That first Thanksgiving celebration was not in Plymouth, Massachusetts. While the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags did indeed share a harvest feast in fall 1621, and early colonial leaders did declare days of thanksgiving when we were supposed to give our thanks for continued life. Today we celebrate Thanksgiving because of the crisis that we call the Civil War. Lincoln had declared a Proclamation appointing the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving and Prayer on October 3, 1863.
The Southern states fired on the U.S. Federal fort, Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor in April of 1861 in an attempt to destroy the United States of America and create their own country, convinced that society worked best if slavery was allowed. Southern leaders had worked to keep the laws of the United States to their benefit as they felt the government should protect their rights for the peculiar institution of slavery. Northerners elected Abraham Lincoln to the presidency to stop the southern slaveholders from using the Constitution to cement their power. As soon as Lincoln was elected, southern states seceded, and southern leaders pulled their states out of the Union to set up their own country known as the Confederacy. For their part, Lincoln and the northerners set out to end the rebellion, bring the country back together and put an end to slavery.
The early years of the war did not go well for the Union. By the end of 1862, the armies still held, but people on the home front were losing faith. Leaders recognized the need both to acknowledge the suffering and to keep Americans loyal to the cause. On the morning of November 26, 1863, services were held at many churches, with the largest and most important being one at the Presbyterian Church at the intersection of Baltimore and Middle streets in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
“That south-central Pennsylvania crossroads and Adams County seat was one of the only locales outside of the nation’s capital that the 16th president visited during his tenure in office. It was also the site where he delivered his most famous address, in an effort to bring meaning to the rebellion’s bloodshed. Notably, Lincoln spent time in Gettysburg immediately before commemorating the first national Thanksgiving Day, having left the town by rail on November 19, 1863—exactly one week before the holiday was celebrated on Thursday, November 26.
In the words of local newsman Robert G. Harper, Gettysburg was a town that had grappled with the “terrible, and yet glorious reality” of the ghastly battle fought there that summer, and the “victory achieved for Liberty, Justice, the Union and good Government” that came as a result. The community’s Republican press took heart in knowing that President Lincoln issued a proclamation on July 15 (just 12 days after the battle) which thanked “the Divine Majesty for the wonderful things He has done in the nation’s behalf,” and invoked “the influence of His Holy Spirit to subdue the anger which has produced and so long sustained a needless and cruel rebellion.” Many Gettysburgians were appreciative that Lincoln gifted them with his presence at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery dedication that November, when he “was serenaded twice…and his appearance excited bursts of enthusiasm—showing the strong hold he has upon the affections of the people,” reported the progressive Adams Sentinel.
Lincoln declared “a Proclamation appointing the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving and Prayer” on October 3, an act which was “promptly responded to” by the Commonwealth’s governor, Andrew Curtin, who recommended “that the people of Pennsylvania do set apart and observe the said day accordingly.” At Gettysburg on October 6, the Sentinel opined that it was “a very beautiful document.” The following week, the paper reprinted the entirety of the president’s decree with the comment, “There is, indeed, great cause that we should be thankful, and that the people should pour out their hearts in acknowledgement of the good vouchsafed to them amid the trials of a civil war which is without a parallel in the history of the world.” (1)