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									New York Times Upfront
Nov 13, 2000


A Civil War Thanksgiving
Timothy Kelley

In the cause of unity, President Lincoln makes the holiday official

The newsboys on the street cried out the news: General Grant's Union troops had won a smashing
victory in Tennessee, and the Rebels were in full retreat! To thankful Northerners, the timing
seemed too good to be true. It was November 26, 1863, the day Thanksgiving made its debut as a
legal U.S. holiday.

There were no pro football games that day. Americans' attention, North and South, was on the field
of battle of the Civil War (1861-1865). But in other ways--turkey and all the trimmings, for example-
-it was a Thanks giving we could recognize today.

Every schoolchild learns that Thanksgiving dates to the harvest feast Pilgrim settlers at Plymouth
Colony, Massachusetts, had shared with Native Americans in 1621. But few know that it took the
Civil War, and a long crusade by a magazine editor named Sarah Josepha Hale, to make the holiday
truly national.

Born in New Hampshire in 1788, Hale became a prominent journalist at a time when rigid custom
kept most women at home. Widowed at an early age, she turned to writing to support her five
children. She wrote the famous nursery rhyme that begins, "Mary had a little lamb ..."

Hale loved Thanksgiving, already a tradition in New England. Her 1827 novel Northwood has a
Thanksgiving dinner description you probably shouldn't read if you're hungry:

The roasted turkey took precedence on this occasion, being placed at the head of the table; and well
did it become its lordly station, sending forth the rich odor of its savory stuffing, and finely covered
with the frost of the basting. At the foot of the board a surloin [sirloin] of beef, flanked on either side
by a leg of pork and a joint of mutton, seemed placed as a bastion to defend innumerable bowls of
gravy and plates of vegetables disposed in that quarter. A goose and a pair of ducklings occupied
side stations on the table.... There was a huge plumb [plum] pudding, custards, and pies of every
name and description ever known in Yankee land; yet the pumpkin pie occupied the most
distinguished niche.

But however sumptuous, Thanksgiving in the early 19th century wasn't a legal holiday, was still
held on different dates in different places, and was ignored altogether in much of the nation. Hale
favored adoption of a uniform national holiday, and saw Thanksgiving not only as a day to be
grateful for divine blessings, but also as a way to unite the country and promote pride in its freedom,
She wrote:

We have ton few holidays. Thanksgiving, like the Fourth of July, should be considered a national
festival and observed by all our people ... as an exponent of our republican institutions.
When Hale became editor of a popular women's magazine called Godey's Lady's Book, she used it to
press for an official national Thanksgiving. One editorial page asked that

from this year, 1847, henceforth and forever, as long as the Union endures, the last Thursday in
November be the day set apart by every State for its annual Thanksgiving.

She wrote such an editorial every year for 16 years, and peppered Presidents with letters pleading
her cause.

What finally established Hale's unifying holiday was the war that tore the Union apart. In 1863, by
one account, she visited President Abraham Lincoln in the White House. Historians aren't sure
about that, but they know her editorial that year called for making Thanksgiving national by
presidential proclamation--and that is just what Lincoln promptly did.

Eager to grasp any tool to promote national unity, Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in
November a day of "thanksgiving and prayer," noting that

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity ... order has been maintained, the
laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theatre
of military conflict, while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and
navies of the Union.

The holiday brought news of those armies. General Ulysses S. Grant's troops had stormed
Tennessee's Missionary Ridge--without having been ordered to do so. In New York City, people
cheered the news, then packed into churches to hear Thanksgiving sermons. The New York Times
wrote:

Everybody wore a holiday face. In the afternoon all the places of amusement were crowded to
overflowing ... The war news so opportunely arriving gave renewed zest to the thankfulness and
enjoyment ...

It took another 17 months to end the Civil War and restore the Union. And Congress later moved
the holiday to the fourth, not the last, Thursday in November. But Thanksgiving had taken hold,
and would be an enduring tradition, North and South.

A Civil War Thanksgiving

								
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