“A pouring out of grateful hearts” – Gettysburg’s connection to the first national Thanksgiving Day
Outside of Washington, D.C., perhaps no town or city has been so deeply attached to the Civil War legacy of Abraham Lincoln as Gettysburg.
That south-central Pennsylvania crossroads and Adams County seat was one of the only locales outside of the nation’s capital that the 16th president visited during his tenure in office. It was also the site where he delivered his most famous address, in an effort to bring meaning to the rebellion’s bloodshed. Notably, Lincoln spent time in Gettysburg immediately before commemorating the first national Thanksgiving Day, having left the town by rail on November 19, 1863—exactly one week before the holiday was celebrated on Thursday, November 26.
In the words of local newsman Robert G. Harper, Gettysburg was a town that had grappled with the “terrible, and yet glorious reality” of the ghastly battle fought there that summer, and the “victory achieved for Liberty, Justice, the Union and good Government” that came as a result. The community’s Republican press took heart in knowing that President Lincoln issued a proclamation on July 15 (just 12 days after the battle) which thanked “the Divine Majesty for the wonderful things He has done in the nation’s behalf,” and invoked “the influence of His Holy Spirit to subdue the anger which has produced and so long sustained a needless and cruel rebellion.” Many Gettysburgians were appreciative that Lincoln gifted them with his presence at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery dedication that November, when he “was serenaded twice...and his appearance excited bursts of enthusiasm—showing the strong hold he has upon the affections of the people,” reported the progressive Adams Sentinel.
Lincoln had declared “a Proclamation appointing the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving and Prayer” on October 3, an act which was “promptly responded to” by the Commonwealth’s governor, Andrew Curtin, who recommended “that the people of Pennsylvania do set apart and observe the said day accordingly.” At Gettysburg on October 6, the Sentinel opined that it was “a very beautiful document.” The following week, the paper reprinted the entirety of the president’s decree with the comment, “There is, indeed, great cause that we should be thankful, and that the people should pour out their hearts in acknowledgement of the good vouchsafed to them amid the trials of a civil war which is without a parallel in the history of the world.” (Unknown to most people at the time, the Thanksgiving Proclamation was actually written by William Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state, who the president praised for “go[ing] out and repeat[ing] some of your ‘poetry’ to the people!”)
On the morning of November 26, 1863, services were held at local houses of worship, with the largest being in Gettysburg’s Presbyterian Church at the intersection of Baltimore and Middle streets, where President Lincoln attended a service the Thursday prior (arm-in-arm with local 69-year-old war hero John Burns). The various Thanksgiving ceremonies “passed off very quietly in this place...and a general respect was paid to the day,” the Sentinel recalled. The holiday was made even more special with the welcome news from the Civil War’s Western Theater that Chattanooga, Tennessee, had fallen to Federal forces commanded by Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, a development which opened up deep southern portions of the Confederacy to further United States conquest.
“As the National jubilee, less than five months ago, was celebrated in immortal deeds upon the heights of Gettysburg, by the brave army under [Maj. Gen. George] Meade, so now has the National Thanksgiving been made forever memorable upon the heights of Chattanooga by the army of General Grant,” the Sentinel declared. “As though by some Divine dispensation, each of these national occasions has been signalized by a magnificent triumph to the Union arms; so that henceforth the observation of both anniversaries will become a patriotic and a Christian duty.” The paper proceeded to quote an excerpt from the ending of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in its analysis that, “These days will teach us rightly to estimate the value of our Federal Union, and grateful to remember the men who have given up their lives that it might not ‘perish from the earth.’”
Although Gettysburg’s connection to Thanksgiving on a national stage would never again be as intimate as it was in 1863 when “Father Abraham” walked the town’s streets seven days prior to the first such holiday, the tradition of commemorating it was now underway, just as it was across the country. Annual services at the Presbyterian Church became commonplace, and Adams Countians used the occasion as inspiration for humanitarian missions. On Thanksgiving Day 1864, St. John’s and St. Luke’s Lutheran churches in nearby Littlestown raised $30 for the American Tract Society (approximately $482 in 2019) “for the purpose of supplying reading matter to Soldiers in camp and hospital,” and sent hundreds of pounds of produce, foodstuffs, soap, cooking supplies, first aid materials, stationery, linen, and other goods to the U.S. Christian Commission.
