Essay: Thanksgiving & Lincoln
For Lake Effect contributor Art Cyr, Thanksgiving has him thinking about the very first White House proclamation in 1863 that declared Thanksgiving a national holiday:
Thanksgiving means real, not ideological, inclusiveness. President Abraham Lincoln profoundly demonstrated this fundamental point. On October 3, 1863, the White House issued the Thanksgiving Proclamation, declaring the last Thursday of November to be a “day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” He also humbly requested “the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore … peace, harmony, and Union.”
Earlier, Lincoln had ordered government offices closed on November 28, 1861 for a day of thanksgiving. Up until the 1863 proclamation, individual states had celebrated days of giving thanks. Sarah Joseph Hale, editor of the influential Godey’s Lady’s Book, had written to Lincoln in late September of that year pressing for a national day of thanks, a goal she pursued for many years without success.
According to Lincoln’s administrative aide John Nicolay, Secretary of State William H. Seward signed the document. Lincoln and Seward by then were friends as well as colleagues.
Unity was an overarching Lincoln theme throughout the Civil War, employed with shrewd calculation and brilliant political timing. By the fall of 1863, the strategic position of the Union had taken a marked turn for the better. In July, there were two significant victories - the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania and the capture of Vicksburg, Mississippi. A sizable Confederate army never again would invade the North, and the great Mississippi River was now completely in Union control.
During the preceding year, one military development provided Lincoln with political opportunity. On September 17, 1862, the Army of the Potomac, under General George B. McClellan, defeated General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Antietam Creek in Maryland. The victory was technical, in that Lee withdrew and left the Union forces in control. Nevertheless, the outcome qualified as a Union military success, desperately welcome.
Lincoln faced extremely serious challenges beyond the Confederacy. General McClellan was popular with rank-and-file soldiers; he also held national political ambitions. He was committed to the Union but strongly opposed abolition of slavery. A talented organizer and administrator, he refused to be aggressive in attacking Lee’s army.
McClellan became insubordinate, demanding control over all war policy. The president fired him. McClellan became the Democratic Party’s 1864 presidential nomination; Lincoln defeated him again.
Lincoln's skill at civil-military management was not limited to outmaneuvering McClellan. The President was instrumental in identifying and elevating promising Union commanders. The case of General Ulysses S. Grant is especially notable. This commander was persistent and determined in seeking victory, as viewed by many, but also much more. Grant had remarkable talent for inspiring cohesion and imposing effective organization, demonstrated early in the war in command of a company of volunteers. His skill at maneuver and speed in ensuring implementation of orders are equally impressive. The complaint that Grant was a "butcher" of men is unfair and untrue, and reflects the terrible strains of the war.
President Lincoln, after confirming control of the Army, moved quickly to exploit the Antietam victory by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. The executive order of January 1, 1863 freed slaves in the Confederate states. From the fall of 1862, the U.S. government issued a series of warnings under the Second Confiscation Act, passed by Congress on July 17, 1862. The legislation confirmed in law Lincoln’s War Powers.
Critics have argued Lincoln should have included states in the Union, but that would have been illegal and unwise. Slavery was still legal under the Constitution, and ended in law only when a sufficient number of states ratified the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, announced December 18, 1865. Slavery had support in Border States and parts of the North.
By design, the Emancipation Proclamation is a detailed dry document that makes the case for removing property, with emphasis on procedure. There is no reference to fundamental moral concerns expressed elsewhere, especially in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural.
Immediately, Civil War goals changed from only restoring the Union to abolition of slavery. Lincoln used practical means for transcendent goals, with astonishing political skill. Give thanks.
Lake Effect contributor Art Cyr is a professor of political economy and world business and directs the Clausen Center for World Business at Carthage College in Kenosha.