Modern media apprises its viewers of the president’s plans and habits for the Thanksgiving holiday. Some presidents have returned to their private homes, others celebrate at the White House, and one flew to Iraq to be with U.S. troops. During the Civil War, Thanksgiving Day was not an official holiday, but both presidents – Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln – issued proclamations calling for days of thanksgiving.
“The first Thanksgiving” hosted by the settlers in Plymouth, Massachusetts took place sometime during the autumn of 1621 and was a celebration of the good harvest and providence of God. In following decades, the tradition of harvest feasts continued, unofficially hosted by the small colonial communities. There were also strictly religious days – sometimes for thanksgiving and praise, other times for fasting, humiliation, and prayer. For example, in the tension-filled days before the American War for Independence, the Virginia House of Burgesses set aside May 14, 1774, as a day “devoutly to implore the divine Interposition for averting the heavy Calamity” caused by an impending conflict with England.[i] The tradition continued after the United States became a nation; George Washington made a public proclamation setting aside the 19th of February, 1795, as a day of thanksgiving.[ii]
Drawing from the religious heritage and atmosphere of America, both Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln called for specific days of thanksgiving or prayer. People of the Civil War era had a strong respect for Christianity and often acknowledged God’s blessing or judgment in national events.
Jefferson Davis – the reluctant president of the Confederacy – issued many religious proclamations to his country. Shortly after the Southern victory at Second Manassas (Bull Run), he wrote:
To the People of the Confederate States: Once more upon the plains of Manassas have our armies been blessed by the Lord of Hosts with a triumph over our enemies. It is my privilege to invite you once more to His footstool; not now in the garb of fasting and sorrow, but with joy and gladness, to render thanks for the great mercies received at His hands… In such circumstances it is meet and right that as a people we should bow down in adoring thankfulness to that gracious God who has been our bulwark and defense, and offer unto Him the tribute of thanksgiving and praise. In His hand is the issue of all events, and to Him should we in an especial manner ascribe the honor of this great deliverance: Now therefore, I, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States, do issue this, my proclamation, setting apart Thursday, the 18th of September instant , as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God…and I do hereby invite the people of the Confederate States to meet on that day at their respective places of public worship, and to unite in rendering thanks and praise to God for these great mercies, and to implore Him to conduct our country safely through the perils which surround us to the final attainment of the blessings of peace and security.”[iii]
Interestingly, on September 18, 1862, the Army of Northern Virginia would be reeling in retreat from the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg). As the war progressed, Davis’s proclamations became calls to fasting, humiliation, and prayer, believing that the sins of his people were contributing to the defeats of the Southern armies.
In significant contrast, at Congress’s urging Abraham Lincoln first issued a proclamation for a day of “public humiliation, prayer and fasting” to be observed on the last Thursday of September 1861.[iv] Two years later, he set aside the last Thursday of November as a “day of Thanksgiving and Praise.” Lincoln’s 1863 announcement set precedent for our modern holiday.[v]
By 1863, Union armies were turning the tide of war in the North’s favor. Vicksburg had fallen, and the Mississippi River flowed unhindered to the sea. Invincible opponent Robert E. Lee had been repulsed at Gettysburg. It was still the dark days of war, but there was a glimmer of light, and Lincoln wrote his official Proclamation of Thanksgiving:
“The year that is drawing toward 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… In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity…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… It has seemed to me fit and proper that they [the blessings] 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…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 restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.[vi]
Political differences appear in Davis and Lincoln’s proclamations. Contrasting the two documents perhaps brings to mind a shudder-worth argument at the turkey feast table. Yet, perhaps the common ground is there after-all. Both called for thanksgiving, ordered citizens to reflect on providentially mercies, and publically declared God’s blessings.
What can be learned in the modern era from the texts of these thanksgiving proclamations? Three points come to mind. First, there is a reminder of America’s heritage of faith. Second, there is a reflective remembrance of providential blessings throughout recent history. Third, people are called to do something to outwardly show their gratitude.
Every family – every individual – has their own traditions for celebrating Thanksgiving Day. Busyness ensues with baking the turkey, exclaiming over how the grandkids have grown, meeting new friends, planning the Black Friday shopping campaign, watching football, and picking out the biggest piece of pumpkin pie. But perhaps it is important to remember the less-superficial aspects of the holiday.
Thus, with Davis and Lincoln echoing eloquently from the annals of history, I invite you to take a moment to reflect on America’s heritage of thanksgiving and blessing and to set apart a few minutes for grateful remembrances.
[i]National Archives, Digital Collection. Transcription. Resolution of the House of Burgesses Designating a Day of Fasting and Prayer, 24 May 1774. Full Text is available at: http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-01-02-0082
[ii] Wallbuilders. Proclamation – Thanksgiving Day – 1795. http://www.wallbuilders.com/libissuesarticles.asp?id=17901
[iii] J.W. Jones, Christ in the Camp: The True Story of the Great Revival During the War Between The States, (1887), pages 44- 45.
[iv] A.Lincoln, A. Lincoln – Speeches and Writings, 1859-1865, (1989, published by Library of America), pages 264-265
[v] A.Lincoln, A. Lincoln – Speeches and Writings, 1859-1865, (1989, published by Library of America), 520-521
[vi] A.Lincoln, A. Lincoln – Speeches and Writings, 1859-1865, (1989, published by Library of America),520-521
Captions for Photographs:
- Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy
- Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States of America