In Division, Gratitude Unites Us

What Do 160-Year-Old Presidential and Gubernatorial Thanksgiving Proclamations Tell Us Today?

A reflection by Cornerstone’s Church Amabassador Network Director, Neil Hubacker

With so much division, polarization, and strife at home and abroad, it can be hard to find reasons for gratitude. U.S. senators are on the verge of fisticuffs; our New Hampshire House of Representatives is evenly divided (and divisive!) as it prepares for a second, turbulent half of its two-year cycle; and the tragic eruption of war in Israel provides yet another platform for bitter unrest on the quads of our college campuses and in the streets of our cities.

Do we have any reasons to be thankful? What—or who—can possibly pull us together?

Thanksgiving itself may give us the answer.  In the fall of 1863, at the bloodiest height of the American Civil War, both U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and New Hampshire Governor Joseph Gilmore issued their proclamations for the setting aside of a day of Thanksgiving. One hundred and sixty years ago, President Lincoln’s proclamation would mark the beginning of Thanksgiving as a national holiday to fall on the last Thursday of November.


During the first half of 1863, the Union had suffered terrible losses. In the eastern theater, Lee’s Northern Virginia troops were experiencing their finest victories and were in high spirits. In the west and south, Union troops were continually frustrated. But the war’s momentum shifted in favor of the Union in the summer, with New Hampshire’s own “Fighting Fifth” Regiment playing a key role in July’s Battle of Gettysburg (see State House mural images and actual Civil War flags above). While they successfully repulsed the Confederate attack at Pickett’s Charge, their victory came at a terribly high cost. And by the fall, families and hometowns on both sides were reeling from the massive loss of life from all the war’s battles, especially from the fields of Gettysburg where the bodies of 50,000 soldiers lay. Think of our country’s sons, fathers, and brothers who were lost in that battle alone.

At the height of our nation’s conflict, what could President Lincoln and Governor Gilmore find to be grateful for? And how can that inform our Thanksgiving celebrations this year?

In Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation, he expressed gratitude that foreign powers had not invaded the U.S. during its moment of infighting and that there had been no spillover of chaos outside the theaters of war:

“In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict…”

Lincoln went on to thank God for the increase in the population and in natural resources, despite the raging war.

Notably, Lincoln then encouraged Americans to turn from their national disobedience, to commend to His care those who had suffered loss because of the war, and to pray for the healing of the nation:

“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.”

Similarly, in New Hampshire Governor Joseph Gilmore’s 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation, the Governor thanked God for an abundance of resources despite the ravages of war:

“Our Heavenly Father has given to this Nation during the past year such prosperity as no other people have ever known during the vigorous prosecution of an internal war.”

He also expressed gratitude for the lack of aggression from any other nations at such a vulnerable national moment and for the imminent freedom from slavery for many:

“…foreign nations have been compelled to respect the courage of our noble soldiers and the unwearied devotion of our citizens, and as a foretaste of the result of our bold struggle, we can rejoice today that the Sun shines on a million Freedmen…”

Finally, the Governor shared his wish that Granite Staters not only celebrate in their homes, but that they take time to worship together, and that they ensure that families with members serving in the war would lack nothing:

“…it is their duty as loyal citizens [of New Hampshire] to observe this day not only by family gatherings and social festivities but by devoutly assembling in their usual places of worship for prayer and praise….and above all let it be our boast that no family whose natural protectors are enlisted in the service of our country or sleep on the field of battle, lack those comforts, without which, a New England Thanksgiving is incomplete.”

Could these ingredients for a good Thanksgiving, prescribed 160 years ago during the time of our greatest national conflict, be just as effective in unifying us today? 

We can be grateful for continued safety and provision, despite our national rebellion towards God; we can assemble for praise and for prayer for national repentance & restoration; and we can offer heartfelt expressions of practical care for one another, especially for those families with military service members or first responders this Thanksgiving. These are the actions that can unite us and remind us that we still have much to be thankful for.

This Thanksgiving—as President Lincoln did at the height of the Civil War—let us rise above our differences to assert together:

“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.”

We wish you and your families a blessed Thanksgiving!

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