A Day of Thanks
On October 3, 1863, following a Union Army victory at Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln announced to “the whole American people…in every part of the United States… and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands” that a national holiday would be observed on Thursday November 26, 1863, as a day of thanksgiving and praise to the Almighty. Lincoln’s proclamation, which was actually written by Secretary of State William Seward, also provided that the fourth Thursday of every November thereafter would be considered an official U.S. holiday of Thanksgiving.
Prior to this, thanksgiving observances had been sporadically celebrated. Each region, mainly in New England and other northern states, scheduled its own holiday at different times, as a day of feasting and merriment after the autumnal harvests. In October 1863 the Civil War was in full swing, of course, but sectionalism between North and South had arisen decades earlier. Since 1846, one woman had been tireless at petitioning presidents to declare a nation-wide day of thanksgiving as an American custom and unifying measure. Her name was Sarah Josepha Hale, and she was the editor of the popular and influential magazine Godey's Lady's Book. Her letters to successive presidents went ignored all those years, until Lincoln responded to Hale’s letter dated September 28, 1863. Mrs. Hale probably deserves much of the credit for the holiday we observe today, and the bountiful meal that is traditionally part of it. Her idea of an ideal feast included our familiar roast turkey with a wide variety of side dishes—including a chicken pie, which has disappeared from modern menus.
However, the concept of a national Thanksgiving Day did not originate with Sarah Hale. During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress issued several proclamations declaring days of thanks for military victories. George Washington was the first president to proclaim a day of thanksgiving, issuing his request on October 3, 1789, exactly 74 years before Lincoln's, although afterward a holiday feast day was left to the discretion of individual state governors. California, ceded to the United States by Mexico in 1848, was not yet a state in 1849 when military governor General Bennett Riley proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving that November, during the turbulence of the Gold Rush.