Women and the Nineteenth Century Origins of a National Thanksgiving

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On the origins of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History features this article, “Giving Thanks: Women Move to Create a Holiday” on its sponsored website historynow.org:

[T]he idea of a permanent, national day of Thanksgiving became a dream of one of the most influential women in the antebellum era — Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book **** [S]he campaigned to make the third Thursday in November a national holiday. She explained,”Thanksgiving, like the Fourth of July, should be considered a national festival and observed by all our people.” Year after year, Hale wrote to the governor of each state, to congressmen and senators, and to the White House, urging official government recognition of this celebration. Yet Hale was unsuccessful; localities and states continued to declare thanksgiving days, but no national agreement emerged.

During this period, state-decreed days of thanksgiving were most common in the territories and new states. *** With Lincoln’s election and the outbreak of war in 1861, the appeal of an annual homecoming, when a family might gather together, became even more poignant. In September1863, Sarah Josepha Hale penned an editorial in which she wrote,”Would it not be better that the proclamation that appoints Thursday the 26th of November (1863) as the day of Thanksgiving for the people of the United State of America, should, in the first instance, emanate from the President of the Republic?”***

But with hundreds of thousands of soldiers away from home, and with a president attuned to the mood of the nation, Lincoln issued a proclamation in 1863 that Thanksgiving would be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. *** Lincoln put on his bravest face when he suggested in the middle of a war”of unequaled magnitude and severity”that”harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict.”   The president stressed abundance and unity, invoking memories of holidays past, and striking a chord with the war-torn Union.

(Citations omitted for readability.) The full article is available here.  

-Bridget  Crawford

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0 Responses to Women and the Nineteenth Century Origins of a National Thanksgiving

  1. Ralph M. Stein says:

    The role of women in the Civil War, beyond the familiar tale of Clara Barton, America’s Florence Nightingale (and a lot more stable person than her Crimean War predecessor), is getting some well-deserved and belated historical attention. Not surprisingly, women historians can take a fair amount of credit for looking more closely at gender issues during the Civil War.

    The conventional account has been of nurses tending the wounded, who being in hospitals not attuned to asepsis, died quite quickly (or worse, quite slowly) and the occasional woman spy for the Confederacy. Poor Mary Surratt makes the books for probably doing nothing more than serving a meal or two to the Secesh jackals who conspired to kill Lincoln (you can eat wonton soup and pepper steak and chow mein in Mrs. Surratt’s bording house in D.C. nowadays).

    Interestingly, a federal lawsuit in Maryland acted as a catalyst for a serious examination of women’s role in the Civil War. A female Confederate reenactor who attended encampments with her then husband was ordered off the battlefield by a park ranger because she was in full field gear and the National park Service took the position that women were not combatants in the Civil War. While it was undisputed that at least a few women donned uniforms and were in action, the NPS maintained that to permit this woman to participate would destroy the authenticity which is the prime goal of battlefield preservation, including reenactments.

    She sued and won and subsequently co-authored a book with a female Air Force historian, “They Fought Like Demons,” that proved that while female combatants were few and far between, there were more than previously recognized.

    The lawsuit was won based on intermediate scrutiny – an important governmental purpose achieved by means substantially relating to that purpose and with the defendant having the burden of proving its justification by exceedingly persuasive evidence.

    Can you imagine the NPS ordering a black man off the battlefield because no blacks were in all-white units? I can’t.

  2. Ralph M. Stein says:

    For those interested in learning more about women combatants in the Civil War, here’s Amazon offering. I should warn potential readers that the writing is not the best being often repetitive and unimaginative. But the account is important.


    They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War (Paperback)
    by De Anne Blanton (Author), Lauren M. Cook (Author)

    List Price: $14.95
    Price: $10.17 & eligible for FREE Super Saver Shipping on orders over $25. Details
    You Save: $4.78 (32%)

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