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Tuesday, November 26, 2002

The "Blue" Origins of Thanksgiving.

One of the more common images of this most American of holidays is of a brown-clad proto-Bostonian with a buckled hat and a blunderbuss. Given the origins of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, perhaps a more appropriate image would be of a blue-clad soldier with a slouch cap and a Sharps rifle. You see, it was not until the middle of the Civil War, via a proclamation by Abraham Lincoln, that Thanksgiving became a national holiday, observed on the last Thursday of November. On October 3, 1863, the President decreed:

"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 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 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 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 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.
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 United States the eighty-eighth."

Strong stuff, and highly unlikely to be repeated in this, the era of "National Journeyman Plumber Appreciation Month"-style pronouncements.

"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."

This language practically begs the ACLU to seek a permanent injunction. You won't even hear stuff like that from most pulpits these days.

Even more interesting is the effect of the President's call for thanksgiving: during the same week as the first national observance, the Union won one of the more boggling--dare I say miraculous?--victories of the entire war: the three-day battle of Chattanooga. In particular, the victory at Missionary Ridge bears mentioning in this context: it was a spontaneous frontal assault on an entrenched position, done without orders, and it succeeded with minimal casualties. After Missionary Ridge, the Confederacy, with two catastrophic exceptions, remained on the defensive in the West, and the "theatre of war continued to contract" until Appomattox.

In this time of war, it is fitting to remember both the origin of the holiday, and the reliance our ancestors placed in Almighty God during our nation's worst trial. We need to do the same.

God bless you and yours, and have a Happy Thanksgiving.

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