During the Civil War, both presidents, Lincoln and Jeff Davis, issued Thanksgiving Day proclamations and celebration of the holiday as we know it grew as a result.
We all know about the famed Pilgrims who feasted with the local Indians in 1621, but after that the holiday was only observed once in a while. When he was the general commanding the American forces during the Revolution, George Washington issued a Thanksgiving proclamation in December of 1777. After the war, in 1789, he did so once again. Then, as President, John Adams also issued proclamations for two of his four years in the highest office of the land. But after that it was more or less a forgotten idea.
It wasn’t until 1863, in the midst of a great war, that President Lincoln revived the tradition. The northern president wasn’t the only one to do this during the war, though. President Jefferson Davis had issued his Thanksgiving Day proclamation a year earlier, in 1862. Jefferson’s idea of Thanksgiving was a bit different than the one we think of today. The southern President had declared that the south’s observance would be a day of fasting and reflection, not feasting and revelry.
Of course, the holiday we are familiar with is connected to Lincoln’s proclamation. But, apparently the proclamation was not all Lincoln’s idea. It wasn’t just the war that spurred Lincoln to issue his proclamation, but a letter from a woman named Sarah Hale that convinced him to do so. Hale, the writer of the poem now called “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” had been trying to convince presidents to issue a Thanksgiving proclamation since 1846 and when Lincoln saw her letter he decided to follow her suggestion.
From there our formal national holiday was born.
President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation:
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 can not 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 unequaled 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 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 as the iron and coal as of our 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 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 imposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the divine purpose, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.