TJ | 26th Nov, 2014

The First Thanksgiving

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Lincoln and his Generals after Antietam

It is important to remember the circumstances surrounding the real first Thanksgiving. The real first Thanksgiving did not occur at Plymouth, but across America in cities, villages and isolated farms whose families had endured the grim news coming from the battlefields of the Civil War.  That war signified America’s inability to hold itself together in the face of partisan quarrels that dated back to the Constitutional Convention. By 1860 those quarrels, one of which resulted in Preston Brooks beating Charles Sumner senseless with a cane in the halls of Congress, had hardened until, as Lincoln said, America became a “house divided against itself.”

In 1863 Americans who had fought for over half a century with words were now slaughtering each other in unspeakable numbers. The year before Lincoln issued his proclamation marked the bloodiest day in American history– the Battle of Antietam where there were 6,000 casualties in a single morning. It takes a voice from the past to remind us of the horrors of the Civil War and why Lincoln issued his proclamation. The description is grim, and I hesitated printing it, but we need to see battles like Antietam through the eyes of those who fought there in the worst battle in our nation’s history.  The worst casualties were at a place they called the Bloody Angle where soldiers who only a few years before may have greeted one another on a street corner fought hand-to-hand:

Many of the bodies have turned black, the stench is terrible, and the sight shocking beyond description. I saw several wounded men in the breastworks buried under their dead, just  move a hand a little as it stuck up through the interstices above the dead bodies that buried the live ones otherwise completely from sight. Imagine such a sight if one can! It is indescribable! It was sickening, distressing and shocking to look upon!… Could anything in  Hades be any worse?…It seems like a horrible nightmare! [From Lemuel Abijah Abbott, Personal Recollections and Civil War Diary, 1864,  (New York: Free Press, 1908), pp. 58-59.]

When Abraham Lincoln wrote his Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, he wasn’t thinking about Pilgrims and turkeys; he was thinking about sights like those above which he personally witnessed when he traveled to Antietam to assess the battle. He desperately wanted to heal  a divided and wounded country.

Lincoln’s interest in Thanksgiving is said to have been urged on him by Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of the popular Godey’s Lady’s Book, who had promoted the idea in editorials. Hale also did not mention Pilgrims and turkeys. In one editorial she wrote:

Let us consecrate the day to benevolence of action, by sending good gifts to the poor, and doing those deeds of charity that will, for one day, make every American home the place of plenty and of rejoicing. These seasons of refreshing are of inestimable advantage to the popular heart; and if rightly managed, will greatly aid and strengthen public harmony of feeling.


In these days of partisan rancor we would do well to note some of Hale’s words and the motive behind them. Hale saw Thanksgiving as a way of strengthening what she termed “public harmony of feeling.” In other words, she envisioned a country where people worked together for the common good instead of digging their heels in and saying “my way or the highway.”

Hale had a different idea about this country than the one voiced by current Congressional zealots ready to shut down the government to get their way. She believed that harmony would come from “benevolence of action,” “sending good gifts to the poor, ” and doing “deeds of charity.”  In Hale’s words lies the belief that this country functions best with a level playing field that extends a hand to those less fortunate.

Hale wrote to Lincoln to convince him to set aside a day of Thanksgiving in the midst of the Civil War.

And would it not be fitting and patriotic for him to appeal to the Governors of all the States, inviting and commending these to unite in issuing proclamations for the last Thursday in November as the Day of Thanksgiving for the people of each State? Thus the great Union Festival of America would be established.

While Hale’s letter may have piqued Lincoln’s interest, it served only as a catalyst that brought forth his own beliefs about what he felt the nation needed. As he often did during that terrible period, Lincoln put words on paper that were spinning in the heads of Americans, captured their conflicting feelings and, most of all, read the needs lying in the those guarded places where not even the images of Matthew Brady’s photographs could penetrate.

Lincoln knew the nation deserved a day to pause and reflect, to inhale the fresh air of freedom amidst the dark smoke of war. There are so many other things he could have said, so many different words he could have used, so many feelings he could have vented, but he chose to ignore them. Somehow in the midst of the killing and the hatred he found something positive and enduring, just as he would at Gettysburg.

While his Thanksgiving Proclamation has neither the philosophical profundity nor the rhetorical precision of what he said at Gettysburg it has something else: a faith in what he termed “one heart and voice by the whole American people.” Abraham Lincoln had the ability to foresee a day when all Americans gathered with friends and family to enjoy each others’ company and give simple thanks for their blessings.

In Lincoln’s words, Thanksgiving becomes the most American of holidays–even more than the Fourth of July and all the rest–a national day of unity when all the disparate strands of this diverse nation join together not to celebrate, but to simply be thankful. The President did not call for revenge or hatred, but instead turned us towards what he termed the “better angels of our nature” and called for us to pause, look around and think about our lives.

Edmund Ruffin

When Edmund Ruffin, whose broad-brimmed hat and shoulder-length silver hair personified another world, walked to a cannon and lit the fuse that fired the first shot of the Civil War no one could have imagined the Bloody Angle.  That is why Lincoln’s proclamation of the First Thanksgiving speaks more powerfully to this nation than turkeys and Pilgrims. In countless speeches he gave through the Civil War one theme rings as clear as a church bell: it was the union that mattered and in order to have a “more perfect union” all Americans needed to value the nation as a whole over their petty personal and partisan agendas and grievances.

For Lincoln the Union could only survive if we worked together toward a common vision where no one was better than anyone else, regardless of how much they owned or how many degrees they had or the color of their skin or the accent of their voice. No one had a monopoly on dictating the meaning of the Constitution and the Declaration.

One part of Lincoln’s life that is not often mentioned is that at no time did he ever presume to be the major authority on the Constitution or American government. Raised in beginnings so humble that he once lived in the equivalent of a lean to, Lincoln, unlike the record number of millionaires in the present Congress, knew what it was like to be so hungry you would eat anything. That always left him with the humility that comes from having been, in the words of the blues, “so down you don’t know where up is.”

Thanksgiving had profound meaning to a man whose thin figure metaphorically reflected the near starvation he endured as a child. The reason we have family and friends around the table is to share whatever we have with those we love. If we cannot share it with them, regardless of their political beliefs, their personal quirks and bad luck stories, who can we share it with?

So before the you dig in for that Thanksgiving meal, say a few words or have a moment of reflection for the hope that the spirit of Thanksgiving imagined by Hale and Lincoln might infect this nation. Then end with a personal pledge, a kind of Thanksgiving Resolution, as Hale recommended, to honor this holiday with an act of charity.

Proclamation Establishing Thanksgiving Day

October 3, 1863

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 had 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 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.

A. Lincoln



BONUS: Can you identify George Custer in the picture? Send me a comment about what his posture and dress might signify.

May all of you enjoy this Thanksgiving!

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