Civil War Thanksgiving sketch
Sketch of an 1861 Thanksgiving in a Civil War camp by Alfred R. Waud, from the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.

Thanksgiving's surprising Civil War roots

While its mythology might lead us to imagine America has been celebrating it ever since the Pilgrims joined with their Indian neighbors to throw a feast of gratitude after surviving a brutal winter, Thanksgiving as a national U.S. holiday is actually a more recent tradition -- first proclaimed by President Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War.

Lincoln was inspired by a series of editorials and letters written by Sarah Josepha Hale, the New England editor of the hugely influential magazine Godey's Lady's Book. Though like earlier presidents he initially resisted Hale's appeals, Lincoln eventually embraced the idea of creating a national Thanksgiving holiday as a day of unity amid the strife of the war.

In honor of the holiday, here is the text of Lincoln's Thanksgiving proclamation, issued on Oct. 3, 1863:

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 everwatchful 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 of 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 battlefield, 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 Stated States to be affixed.

Sketch of an 1861 Thanksgiving in a Civil War camp by Alfred R. Waud, from the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.
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re: Thanksgiving's surprising Civil War roots

A day of Thanksgiving in the United States dates to 1789, when on Oct. 3 of that year George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation.

re: Thanksgiving's surprising Civil War roots

The truth of this holiday is only one example of the misinformation so widely spread as to be in every grammar school history book in the U.S. Knowing there are various 'reasons' [none of them good ones] for essentially lying to our citizens only makes it more horrendous a sin in my eyes...

re: Thanksgiving's surprising Civil War roots

Thank you for posting Lincoln's proclamation. My work is with people who want to recover from eating disorders. Thanksgiving is a stressful time for them because of family gatherings, lots of attention to food and many unrealistic expectations. I've created a link on my site to this page. It's a wonderful reminder of the original intention of Thanksgiving Day. I hope it can help some eating disorder sufferers to refocus and see a more valuable and generous way to honor this day and themselves.

Joanna Poppink, MFT
Los Angeles psychotherapist
author: Healing Your Hungry Heart, to be released 08/11 by Conari Press