After the Civil War drew to its effective culmination in April 1865, the exuberance of U.S. victory over the Rebels inspired the recitation of a “prayer of thanksgiving to the King of kings” at Gettysburg’s public high school. That sense of excitement was quickly overshadowed by the assassination of Lincoln, and yet, despite the feeling of loss that caused many local ministers to eulogize the American president in the days and weeks after his untimely death (including at the same Presbyterian Church where Lincoln worshiped in November 1863), that autumn the townspeople nevertheless rejoiced and gave thanks that the war which brought untold sufferings to their doorsteps was finally over. For once, stated the Sentinel, Gettysburg (and the nation) could hold a “THANKSGIVING FOR PEACE”—a day to honor “national reconciliation,” “free government,” “deliver[ance] from civil war,” and “‘a great enlargement of civil liberty.’”
Thanksgiving Day 1865 produced ceremonies at St. James Lutheran Church, Christ Lutheran Church, and again at the Presbyterian Church. “The afternoon being rather unpleasant for out-door travel, on account of the wind-storm, there was not the usual social assemblages, and lively travel, so common on the afternoons of thanksgiving days,” yet still, the holiday “was very generally observed in this place—all business being suspended,” reflected the Sentinel.
Ultimately, the meaning of the occasion could not be quelled by bad weather in light of this first post-Civil War national day of thanks. “There never was a time when such a pouring out of grateful hearts was more appropriate than now,” the Sentinel concluded; “and we think it will be more generally observed than ever before.”
 “Gettysburg and the War,” Adams Sentinel (Gettysburg, PA), July 7, 1863, 2; “A Day of Thanksgiving,” Adams Sentinel, July 21, 1863, 2; “Consecration OF THE SOLDIERS’ NATIONAL CEMETERY AT GETTYSBURG,” Adams Sentinel, Nov. 24, 1863, 2.
 F.B. Carpenter, Six Months at the White House with Abraham Lincoln. The Story of a Picture (New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1866), 242; also see Martin P. Johnson, Writing the Gettysburg Address (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2013), 94. Subsequently, the Thanksgiving Proclamation was set to music by composer and Episcopalian minster William Augustus Muhlenberg as “The President’s Hymn: Give Thanks, All Ye People, in Response to the Proclamation of the United States, Recommending a General Thanksgiving, on November 26th, 1863” (New York: A.D.F. Randolph, 1864), Library of Congress; in The Gettysburg Gospel (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006), 165, 167, Gabor Borit has suggested that “on Thanksgiving Day it was sung in homes, churches, army camps, onboard navy ships, and at various gatherings, even abroad at diplomatic posts,” and “compared to the President’s Proclamation and Hymn, his remarks at Gettysburg shrank to a modest significance.”
 “Chattanooga,” Adams Sentinel, Dec. 1, 1863, 3.
 “Consecration OF THE SOLDIERS’ NATIONAL CEMETERY AT GETTYSBURG,” Adams Sentinel, Nov. 24, 1863, 2; Adams Sentinel, Oct. 25, 1864, 4; “Thanksgiving Day,” Adams Sentinel, Nov. 8, 1864, 4; Adams Sentinel, Nov. 24, 1863, 3; “EDITOR SENTINEL,” Adams Sentinel, Dec. 27, 1864.
 Adams Sentinel, April 11, 1865, 4; “THANKSGIVING FOR PEACE,” Adams Sentinel, Nov. 7, 1865, 3; “National Worship,” Adams Sentinel, Nov. 14, 1865, 4 (also printed in Philadelphia Ledger). For examples of eulogies in honor of Lincoln, see “The Murder of the President,” Adams Sentinel, April 18, 1865, 2; M.L. Stoever, “ABRAHAM LINCOLN,” in Evangelical Quarterly Review, (Gettysburg, PA: Aughinbaugh & Wible, 1865), April 1865, 404-426; and D.T. Carnahan, Oration on the Death of Abraham Lincoln, Sixteenth President of the United States, Delivered before the Citizens of Gettysburg, Pa., June 1, 1865 (Gettysburg, PA.: Aughinbaugh & Wible, 1865).
 “Thanksgiving Day,” Adams Sentinel, Dec. 5, 1865, 4.