WASHINGTON, Nov. 21 (UPI) -- Some 138 years ago in the middle of the deadliest war in U.S. history, President Abraham Lincoln took note of the trials and triumphs of the Union and proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving.
"In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to invite and provoke the aggressions of foreign states, 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 theater of military conflict, while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union," Lincoln said in the proclamation issued Oct. 3, 1863, proclaiming the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving. That day in 1863 was one week after Lincoln's Nov. 19 speech dedicating the national cemetery on the Gettysburg, Pa., battlefield -- the decisive battle that ended Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's invasion of the North and turned the tide for the Union.
"The needful diversion of wealth and strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense, has not arrested the plow, the (weaver's) shuttle, or the ship," the Thanksgiving proclamation said. "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. Population has steadily increased, not withstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect a continuance of years, with large increase of freedom."
Lincoln went on to say thanks were due to God for the prosperity: "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 voice, by the whole American people," Lincoln said in the proclamation.
He went on: "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, tranquility and union."
The Civil War would rage for 18 months more, before ending in 1865. The war claimed more than 600,000 dead -- one-third from battle, two-thirds from disease and other causes.
Presidents George Washington, John Adams and James Madison had proclaimed days of Thanksgiving, and the Continental Congress had proclaimed Thanksgiving days, but Lincoln's proclamation resulted in an annual holiday -- fulfilling the 17-year campaign of Sarah J. Hale, editor of Godey's Lady's Book, for the national holiday.
Every year after 1863, presidents issued Thanksgiving proclamations. Thanksgiving was celebrated on the last Thursday of November until 1939, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated that the holiday be observed the third Thursday of the month. But in 1941 the president and Congress designated that Thanksgiving be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, as it has ever since.
Lincoln's 1863 Thanksgiving proclamation was his second that year. On July 15, less than two weeks after the Union victory at Gettysburg and the surrender of Confederate forces at Vicksburg, Miss., Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for a special National Thanksgiving on Aug. 6:
"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, on the land and on the sea, victories 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 secured; but these victories have been accorded, not without sacrifice of life, limb, and liberty, incurred by brave, loyal and patriotic citizens," the proclamation said. "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 these sorrows."
Lincoln asked for prayer for God "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 paths of repentance and submission to the Divine will, back to the perfect enjoyment of union and fraternal peace."