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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Lincoln's Thanksgiving: What They Wore

The hat Lincoln wore when he was assassinated.

Today is Thanksgiving Day here in the United States, a National Holiday. President Abraham Lincoln made it official in 1863, 145 years ago. The country was a blood bath: Civil War, Native Americans and white settlers fighting for land, slaves escaping through the Underground Railroad, all leaving misery in their wake. Today Thanksgiving has been reduced to "Turkey Day", a topic I looked at on yesterday's post. We gorge ourselves, indulging in the sin of gluttony, surrounded by people we hopefully love.

My intention is not to belittle the holiday, on the contrary, I think it is a beautiful occasion where we can stop, take a breath, think about the blessings we have been afforded, and rest with people who are important to us. But, we teach our children and uphold falsehoods about our history. The story about "pilgrims and Indians" can be looked at another day, as I zoomed in on Lincoln and his time for today.

Lincoln at the Battle of Antietam, 1862

I had not read Lincoln's proclamation before, so I looked it up and found it quite interesting. Instead of dissecting it with my sermonoligies (new word! like it?), I offer it to you with some images of the time. What people wore tells stories more vividly than I can with words. Click on the images to visit the source, many of which are fascinating! (One note, though: The official celebration of Thanksgiving was a political statement on the Union, rather than a memory of thanksgiving for the Native Americans who saved the first settlers.)

Proclamation of Thanksgiving

Washington, D.C.October 3, 1863

This is the proclamation which set the precedent for America's national day of Thanksgiving. During his administration, President Lincoln issued many orders like this. For example, on November 28, 1861, he ordered government departments closed for a local day of thanksgiving.

Sarah Josepha Hale, a prominent magazine editor, wrote a letter to Lincoln on 28, 1863, urging him to have the "day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival." She wrote, "You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution." The document below sets apart the last Thursday of November "as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise."

According to an April 1, 1864, letter from John Nicolay, one of President Lincoln's secretaries, this document was written by Secretary of State William Seward, and the original was in his handwriting. On October 3, 1863, fellow Cabinet member Gideon Welles recorded in his diary that he complimented Seward on his work. A year later the manuscript was sold to benefit Union troops.

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. 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.

Mary Todd Lincoln in her inaugural gown, 1861

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, 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.

Black Soldiers

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore.

Confederate Uniforms

Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

Emancipated Slaves, White and Black

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. 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...

Chief Quanah, Comanche leader against white settlers, 1870's

...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.

Thanksgiving in Camp, 1862

In testimony 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 Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

William H. Seward,Secretary of State

Source: Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler.

We have come a long way since Lincoln's day. Having Obama as President Elect testifies to some of our progress. Much work remains, but today, like Lincoln, my wish is for peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union for you and yours!

Happy Thanksgiving!



  1. Happy Thanksgiving! What an educational and intersting post! I am thankful to be an American, even with all of our problems I still consider it a great blessing.

  2. Another beautifully researched post. Thanks for taking the time to put it all together for us!


“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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