Generally around Thanksgiving the story of how the New England colonists, known as Pilgrims, first met a group of Native Americans at their newly established colony, Plymouth, is read and heard all around the country, recounting how the two diverse groups shared a historic “first” feast together in 1621.
And while that may have been one of the first records of a meal dedicated to giving thanks, a formal declaration of the Thanksgiving holiday was not until Oct. 3, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln announced the day of thanks during the height of the Civil War.
Andrew Slap, associate professor of history at East Tennessee State University, said even before Lincoln’s proclamation, Thanksgiving Days were common in American history, but were significantly prevalent around the middle of the Civil War.
“That year (1863) he actually proclaimed two Thanksgiving Days. One was in August to celebrate Gettysburg that had happened just a month before and then there was another one in November, which becomes the Thanksgiving that we have now,” Slap said.
He said Sarah Josepha Hale, who helped found a women’s magazine, was involved with Sarah Lawrence College and was an advocate for women during her lifetime, had been writing to politicians and presidents before Lincoln, and to Lincoln himself, to push for the establishment of a day for thanksgiving.
Slap said Thanksgiving Day in 1863 would not resemble what Americans think of the holiday today, with less of the focus being on the food and family-togetherness, but rather more on giving thanks to God.
“The Thanksgiving holiday itself was explicitly religious,” he said.
In Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation of the holiday, many religious references and sentiments honoring the Creator were made, as were words hopeful that the entire country –– North and South –– could soon start healing from the wounds brought on by the war.
Lincoln wrote that “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, tranquillity and Union.”
Slap said he believes Lincoln became more religious during the course of the war, a belief that is highly disputed among other historians.
“If you take a look at the first inaugural versus the second inaugural address the religious references are vastly increased,” he said. “In 1863 having ... a Thanksgiving to God and trying to help protect the nation and guide the nation along its path does not seem so unusual. I’m not sure in 1861 he would have done that, but I think the way the Civil War changed the nation it also changed him.”
While Lincoln never declared a permanent Thanksgiving holiday on a specific day, he did set a precedent for presidents who came after him.
According to history.com, it wasn’t until 1941 during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt that a bill was signed making the holiday the fourth Thursday in November each year.