“ 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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