In 1863, President Lincoln issued a proclamation establishing the fourth Thursday of November as an official national day of Thanksgiving. While there had been sporadic national and state occurrences of such days since George Washington proposed the first one, it was not yearly event and there was no agreed-upon day. Thankfully, President Lincoln heeded a letter written to him by Sarah Joseph Hale, a female magazine editor, urging him to establish a day of Thanksgiving as a means to help unify the nation. He established the holiday. While not all states celebrated the holiday during the war, it eventually became a day on which every state in the nation paused to express gratitude for the many blessings received.
I have included some of the text from President Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation below. Even though the Civil War was raging on at the time, these words in 1863 helped the suffering citizens to recognize that all of the many freedoms and bounty and opportunity provided in our country were still something for which to be profoundly grateful. While not perfect, they knew this exceptional country was worth the hardship they endured to reach it and to preserve it.
I believe President Lincoln’s words from 155 years ago still have meaning today. Has this been an easy year for all of us? Of course not. But it could be so much worse – and was in our nation’s past. Perhaps the words below will encourage us to pause and reflect on the many good things we do have.
By the President of the United States
The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God….
No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.
It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.
This coming Sunday is a milestone. It is not just Veterans’ Day, but is also the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One.
Being perennially curious about all things historical, I started doing some research about the war. I was lucky to stumble across the website for the “United States World War One Centennial Commission” (https://www.worldwar1centennial.org/index.php). This organization has gathered information about anniversary commemorations around the country, but also has pages and pages of interesting background information about the war and its aftermath.
This was a war of many firsts. Many of these "firsts" had a huge impact on our country. You can find many sources describing the military and technological advances (wrist watch, anyone?) which occurred during the war. WWI also produced cultural firsts, including societal groups who were involved in a war for the first time. The U.S. “Doughboys” fighting overseas were a much more diverse group than in previous wars. Immigrants served next to blue bloods. Native Americans served next to the sons of settlers. Grandsons of Civil War soldiers served next to grandsons of slaves. ( Interestingly, one thing didn’t change. The average WWI soldier was about the same size – 5 feet 7 ½ inches and 141.5 pounds – as one of those Civil War soldiers, but a little shorter and lighter than a WWII soldier would be.) The additional details provided about the various segments of soldiers are worth a read.
In addition, while men have always served in times of war, this was the first U.S. war in which women served. According to the organization’s website, the new Army Nurse Corps counted 20,000 women in its ranks. This included 10,000 female nurses who served overseas caring for 200,000 wounded U.S. soldiers. Since many of the nurses were positioned near the front lines, they experienced artillery and gas attacks right along with the soldiers. When the influenza epidemic raged through Europe, 200 of these nurses died caring for sick soldiers.
Women served in other groups for the first time, too. The Army Signal Corps had about 400 women known as “Hello Girls” serving in France as telephone operators. The Navy had a tough time competing with the Army for the people they needed, so they recruited 11,000 women known as “Yeomanettes” to work in a variety of support roles. Not just clerical staff, these women also worked as electricians, mechanics, drivers, etc. The Marine Corps and Coast Guard recruited women to serve as well.
These numbers do not include the thousands of women who volunteered in other ways, such as for the Red Cross or the Salvation Army. And of course, with a large portion of the male population gone, many women backfilled their jobs on the home front.
Most of these women were expected to return to their “normal” life after the war. It must have been difficult for some of them. (There was a popular song to this effect right after WWI called “How Ya Gonna Keep’em Down on the Farm After They’ve Seen Paree?” which was surely directed at the returning soldiers, but must have resonated with the women as well.) However, their war service did have one unexpected benefit. It helped convince President Woodrow Wilson and other men in the US that these women who contributed so much during the war deserved the right to vote, thus setting up the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Yet another “first” resulting in part from WWI.
So I hope each one of us takes a little time on Sunday to reflect on the day’s meaning. It is always good to honor our military heroes on Veteran’s Day. As a first this year, perhaps we can also remember the day’s importance 100 years ago and the effect WWI had on our grandparents and great-grandparents.
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