A day of thanksgiving and praise...

In our book, Onward Southern Soldiers: Religion and the Army of Tennessee in the Civil War, my wife Traci notes that throughout the Civil War, presidents on both sides of the bloody conflict frequently called for days of humiliation, fasting and prayer, and issued proclamations of thanks for victories in battle. It was not until 1863, however, when United States President Abraham Lincoln issued his Thanksgiving Day Proclamation that the holiday was established as a national annual event, occurring on the last Thursday of November.

Lincoln's words spoke to a nation in the throes of battle, torn apart by secession and war, yet united in its struggle to preserve the Union. He gave thanks for "the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies" and declared that "harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict." Of course, citizens of the South lived in the heart of this theater, and likely would have written a very different account of the war if given the opportunity. Lincoln's language carried deeply religious tones, calling on a wounded nation to heal itself in a manner "consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union."

As you read President Lincoln's eloquent words, I urge you to be thankful for the blessings of liberty afforded to us by those who fought and died to preserve this nation. We are now a nation at war and in conflict with ourselves both politically and economically. It is tempting to believe that we have never been more divided as a nation than we are today, yet history has a habit of reminding us that the divisions that separate us in the present pale by past comparison...

Lincoln reading the Bible to his son.
Image credit: Library of Congress
   The year that is drawing toward 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 the heart which is habitually insensible to the everwatchful 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 provoke their aggressions, 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.

   Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax 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 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 Stated States to be affixed.


Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.