly designs from abroad and vouchsafing to us in his mercy many and signal victories over the enemy who is of our own household…He has augmented our free population by emancipation and by immigration, while he has opened new sources of wealth and has crowned the labor of our workingmen in every department of industry with abundant rewards. He has been pleased to inspire our minds and hearts with fortitude, courage, and resolution sufficient for the great trial of Civil War into which we have been brought by our adherence as a nation to the cause of freedom and humanity…Therefore I set apart the last Thursday in November as a day …of Thanksgiving and praise (to) offer up penitence and prayers for a return of the inestimable blessings of peace, union, and harmony throughout the land.…

 Because of an assassin’s bullet a few months later, this became President Lincoln’s last Thanksgiving Day Proclamation.

But we are fortunate that he and Seward left us these petitions, especially the calls for unity and peace, which certainly seem appropriate today, and, hopefully, we will try to honor their message as we celebrate this special holiday.

Have a wonderful, and reflective, Thanksgiving Day.

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Lincoln’s Condolence Letters (Article 45)

Abraham Lincoln was an accomplished writer; whether he was writing a letter to an editor about political issues, a brief to a court in a legal case, a speech that he knew would be re-printed for many more to read, or simply a letter to a friend. But he may have been at his most eloquent when writing to someone who had experienced a loss.

His condolence letters are remarkable.

Certainly, the most famous is referred to as the “Mrs. Bixby” letter. It deserves the reverence with which it is usually presented and is quoted in most Lincoln biographies. Lincoln wrote it to a widow who had lost two sons in the Civil War. He wrote (in part)

Dear Madam,

….I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost..,

While the Bixby letter may be the most often quoted condolence letter, there were many other similar letters from Lincoln’s pen.  These were private expressions, not done for publicity, but only in the hope that he might provide some comfort to a grieving mother, sister, wife, brother or father, or in one case, a whole community. These letters offer a message of deep gratitude and are examples of Lincoln’s compassionate nature and artful prose.

One such letter was sent to Mary Frances “Fanny” McCullough, whose father had been killed in the Civil War.

Lincoln had met William McCullough during the Black Hawk War and both had become active in Illinois politics and had joined the new Republican party at about the same time. When the Civil War broke out, McCullough volunteered as a cavalry officer but was at first rejected because of his age (51), his poor eyesight, and of most concern to military recruiters, he only had one arm. It must have been difficult for them to imagine him managing a horse and a weapon if he were engaged in a cavalry charge or other combat. We do not know the circumstances of McCullough’s appeal to his friend, President Abraham Lincoln, but he was finally accepted into the cavalry as a Lieutenant. Some of the men who served with McCullough, later told of him riding his horse, bridle in his teeth, and brandishing his pistol or sword in his one hand; and one said, “He was not an opponent to be taken lightly.” McCullough was promoted several times and served with distinction for nearly two years in battles in Tennessee. His unit was then assigned to General Grant’s army which began to move into Mississippi and Colonel McCullough lost his life during the early stages of the Union campaign to take the strategic Confederate outpost at Vicksburg, Mississippi.

He left behind a wife and four children, among them was Fanny who was 21 years old at the time of her father’s death. Abraham Lincoln knew the family well and, when Fanny was a child, he had often held her on his lap and told her stories that would make her laugh. Perhaps he enjoyed Fanny’s quiet company because he only had rambunctious boys at home. While it is certain that Colonel McCullough’s entire family deeply mourned his loss, it seems that Fanny was so overcome with grief that no one was able to comfort her and her depression not only lingered, but became worse to the point those around her were concerned about her well-being.

Someone who knew Fanny, contacted President Lincoln about her condition.

Abraham Lincoln was no stranger to profound grief. As a child of nine he had lost his mother, then as a young man, his early friends watched him mourn the death of a close friend, Anne Rutledge, and later the death of two young sons. Then, of course, came the horrendous losses of the Civil War. Harold Holzer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Lincoln biographer referred to his “Common Bond of Grief” with others who were suffering through a loss.

So, Lincoln penned this letter to a grieving young woman.

“Dear Miss Fanny,

It is with deep regret that I learn of the death of your kind and brave father, and especially that it is affecting your young heart beyond what is common. In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it. I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You cannot now realize that you will ever feel better. Is this not so? And yet it is a mistake. The memory of your dear father, instead of agony, will yet be a sad, sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer and holier sort than you have known before. You are sure to be happy again. Perhaps to know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now.

