Abe Lincoln’s Thanksgiving

(Author’s note: The second book collection of my columns, Bruce’s History Lessons – the Second Five Years (2006 – 20011) is now available in book form and in e-book form (download to either Kindle or Kindle IPad).  Click on the above links to go to either version on Amazon.  My first five-year collection of columns, Bruce’s History Lessons – The First Five Years (2001 – 2006) is also available at Amazon.  Both books can also be purchased via the book links on the homepage of my website, www.historylessons.net.)

Because President Tom Jefferson thought observing a Thanksgiving holiday smacked of Royalism (he never explained why), he reversed George Washington’s proclamation making the last Thursday of November an official day of thanks.  There matters stood for 60 years until Sarah Hale, a Northern writer and editor, mounted a campaign that finally convinced President Abraham Lincoln to restore Thanksgiving. He did so in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War.

“The year that is drawing towards its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies,” his Thanksgiving proclamation began. “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.”

To say that ol’ Abe was putting an optimistic spin on matters would be a huge understatement. The year 1863 began with the Union army reeling from its disastrous defeat at Fredericksburg, and as the year progressed, and Union defeats piled up, Lincoln would fire one general after another — having already replaced McClellan with Burnside, he would replace Burnside with Hooker, Hooker with Meade — and still not find a commander equal to the Confederacy’s Robert E. Lee.  What’s more, a troop shortage forced Lincoln to institute a military draft, which was so hated it sparked major riots in cities from Boston to New York.

Politically things were no better. Criticism grew over Lincoln’s handling of the war, especially among Northern Democrats with whom Lincoln had always had a shaky relationship. One of their leaders had even urged Union troops to desert the army, forcing Lincoln to arrest him, and Lincoln’s own chances of being re-elected in 1864 looked so slim, even a member of his own Cabinet considered running against him.

For all of that, Lincoln must have sensed that better days were ahead, something he helped ensure by making Ulysses S. Grant commander of the Union’s western armies right after he issued the Thanksgiving Proclamation. And sure enough, by Thanksgiving of 1864, Grant — now commander of all Union armies — was driving Lee back to Richmond, General Sherman had captured Atlanta, and Lincoln had won re-election.  The fortunes of war had turned, finally giving Lincoln a real reason to be thankful.

As for Sarah Hall, the woman who campaigned so hard to restore the Thanksgiving holiday, it turns out that she was also the author of the popular children’s poem — now song — “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”  It is not known whether, at her first Thanksgiving dinner, Ms. Hall also had a little lamb.