Abraham Lincoln usually gets the credit for establishing Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863. He deserves much of it for making it an annual event. But, Lincoln was harkening back to an earlier practice of giving thanks amidst the trials and tribulations of war, whether it was going well or not. The tradition predated the Revolutionary War generation, but they were as apt to a hold national day of giving thanks as any of their predecessors or successors in American history. While colonial governors and legislative assemblies had issued proclamations naming a day for thanksgiving before, one proclamation issued by the United States as a country came in 1777 when the Continental Congress set aside December 18, 1777 as a day for “solemn thanksgiving and praise.” It read:
November 1, 1777
FORASMUCH as it is the indispensable Duty of all Men to adore the superintending Providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with Gratitude their Obligation to him for Benefits received, and to implore such farther Blessings as they stand in Need of: And it having pleased him in his abundant Mercy, not only to continue to us the innumerable Bounties of his common Providence; but also to smile upon us in the Prosecution of a just and necessary War, for the Defense and Establishment of our unalienable Rights and Liberties; particularly in that he hath been pleased, in so great a Measure, to prosper the Means used for the Support of our Troops, and to crown our Arms with most signal success:
It is therefore recommended to the legislative or executive Powers of these UNITED STATES to set apart THURSDAY, the eighteenth Day of December next, for SOLEMN THANKSGIVING and PRAISE: That at one Time and with one Voice, the good People may express the grateful Feelings of their Hearts, and consecrate themselves to the Service of their Divine Benefactor; and that, together with their sincere Acknowledgments and Offerings, they may join the penitent Confession of their manifold Sins, whereby they had forfeited every Favor; and their humble and earnest Supplication that it may please GOD through the Merits of JESUS CHRIST, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of Remembrance; That it may please him graciously to afford his Blessing on the Governments of these States respectively, and prosper the public Council of the whole: To inspire our Commanders, both by Land and Sea, and all under them, with that Wisdom and Fortitude which may render them fit Instruments, under the Providence of Almighty GOD, to secure for these United States, the greatest of all human Blessings, INDEPENDENCE and PEACE: That it may please him, to prosper the Trade and Manufactures of the People, and the Labor of the Husbandman, that our Land may yield its Increase: To take Schools and Seminaries of Education, so necessary for cultivating the Principles of true Liberty, Virtue and Piety, under his nurturing Hand; and to prosper the Means of Religion, for the promotion and enlargement of that Kingdom, which consisteth “in Righteousness, Peace and Joy in the Holy Ghost.”
And it is further recommended, That servile Labor, and such Recreation, as, though at other Times innocent, may be unbecoming the Purpose of this Appointment, be omitted on so solemn an Occasion.[i]
Congress ordered copies of the resolution to be sent to the states and General Washington on November 7.[ii] Washington circulated a version of the resolution among the army in his General Orders for November 30.[iii]
Those portions of the army with Washington, of course, had little to be thankful for. While Burgoyne had surrendered at Saratoga the previous month, the main army in Pennsylvania had suffered three successive defeats (Brandywine, Paoli, Germantown) and the loss of the nation’s capital in the Philadelphia campaign. Logistics being what they were, always a weakness in the army and a sore point with the soldiers, there was precious little food to give thanks with when the appointed day finally rolled around. Jeremiah Greenman, a simple soldier, only recorded in his diary for the week “Very short of provisions/drawed a gill of rice/raining weather/boyled sum cattles feet and dined & C.”[iv]
The invaluable Joseph Plumb Martin recalled that first thanksgiving more colorfully:
“While we lay here there was a Continental thanksgiving ordered by Congress; and as the army had all the cause in the world to be particularly thankful, if not for being well off, at least, that it was no worse, we were ordered to participate in it. We had nothing to eat for two or three days previous, except what the trees of the fields and forests afforded us. But we must now have what Congress said—a sumptuous thanksgiving to close the year of high living, we had now nearly seen brought to a close. Well—to add something extraordinary to our present stock of provisions, our country, ever mindful of its suffering army, opened her sympathizing heart so wide, upon this occasion, as to give us something to make the world stare. And what do you think it was dear reader?—Guess.—You cannot guess, be you as much of a Yankee as you will. I will tell you: it gave each and every man a half a gill of rice, and a table spoon full of vinegar!! After we had made sure of this extraordinary superabundant donation, we were ordered out to attend a meeting, and hear a sermon delivered upon this happy occasion.”[v]
So, this year, as we sit down to celebrate Thanksgiving, we would do well to remember those soldiers who went without, marched, and fought to establish a new country and perhaps include them in the list of people for whom we are thankful. If you’re in the mood, add a little bit of rice and vinegar to your menu.
[i] “Thanksgiving Proclamation 1777 by the Continental Congress, The First National Thanksgiving Proclamation,” Pilgrim Hall Museum. Available at: http://www.pilgrimhall.org/pdf/TG_First_National_Thanksgiving_Proclamation_1777.pdf. Accessed November 21, 2018.
[ii] “To George Washington from Henry Laurens, 7 November 1777,” in Founders Online, Available at: https://founders.archives.gov/?q=Thanksgiving&s=1111311111&sa=&r=23&sr=/. Accessed November 21, 2018.
[iii] “General Orders, 30 November 1777,” in Founders Online, Available at: https://founders.archives.gov/?q=Thanksgiving&s=1111311111&sa=&r=24&sr=. Accessed November 21, 2018.
[iv] Jeremiah Greenman, Diary of a Common Soldier in the American Revolution, 1775-1783, (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1978), 88
[v] Joseph Plumb Martin, A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier, (New York: Signet Classics, 2001), 87. A gill was ¼ to ½ a pint.