Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation

On 3 October 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation setting aside the last Thursday in November “as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father… with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience…”[1]

16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit: Bing public domain

16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit: Bing public domain

This proclamation was issued exactly 74 years after the first thanksgiving proclamation issued by George Washington in his first year as president. But before Lincoln’s decree, Thanksgiving had been observed on different days in different states. Secretary of State William H. Seward requested that Lincoln make this a unified national holiday to further erode states’ rights.[2]

This, and not the thanksgiving observations at Plymouth, Massachusetts, or Jamestown, Virginia, began the American tradition of an annual national Thanksgiving holiday. Ironically, the tradition began amidst the most terrible war in the nation’s history, proclaimed by a president whom Confederates accused of giving thanks for successfully (and illegally) invading their homeland.[3]

The following year, Lincoln issued another annual proclamation for Thanksgiving to be observed on Thursday, 24 November 1864. Among those observing the holiday was the Federal Army of Potomac laying siege to Petersburg and Richmond, Virginia. The 120,000-man army enjoyed feasts of turkey, chicken, fruits, and pies in the siege lines.[4]

Despite their lack of food, the besieged 57,000-man Confederate Army of Northern Virginia ceased firing out of respect for the Federal holiday. Captain James F.J. Caldwell of the 1st South Carolina wrote, “We lay in grim repose, and expected the renewal of the mortal conflict. The conviction everywhere prevailed that we could sustain but one more campaign.”[5]

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  • [1] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 417
  • [2]http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/thanks.htm; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 577
  • [3] White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Kindle Locations 52275-52327
  • [4] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 586; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 158-59; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 334
  • [5] Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 158-59; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 334
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