During his presidency, Abraham Lincoln issued a total of nine proclamations of prayer, fasting, or thanksgiving. The first one was issued on August 12, 1861 upon a request from Congress.
The fifth of these nine such occasions occurred on this date of August 6, 1863 – the text of which is copied below. It was offered in the wake of victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg – affording a renewed hope in the North that the war was surely winding down. This, of course, proved to be a good bit premature.
The next such proclamation set the precedence for which the common November observance would take root. Sarah Hale, an author and magazine editor – best known as the author of the poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb” – had championed the cause of a national day of thanks for many years. On September 28, 1863, she wrote to Lincoln and urged him to have the “day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.” Lincoln responded positively through a document written by William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State.
The Confederate States also had two such observances. These occurred after the two Bull Run (Manassas) victories – the thanksgivings occurring on July 28, 1861 and September 28, 1862.
Here is the text of the July 15 proclamation that set this day 150 years ago today as an observance of thanks to God (and might I add a personal note – imagine the anti-Christian / anti-religious, secular outcry that would accompany such a document were it to be offered by a modern-era President!):
By the President of the United States of America
It has pleased Almighty God to hearken to the supplications and prayers of an afflicted people and to vouchsafe to the Army and the Navy of the United States victories on land and on the sea so signal and so effective as to furnish reasonable grounds for augmented confidence that the Union of these States will be maintained, their Constitution preserved, and their peace and prosperity permanently restored. But these victories have been accorded not without sacrifices of life, limb, health, and liberty, incurred by brave, loyal, and patriotic citizens. Domestic affliction in every part of the country follows in the train of these fearful bereavements. It is meet and right to recognize and confess the presence of the Almighty Father and the power of His hand equally in these triumphs and in these sorrows:
Now, therefore, be it known that I do set apart Thursday, the 6th day of August next, to be observed as a day for national thanksgiving, praise, and prayer, and I invite the people of the United States to assemble on that occasion in their customary places of worship and in the forms approved by their own consciences render the homage due to the Divine Majesty for the wonderful things He has done in the nation’s behalf and invoke the influence of His Holy Spirit to subdue the anger which has produced and so long sustained a needless and cruel rebellion, to change the hearts of the insurgents, to guide the counsels of the Government with wisdom adequate to so great a national emergency, and to visit with tender care and consolation throughout the length and breadth of our land all those who, through the vicissitudes of marches, voyages, battles, and sieges, have been brought to suffer in mind, body, or estate, and finally to lead the whole nation through the paths of repentance and submission to the divine will back to the perfect enjoyment of union and fraternal peace. In witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the city of Washington, this 15th day of July, A. D. 1863, and of the Independence of the United States of America the eighty-eighth.
By the President:
WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State.