Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving and the Civil War

By Matthew Pizzolato

Whenever one thinks of Thanksgiving, images of the Pilgrims and Indians and Plymouth come to mind. The first Thanksgiving celebrations in this country were held in Virginia in 1619 and in Plymouth in 1621. It was sporadically celebrated in New England, but it was never an established national holiday. And giving thanks for a successful harvest is nothing new.

The idea that the holiday we celebrate as Thanksgiving came from the Pilgrims and the founding of this country is largely a myth, though there are ties to that event. It was the American Civil War that created the holiday of Thanksgiving.

On October 3, 1863, after the bloody battle of Gettysburg earlier that year, which saw a combined 51,000 causalities, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring a national day of "thanksgiving."

By the President of the United States of America.
A Proclamation. 
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 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 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. 
By the President: Abraham Lincoln

According to Lincoln's intent, Thanksgiving had nothing to do with the Pilgrims and celebrating a successful harvest and everything to do with being thankful for the blessings granted to the nation by "the providence of Almighty God."

The first "Thanksgiving" occurred the following year when Lincoln issued a second proclamation and people organized a feast for Ulysses S. Grant's troops at City Point, Virginia, Grant's headquarters during the siege of Petersburg. Over 400,000 pounds of hams, turkeys and all the trimmings were delivered from New York City to Union soldiers. The citizens of Petersburg, who had been under siege since June, simply starved.

But even after Lincoln's proclamations, it was not until Franklin D. Roosevelt signed it into law in 1941 that it became the national holiday that is observed today.

Matthew Pizzolato's short stories have been published online and in print. He is a member of Western Fictioneers and his work can be found in the Wolf Creek series as well as his own publications, THE WANTED MAN, OUTLAW and TWO OF A KIND. 

He is the Editor-in-Chief of The Western Online, a magazine dedicated to everything Western. He can be contacted through Twitter @mattpizzolato or via his website: 


  1. Happy Thanksgiving, y'all. (Even if it was started by a damnyankee,)

  2. Thanks for the history Matthew. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone.
    Jerry Guin

  3. Matthew,

    Thank you very much for this well researched article. I wish great blessings upon everyone this Thanksgiving Day.


  4. I knew Thanksgiving had its roots during the Civil War, but had not seen nor read Lincoln's proclamation. Thank you for posting it. These pieces of history are so inportant, and people like you are to be honored for bringing them to light. Doris

  5. Thanks, Matt! I never knew this--I knew Lincoln had "started" Thanksgiving, but had never read this text. It's very powerful, but I don't think there was anything he ever wrote that wasn't. Thanks for sharing, and happy Thanksgiving to everyone!

    1. You bet, Cheryl. It is a powerful speech, but it was actually written by William Seward, the Secretary of State. Happy Thanksgiving.