President Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation of Thanksgiving
1863 was one of the most dramatic years in American history. On January 1 of that year, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was issued, declaring that persons held in any territory or state in armed insurrection against the United States would be forever free. July 1-3, 1863 saw the bloodiest battle in America’s history, Gettysburg, with deaths ranging upwards of 46,000 to as much as 51,000 troops from the two sides. November 19, 1863 was the scene of the dedication of the national cemetery at Gettysburg, including Lincolns’ famous Gettysburg Address.
Sometimes lost in the historic events of that year is another of Lincoln’s proclamations, this one being his Thanksgiving Proclamation. It is of course true that days of Thanksgiving had long been celebrated in America, beginning with the “first Thanksgiving” celebrated by the Pilgrims in 1621. George Washington issued his own Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1789 at the end of the long and difficult Revolutionary War.
Since 1861, of course, there had been a terrifying and brutal Civil War fought between the United States and the Confederacy with thousands upon thousands of deaths and a horrifying number of soldiers injured or lost to disease. 1863 at long last saw the tide begin to turn in favor of the Union, climaxing with the Battle of Gettysburg and the Union victory at Vicksburg. There were dark days ahead to be sure, but it was looking more and more like the Union would see final victory.
At the suggestion of a national magazine editor, Lincoln on October 3, 1863 issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation, for the first time setting aside the last Thursday in November as a National Day for giving thanks.
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 unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to invite and provoke the aggressions of foreign States, 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.
The needful diversions of wealth and strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship. The axe 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 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 Prayer to our beneficent Father, who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to him that, 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, tranquility, 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.