By ART CHANCE
Perhaps the darkest days the United States have ever seen were the fall of 1863. The war between the United States and the Confederate States that was supposed to have been over with a Northern victory in at most a few weeks was inexorably moving into its third bloody year.
In the east, where all the political and media attention was concentrated, the war had been a series of unrelenting failures for Union armies punctuated by a couple of outright catastrophes. Antietam/Sharpsburg in September of 1862 was at most a tactical draw, but for the first time in the war, the Union held the field as Lee’s “wolf-like” men backed away to Virginia.
President Abraham Lincoln seized on that cold comfort to celebrate a Union “victory” by announcing the Emancipation Proclamation. Antietam remains the single bloodiest day in American history.
1862 ended and 1863 began in plodding, muddy stasis between the armies staring at each other across the Rapidan and Rappahannock Rivers. That stasis was punctuated by a stunning Union defeat at Fredericksburg in mid-December of 1862.
Lincoln chose yet another ill-starred general to command the Army of the Potomac and prod it into action against “Bobby Lee.” The Union pushed across the Rappahannock near Chancellorsville, Virginia in May. Lee met them with barely half his army, the bulk of Longstreet’s Wing was on a foraging mission in Southern Virginia. Lee divided his already divided and outnumbered army and sent “Stonewall” Jackson on a swinging “flank attack” against the Union right. Jackson rolled up the Union right in a battle that is studied yet today in military academies along with Hannibal’s flank attack at Cannae and Julius Caesar’s at Alesia.
It was another stunning Confederate victory. It was also the second bloodiest day in US history, and it cost Lee his “right arm,” T.J. Jackson. As an aside, a couple of my ancestors were in the unit that formed the hinge that Jackson’s flank attack was swung on. I have my great-great grandfather’s letter home after the battle; the excitement is palpable even after almost 160 years.
Lee re-united and re-organized his army and stole a march on a new union general to next appear at a sleepy Pennsylvania town named Gettysburg. Gettysburg was and remains the largest and bloodiest battle fought on American soil. Somewhere around 50,000 men were killed or wounded in those three days. About 8-10 thousand were killed. It would be easy to write 5-10 thousand words about what happened and why in those three days, but the real result is that it was a tactical draw, much like Antietam/Sharpsburg, and Lee pulled back to Virginia. The other result was that the formerly indomitable Army of Northern Virginia ceased to exist. The casualties among ANV officers make the Army unrecognizable after Gettysburg.
After Gettysburg, the Union licked its wounds north of the Rappahannock and the action in the War moved south to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Lee detached part of Longstreet’s Corps to reinforce Gen. Braxton’s Bragg’s Army of Tennessee. The Battle of Chickamauga was a confused and desperate battle fought Sept. 18-20, 1863. It is generally credited as a Confederate victory, but it, too, was at best a draw, and it was the second bloodiest battle of the War.
Those scenes in the railroad yard in Atlanta in “Gone With the Wind” are casualties from Chickamauga. A very popular song in both the North and the South was “The Vacant Chair,” published in 1862 to commemorate the death of a Union soldier. The family laments the vacant chair at their Thanksgiving dinner table left by his death. By the Winter Solstice of 1863, there would be a lot of vacant chairs in both the North and the South.
Against this grim background, on Oct. 3, 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed the fourth Thursday of the coming November as a National day of Thanksgiving.
The proclamation was written by Secretary of State Seward and makes little mention of the war. Seward asks the people to look to and be thankful for the bountiful harvests and general prosperity of the country despite the war. He only uses a couple of lines to ask for remembrance of those at war or who have suffered loss due to the war. He also makes no reference to the history of the holiday. It had never been a standing holiday and was subject to each President’s proclamation. Thomas Jefferson did not observe it at all. It has always been an observed holiday since Lincoln’s proclamation and under President Grant it became a standing federal holiday.
Federal holidays really weren’t regularized until the 20th Century and aren’t all that uniformly observed by the states even today. Thanksgiving was little noted in the South even as late as my youth in the 1960s. Some posit that Thanksgiving, a Yankee holiday, only became accepted in the South as so many football games came to be played on or around Thanksgiving; I can’t say it doesn’t have a ring of truth.
Around the country, the holiday was celebrated differently or not at all depending on the locale. Only in the mass media era with Macy’s Parade and nationally broadcast football games did observation become somewhat consistent.
There was really only a brief, shining moment of the Norman Rockwell-style happy family Thanksgiving. It didn’t take long for professors and later even school teachers to start sending kids home for Thanksgiving with instructions about how to provoke their unenlightened parents and older relatives about genocide, cultural appropriation, and the like. Even without the poisonous influence of the “education” system, the demographics of the country have made Thanksgiving Dinner a difficult proposition; where do you have it? Less than half of the domiciles in the Country are occupied by a biological family. To whose house do we go “over the river and through the woods” to visit?
We can avoid a lot of that by not going back to the days of pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians, about which we know little authoritatively. We need to go back only to the traditions of the modern holiday established in the darkest days of the Civil War. The writer of the proclamation, Secretary Seward, was no lover of the South, but the proclamation is not condemnatory, and asks only for God to restore the Nation. It is an expression of good will and thankfulness for good fortune even in an unfortunate time.
We should observe Thanksgiving in the same spirit. As Lincoln did, if we look hard enough, we too can find that faint first glimmer of something better coming.
Art Chance is a retired Director of Labor Relations for the State of Alaska, formerly of Juneau and now living in Anchorage. He is the author of the book, “Red on Blue, Establishing a Republican Governance,” available at Amazon.