The Other First Thanksgiving

The year 1863 was a rough one in the United States. On January 1st, the new year began with Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation, stating, “I never in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper.” Let’s not give him too much credit though; this was a calculated military decision, not a humanitarian one. The civil war was in its third year and far from over. As such the proclamation was not enforceable in the rebellious South. Lincoln hoped that emancipation would inspire a mass revolt and exodus of Southern slaves to the North, bulking up the Union army and sapping the labor force of the South.

Unsurprisingly, the proclamation received mixed responses. Abolitionists, who had been fighting slavery in the U.S. since before the American Revolution, celebrated the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the progress it represented. White supremacists in the North and the South were outraged, of course. It was fresh meat for the already bitterly divided country to claim and combat over.*

In March, the Civil War Conscription Act was issued, making military service mandatory for all men between the ages of 20 and 45. If you could find a substitute or pay a fee of $300 you could be excused from this “draft,” which was clearly unfair to the poor. The South, also hurting for recruits, took a similar action. This caused a backlash for both military campaigns, and large riots broke out in New York City.

1863 would see many significant Civil War battles. The Battle of Chancellorsville and The Vicksburg Campaign both commenced in May. Then, on the first day of July, The Battle of Gettysburg began. The Union prevailed after three days of fighting. They stopped Lee’s advance into Northern territory and the battle would prove to be a turning point in the war (still two years away from its end), but victory came at a terrible price. Collectively, there were 23 thousand casualties, and seven thousand Americans died on the battlefield. (For comparison, note that a total of 6,800 died in the entire Revolutionary War.)

In short, 1863 was a shit year. They didn’t have dumpster fires back then, so if they had sold jokey holiday ornaments, it would have been an outhouse on fire with dead bodies all around it and a bright shiny “1863” stamped on it.

Then, in September, a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale (you’ve never heard of her, but she wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb”) wrote Abraham Lincoln a letter, asking that Thanksgiving be “made a National and fixed Union Festival.”

We all remember learning about the story of the “First Thanksgiving,” which is more or less apocryphal. There was a gathering in Plymouth Massachusetts in 1621 where Pilgrims and members of the Wampanoag tribe shared a feast. Other feasts of thanksgiving happened earlier than 1621 in several other states.

In October of 1789, President George Washington commemorated these stories by creating a holiday, giving “the People of the United States a day of public thanks-giving.” It wasn’t formalized, however. For the next 74 years, Thanksgiving was a sporadic holiday, with the celebratory date determined state by state.

In her letter, Hale asked that President Lincoln write a proclamation appointing the last Thursday in November as a national holiday, “thus, by the noble example and action of the President of the United States, the permanency and unity of our Great American Festival of Thanksgiving would be forever secured.” Hale, who was the editor of Lady’s Book (sometimes called Godey’s Magazine), had been championing this idea for fifteen years. Abraham Lincoln was not the first president she petitioned, but she would not be disappointed this time.

I don’t know what Abraham Lincoln said exactly, but I watch a lot of Drunk History, so I imagine it was something like, “we should like totally do this [belch]. I’m going to make this a thing.”

Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation (which was written by Secretary of State, William Seward) reads:

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.

And so, November 26th, 1863 became the other first Thanksgiving. The nation was in morning and searching for its soul. More than 600 thousand soldiers would die in the war by its end in 1865. Lincoln lost his own young son to illness just a year before, in 1862. There is a way in which calling for a festival of gratitude seems like an insane act in this year. At the same time, it seems like the sanest thing Lincoln could have done to begin the healing was to ask everyone to come together around the one thing we can all agree on: food.

Obviously, I’m making a little parallel here. I don’t think you can compare the tragedies of 1863 to 2020, though the death and suffering of both years have left a mourning nation. I want to think they will both be remembered as periods that transformed us for the better. I’ve heard some people in my group of friends say they were forgoing Thanksgiving this year, partly because of the pandemic, but also because of the racism associated with the story and with the colonists and Native Americans in general. That’s fine; everyone must find their own path. But when I think about Thanksgiving I think about 1863 and all those years where the creation of “a more perfect union” was an excruciating labor of love and not just a theoretical exercise. I think of a nation torn in half, digging deep to find gratitude.

I know we weren’t able to gather with our loved ones last week, and that was really hard. Still, I hope you gave thanks. I hope you called your people. I hope you sent a text to that friend that you think of often but rarely speak to. I hope you broke bread with someone you love, and I hope you ate your feelings until it hurt. That’s what I did, anyway.

*Footnote: at four o’clock this morning I sat up in bed in horror, realizing that my inclusion of the Emancipation Proclamation in my list of big events in 1863 implies I think it was a bad thing, when that isn’t what I meant! I’m including it only because it was divisive. Obviously, it was a good thing, and a huge undertaking. (I know this because I saw Lincoln with Daniel Day Lewis. Great movie!) True emancipation wouldn’t come until the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865, but we celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation for good reason.

Okay. I can go back to bed now.

About Rachel Lewis

I am a writer, ceramic artist, knitter, and stepmom. As a playwright, I had six short plays produced in showcases and festivals in Manhattan, Salt Lake City, and Austin. My full-length play, Locking Doors, was presented by Wordsmith Theatre Company in The New Lab Theatre (University of Utah) in 2005. I co-wrote a teleplay titled “Thank God I’m Atheist” which won the 2015 “No God But Funny” contest founded by the Center for Inquiry. My short nonfiction essay, “It’s Coming Down,” was published by the online literary magazine Halfway Down the Stairs. My essay "The Red Rock Chronicles" was published in Contemporary West magazine. I currently work in pharmaceuticals professionally and write recreationally, but dream of making the transition to write professionally and do pharmaceuticals recreationally. I am a Utah native and live in Salt Lake City with my family and our Goldendoodle. I am working on a collection of humorous non-fiction essays and a second full-length play. Follow me at: @rachel_lewis_ut (Twitter) @rachel_lewis_ut (Instagram)

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