Wednesday, November 23, 2011
“Thanksgiving”: A Civil War Tradition!
Most Americans think they know what Thanksgiving is all about… and that includes it beginnings. I can assure them right now they don’t. And you’ll be surprised, hearing this from a Pilgrim descendant, what this National holiday is or was really about. You may know of my Pilgrim lineage, out of Robert Cushman, one of the men who chartered the Mayflower... but our celebration of Thanksgiving is only indirectly related to him or his fellow Pilgrims
The year is 1863. President Abraham Lincoln has watched as his happy marriage, his Army, even his beloved Country has gradually fallen apart. In the throes of the American Civil War, which is not going well for his side, he received news in late September of the bloodiest and deadliest two days in American History. A total of thirty-five thousand men from both sides of the conflict were either wounded or killed at the Battle of Chickamauga. Lincoln’s brother-in-law, Confederate General Ben Hardin Helms is found among the dead.
A couple of days later, Union General Sibley led a victorious attack against the Sioux Nation, ending the “Great Sioux Uprising.”
The blood of red and white, blue and gray, dried comingled on the war-torn soil, from North to South.
President Lincoln had gotten a plea from a woman with a passion for national unity, one Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Ladies Book, and an all around National do-gooder, who wanted to unify all the various annual observations of thanksgiving throughout the Country. Finally after a fifteen year campaign, she convinced President Lincoln to make a Presidential Proclamation, establishing an official National Day of Thanksgiving and Praise. On October 3, 1863, he did just that. Here is the proclamation that William Seward, his Secretary of State, wrote for him:
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 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 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, tranquility and Union.
But what about the Pilgrims? You ask. The Pilgrims had a “harvest feast” every October at the end of the harvest season and celebrated it with a big banquet. They invited some of their Indian friends and everybody brought something to share. The first Harvest Feast was a bit sparse, as their crops had not done well and their efforts to raise wheat and barley and peas went unrewarded. But there was lots of corn! The adopted Indian Squanto, their farming mentor had helped them with the native plant, so there could be fresh corn, hominy, cornbread and yes, grits.
But other Indians brought in some deer, and the pilgrims shot some ducks and geese, and the pilgrim women found some clams, wild plums and leeks and watercress to round out the meal. Somebody had made some good old homemade wine from the plentiful wild grapes in the area, which was a big hit.
As far as we know, no turkey. No pumpkin pie. They had cranberries but historians are pretty sure they had not figured out yet what to do with them. So our Thanksgiving traditions do not come from… the first thanksgiving… Those are things more likely representative of the Victorian (Civil War period) palate.
Whatever it was, the Pilgrims of old, the first thanks-givers, had a great time and did it for generations, every year, to remember what they had all been through… and what God had delivered them out of.
Perhaps that was Lincoln’s Thanksgiving intention as well; Probably inspired by the Pilgrims, he was determined to be grateful, and lead his nation in gratitude, even though his heart was broken and he could not see any light at the end of the tunnel. Just days after the beleaguered President made the proclamation for Thanksgiving and Praise, he was invited to make remarks at the dedication of a battlefield cemetery where thousands of Americans had died, and the battlefield had been tidied up so they could pray over it. At Gettysburg. Lincoln gave his short address, thinking that it had been a big failure. Just like the war… Just like that silly proclamation about Thanksgiving. And sadly he was assassinated before he ever saw the Country healed from his war, or blacks truly enfranchised, or the tradition of giving thanks practiced all over the United states of America. All 50 of them.
But according to Abraham Lincoln, Thanksgiving is something you do as a matter of Faith, even when you cannot find much to be thankful for. True Faith starts with gratitude. .. Unconditional gratitude.
You thank the Almighty, and put the ball in His court… you plant the seed, and you wait upon Him for it to grow. You never give up. You hold on, in fact you do greater things than you ever thought possible. Lincoln knew, it is when we are at the end of our ability, the end of our rope, and we admit it, when God steps in and does the rest.
That way we know who and what we are, and who and what God is. Lincoln knew God was waiting for somebody down there to acknowledge Him (not just ask Him for victory in battle!), and that had to start with being grateful for whatever God in His mercy had allowed, in His wisdom, for each and all of us. And as it turns out, that is something we need to do quite often, and as a Nation, every year.