Today's observance of Thanksgiving marks the 150th anniversary of the first national Thanksgiving Day, which, unbeknownst to many Americans, has a direct link to the War Between the States. It was proclaimed by President Abraham Lincoln on October 3rd, 1863,1 in the aftermath of the carnage at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, and the Union defeat at Chickamauga. The proclamation set the precedent for America's national Thanks-giving observance.
The holiday's history in America is rooted in English traditions dating from the Protestant Reformation, and those customs on ancient celebrations from biblical times. Prior to Lincoln's announcement, church leaders or individual states decided their own Thanksgiving holidays, observing days of prayer and thanksgiving at different times in the calendar. They followed the traditions of George Washington, who was the first president to proclaim a day of thanksgiving in 1789, and the earlier Plymouth colonists who celebrated their first harvest in 1621. In Lincoln's proclamation, he set apart the last Thursday of November "as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise." However, since 1941, the holiday is officially celebrated on the 4th Thursday of November.
Ironically and unintentionally, Lincoln's national proclamation went into effect on November 26th, 1863, the day after the defeat of the Army of Tennessee on Missionary Ridge near Chattanooga, Tennessee. As Northerners were celebrating, Gen. Braxton Bragg's beaten army was retreating across the Chickamauga Creek, near where it had witnessed a magnificent victory only weeks before. Serving in the army's rear guard in Patrick Cleburne's Division was my 18-year old Great Grandfather Nathan R. Oakes.
By the President of the United States of America.
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 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 theatre of military conflict; while that theatre 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 defence, 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 battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness 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 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 Unites States the Eighty-eighth.
1 See the history of the proclamation and a copy of the document at the National Archives websiteBy the President: Abraham Lincoln