Art Chance: A Civil War Thanksgiving and the faint glimmer of better days - Must Read Alaska
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Art Chance: A Civil War Thanksgiving and the faint glimmer of better days

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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. 


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  • Excellent article, Mr. Chance.
    Thank you.

  • Great article, Art. However, having also lived in the deep south during the late 50s and 60s, I recall Thanksgiving as a strong tradition in my home and in our community. I even remember drawing hand-turkeys in second grade and watching “Buckskin Bill” tell stories about Thanksgiving on one of our two TV channels.

    • We got a little of it at school with “Pilgrim” hats made of construction paper and turkey cut-outs and the like, but it wasn’t really much of a deal other than my father had a half a day extra off work (those were the days when all the stores closed on Thursday afternoon).

  • Adieu

    • Mr. Tavoliero,
      We here at MRAK hope you soon announce to run against Don Young for US House. You will be the true Republican and receive a huge backing from the Alaska Republicans.
      Thank you.

  • Amen. Thank you Art.

  • Art, Bravo 👏, as always your Wit and intelligence brings even more meaning to our history.

  • I’ve been to many battlefields, but I have to say the most eerie feeling I ever had was when we did the self-guided tour on the car radio at Gettysburg. We got out and listened to the battle described and the sound effects and it kind of gave you the goosebump willys as if you were there in the middle of the battle. You could see the barn where snipers were in The loft and the cannon fire up on the ridge. I highly recommend it.

    • Antietam on a cool, wind-swept morning in March. As I have experienced on several similar occasions, my son and I were the only visitors on the battlefield. Americans’ knowledge and appreciation of history is pathetic.

      • Sharpsburg/Antietam is one I’ve never made it to. If anything ever brings me back to the DC area, I’ll try to check that block. At least three of my four lineal ancestors were there and lived to tell the tale.

        The one I found most striking was Fredericksburg. I’ve stood behind that stone wall at the top of Marye’s Hill just as some of my ancestors did 150 years before. I don’t know how Union commanders could send men up that hill. Longstreet’s artillery commander remarked that a chicken couldn’t cross that ground and live.

        • Just west of Frederickburg is Spotsylvania Court House and the Bloody Angle. Except for two historians doing field work, I was the only visitor.

          • I haven’t been to Spotsylvania, though some of my ancestors were there. I have seen the 22″ oak tree at the Smithsonian that was at the Angle and which was literally cut down by musketry.

        • Art, thanks again for another good read. I have one question however. Growing up in Georgia did the old folks still refer to the war years as. The War of Yankee Aggression?

          • No, that is an affectation. If they referred to it at all, it was just “The War,” everybody knew what war.

            Among poor and middling Southerners, no family was untouched. Only the well-off and well-connected could avoid service in the field armies and the casualties were horrendous. Of my four lineal ancestors who served in the ANV, three were wounded and one was killed. On my mother’s side, ten members of her family; brothers, cousins, sons, and fathers reported for the 4 March 1862 “militia muster,” effectively a Georgia draft and served in the ANV, Co. F, 48th Georgia Infantry. On April 12, 1865, three were still alive. Every old family has those stories, but they didn’t talk about it much.

    • I’ve been to several of them including Gettysburg and a bit of Chancellorsville/The Wilderness, though I couldn’t spend as much time there as I would have liked. A fraternal gg/grandfather is buried somewhere at Petersburg. He was KIA in Mahone’s counterattack at The Crater and isn’t in a marked grave, so he is probably in the mass grave of Georgia soldiers at Blandford Church near the battlefield.

      My maternal g/grandfather, I’m a generation closer on that side of the family, was with Wright’s Brigade when they took Cemetery Ridge late on the Second Day of Gettysburg. He took a .69 caliber ball in his left shoulder during Wright’s withdrawal from the Ridge when the Yankees counterattacked and he got no support on his left. Much of the Brigade took refuge in the Codori Barn and tried to surrender the badly wounded colonel of the 48th Georgia to the Yankees so he could get medical attention. The Yankees would accept the surrender unless all the men surrendered, which they did so that he could get attention.

      My g/grandfather and his brother were not among those who surrendered and they made it back to CS lines where my g/grandfather was treated in a field hospital. Since he was walking wounded he got to remain in the ranks during Lee’s withdrawal and fought in Hill’s rear-guard action at Manassas Gap, where his brother was captured and spent some time as a guest of the Yankees at Pt. Lookout, Maryland before being paroled.

      My g/grandfather was admitted to Chimborazzo Hospital in Richmond on 18 August, sixteen days after he was wounded. He was treated there and given thirty days leave to recover at home. His wife had died earlier that year and while home on leave he took a new, much younger wife, from whence cometh I and that is why I’m a generation closer on that side. He finally succumbed to his wounds in 1914; tough guy.

      • Just doing some research, if Wikipedia can be trusted: More men engaged at Chancellorsville than any other battle in the war. Fredericksburg is second. Gettysburg is fourth, Spotsylvania is sixth and Antietam is ninth. Gettysburg had the most casualties, by far. Antietam is notable for being a one day battle. Without reference to any part of the politics: May the Lord be with all of these men.

        • What always bedevils you with such figures is the number of men on the rolls and the number of men actually in the ranks was usually very different.

          Hard to believe Chancellorsville had the most engaged because only a little more than half of the ANV was anywhere near. At G’burg, all of the ANV was there by the Second Day, but the AOTP was strung out along the roads all the way back to Acquia Creek, 125 miles away. Likewise, at Antietam/Sharpsburg, both armies were strung out on the roads, with Jackson/Hill only arriving from Harper’s Ferry at the very last moment.

  • That was an excellent, hopeful observation, and it was well written. Thank you for that. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours, sir.

  • The little Cole twins from Fairbanks could have learned about real History if they had taken courses from you, Art. Instead, they wasted 40-years of their careers spreading propaganda and lies to their readers.

  • The American experiment in freedom is over. Most Americans don’t want it and are too lazy to do what’s necessary to keep it.
    Being involved means getting off the couch and actually doing something. Putting time and talent where your words are.

  • Amen. Another literary home run by Mr. Chance!

  • Thanks Art, again your writing challenges further research by your readers! I easily fell into googling names, places, words and phrases from within your penning, revisiting the Civil War history, refreshing my memory from studies long, long ago! Thanks for the stimulation, and the reminder of things that are omitted from the basic education of our children & grand children in today’s entitled society! We are so fortunate to have your wisdom and experience to draw from on such a regular basis.

    PS: Thanks also go to Suzanne Downing for creating this wonderful venue of informative, truthful information available to all who care to know!

  • I have been to many of the civil war battlefields and Ft. Mc Henry where the star spangles banner was written etc. The legacy left to America is one of resolve and certitude that the very world and the freedoms in it emanated only from Europe and no where else on earth, for all peoples on the earth whose life was improved and actually invented overall through commerce, technology and freedom especially for those who came here. Give Thanks, and ignore leftist turkeys.

  • I would like to second your suggestion and have learned to respect his approach to many issues. Before we support residents of other states that volunteer to serve for our elected offices, here’s a homegrown gem worthy of our support.
    And, again, Art Chance has provided a treasure chest of educational insights. Well done, sir, and thank you!

  • Excellent historical article with a personal application that always adds so much!! Thanks Art, superb history lesson !!

  • Art, please consider writing another book. Perhaps a book of just your musings and short essays? So many of us look forward to and enjoy your column. Thank you.

    • A sequel to “Red on Blue” is hopefully coming next Spring. Thank you for the kind words.

  • A test to see if I’m blocked.

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