Very sincerely,

A. Lincoln”

Fanny did recover, with support from friends and family, but it is likely that the letter she received from Abraham Lincoln, which she kept for the rest of her life, also helped.

Not all of his condolence letters were to a family of the fallen. In 1863 Lincoln received a letter from the townspeople of Manchester, England whose livelihood had been crushed by the American Civil War. The mills of their community had processed cotton imported from Southern states for nearly 40 years and was the primary employment for most families. The hardships began almost immediately due to the Union blockade of southern ports (and an ill-advised embargo on cotton shipments by the Confederate government). Mills closed, people lost their homes, malnutrition became rampant; and it became known as “the great cotton famine.”  But these poor Englishmen had seen their earlier generations victimized by England’s bondman laws, which permitted enslavement of debtors, until the practice was abolished in the 1830s. So, they knew first-hand the evil that was slavery and they relished their freedom. The town’s letter to Lincoln read (in part), “The abandonment of the cotton mills in Manchester has tested us, one and all, but we know its reasons and causes. We are heartened by the vast progress which you have made in twenty months, fills us with hope that the foul blot on civilization and Christianity – chattel slavery – will cause the name of Abraham Lincoln to be revered by posterity.”

Lincoln replied (in part), “I know and deeply deplore the sufferings of the working people of Manchester are called to endure in this crisis. I cannot but regard your decisive utterances as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age. Whatever else may happen, the peace and friendship which now exists between the two nations will be, as it shall be my desire to make them, perpetual.”

But, personal condolence letters to grieving families of fallen soldiers were all too prevalent for the President. In April, 1861, soon after the start of the Civil War, Lincoln recommended Elmer Ellsworth, who had just turned twenty-one, for an officer position in the Union Army. Lincoln had met Elmer two years earlier through his father, Ephraim Ellsworth who was a long-time friend; and the young man had obviously made a lasting, and very positive, impression. As it turned out, the military commanders in Washington DC also quickly recognized Elmer’s intelligence, sense of duty, and leadership ability and placed him in charge of one of the detachments which guarded the White House. Because of his daily proximity to the Lincoln family, and his gregarious nature, Elmer and the two younger Lincoln boys became regular companions when Elmer was off-duty; and he even won over Mary Todd Lincoln, which was never easy. During that time, while the young officer was always respectful of his duties and the President’s position, the two men also became close friends. On May 23rd, Union forces overran the city of Alexandria, Virginia, directly across the Potomac River, to secure that area as a protective buffer for Washington. While leading his men into the Hotel Alexandria, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth was shot and killed by a local civilian. Lincoln was devastated at the sudden loss of his young friend, and held a memorial service for Colonel Ellsworth in the White House.  On May 25th, Abraham Lincoln penned this letter (in part) to the soldier’s parents.

“To the Father and Mother of Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth,

My dear Sir and Madam,

In the untimely loss of your noble son, our affliction here, is scarcely less than your own. So much of promised usefulness to one’s country, and of bright hopes for one’s self and friends, have rarely been so suddenly dashed, as in his fall. In size, in years, and in youthful appearance, a boy only, (but) his power to command men was surprisingly great. This power, combined with a fine intellect, an indomitable energy, and a taste altogether military, constituted in him, as it seemed to me, the best natural talent, in that department, I ever knew. And yet he was singularly modest and deferential. My acquaintance with him began less than two years ago; yet through the latter half of the intervening period, it was as intimate as the disparity of our ages would permit. To me, he appeared to have no indulgences, I never heard him utter an intemperate word. What was conclusive of his good heart, he never forgot his parents. The honors he labored for so laudably, and in the end, so gallantly gave his life, he meant for them, no less than for himself.

In the hope that it may be no intrusion upon the sacredness of your sorrow, I have ventured to address you this tribute to the memory of my young friend, and your brave and early fallen child.

May God give you the consolation which is beyond all earthly power.

Sincerely, your friend in a common affliction.

A. Lincoln”

In War, soldiers die. It is a burden every President has borne. Some are better than others at expressing the nation’s gratitude for a soldier’s sacrifice, and for the loss felt by family and friends. President Abraham Lincoln wrote many condolence letters during the Civil War, these are only a few. He could also speak with unusual grace to a gathering of those commemorating a great loss as in his Gettysburg Address or reflecting on recovery and forgiveness such as his Second Inaugural Address; both of which are enduring masterpieces.

But his deeply felt personal compassion seems most clear, to me, in the special prose of his condolence letters.

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