Not many Americans today realize that, although the tradition of gathering together to give thanks for the harvest and for the blessings of the previous year is a custom originally from New England, the present form of the holiday has only been with us for about 140 years or so. At various times in our earlier national history different presidents, Washington among them, urged a special day of thanks to Almighty God for his blessings on the young nation. However, it was Lincoln's proclamation which had the most impact and eventually led to the last Thursday in November of each year being a national holiday. On the third day of October in 1863, Lincoln, with the support of Secretary of State William H. Seward, issued the following proclamation:
BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA:
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, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and provoke their aggressions, 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 theater of military conflict, while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.
Needful diversions of wealth and strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has 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 one 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.
By the President: ABRAHAM LINCOLN.
WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State.
One of the blessings which Lincoln referred to in his proclamation was the success of arms during the previous year. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia were dealt a resounding defeat at Gettysburg in early July. And, one day after Lee's disastrous decision to storm the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg, the city of Vicksburg fell after slightly more than a month's siege. With the fall of Vicksburg and then almost immediately Port Hudson, the Confederate States of America were twain in two; the western part of the Confederacy would, in a matter of mere months, go it alone, cut off from the rest of the Southern nation. The eastern side of the Confederate States would suffer the loss of the western half even more, as the loss of the Mississippi River meant much-needed supplies no longer would be able to cross from Texas, Arkansas and western Louisiana.
While much fighting lay ahead, the United States had much to be thankful for in its efforts to put down the rebellion of the Southern States in November of 1863.
(The writer wishes to thank Mike Johnson of the Civil War Discussion Group for locating and posting on the group Lincoln's Proclamation.)