In most of America nowadays, Thanksgiving is a day of family, food, football and a foretaste of four weeks of shopping. But in some American homes, the holiday retains its religious character: it is a day to give thanks to God for His blessings. And in a special, few American households that have men or women at war, Thanksgiving is a day to thank the Lord of Battles for the survival of loved ones. For those families, Thanksgiving is a day of guns and God. So it was 146 years ago, when Thanksgiving became fixed as an American national holiday — and by no less a man than Abraham Lincoln.
On Saturday, October 3, 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. Thanksgiving Day in America went back centuries, to the Pilgrims at Plymouth Plantation in 1621, if not before. Earlier Presidents had declared Thanksgivings, but Lincoln was the first to set Thanksgiving Day on the last Thursday of November. And there it has remained, ever since.
Lincoln acknowledged, in his proclamation, the country’s situation “in the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity,” but he emphasized the country’s prosperity even in a time of war. He wrote:
“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 Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
Nearly eight bloody weeks passed between Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation on October 3 and Thanksgiving Day – in 1863, as this year, Thursday, November 26. In Virginia’s Piedmont Region, Union General George Meade and Confederate General Robert E. Lee fought five skirmishes. On October 19, for example, Confederate Cavalry General J.E.B. Stuart surprised the enemy and forced him into a humiliating, five-mile chase, ending in the capture of 250 Union cavalrymen. On November 7, to take another case, Union forces overran a Confederate position at dusk and captured 1,600 men. But neither army won a strategic advantage and the Virginia campaign ended in stalemate.
The Western Theater told a different story. In September, the Union Army had driven Confederate forces out of Tennessee and into Georgia. The Union took the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, which was a transportation and manufacturing hub. But the Union troops pushed too far and suffered a shellacking at the Battle of Chickamagua on September 19. The Confederates drove them back into Chattanooga and laid siege to the city.
Then, Ulysses Grant came to the rescue. The campaign that followed was one of the war’s most dramatic, and it included such famous generals as Sherman, Hooker, Longstreet, and Bragg. Weeks of fighting reached a climax in two Union victories on November 24 and 25 – the Battles of Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge – that lifted the Confederate siege of Chattanooga. That Tennessee city was Grant’s Thanksgiving Day gift to President Lincoln.
As the weeks passed between the proclamation of Thanksgiving and the celebration of the holiday, thousands of Americans were wounded, captured or killed in battle on American soil. Homes were destroyed, business were ruined. And new lives began, as slaves were freed.
One other thing happened during those eight weeks: one other event that, in a modest way, summed up the American experience as few things ever have. One week before Thanksgiving Day, on Thursday, November 19, on a clear autumn afternoon in Pennsylvania, Lincoln stood up before a large crowd and spoke. He gave the Gettysburg Address.