Thanksgiving Part of American Military History

  • Published
  • By TSgt.Dan Heaton
  • 127th Wing Public Affairs
Times of great conflict often prompt people to great acts of Thanksgiving. The national holiday now celebrated every year with turkey and stories of pilgrims and Native Americans became cemented as an American tradition during two of our nation's earliest and most critical armed struggles.

Days of Thanksgiving were declared during both the Revolutionary War and during the Civil War, helping to create a tradition that continues to this day, even as hundreds of Airmen of the Michigan Air National Guard serve overseas to continue to secure the freedoms for which Americans give thanks.

While the first Thanksgiving is generally acknowledged to have been a 1621 harvest gathering between pilgrims at the Plymouth (Mass.) Plantation and some neighboring Native Americans, this celebration was held only irregularly in the years that followed.

During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress, seeking perhaps some divine intervention in their effort to defeat the mighty British Empire, passed resolutions appointing various days as days of thanksgiving. These days were not pegged to any particular date on the calendar nor to the arrival of the harvest. The first proclamation of thanksgiving made by the Continental Congress came on Nov. 1, 1777, as news of several small victories over the British reached Congress.

As part of the resolution, Congress asked all people to give thanks for several reasons, including:

"...To inspire our Commanders, both by Land and Sea, and all under them, with that Wisdom and Fortitude which may render them fit Instruments, under the Providence of Almighty GOD, to secure for these United States, the greatest of all human Blessings, INDEPENDENCE and PEACE..."

General George Washington, at that time the commanding general of the American forces, proclaimed a day of thanksgiving in December 1777 as a victory celebration for the American victory in the Battle of Saratoga. Later, as president, Washington would issue the first formal Thanksgiving Day proclamation of the United States, on Oct. 3, 1789.

The celebration of thanksgiving would continue on and off over the next 75 years, with several years often passing between one presidential proclamation of thanksgiving and the next.

In 1863, at the height of the Civil War, president Abraham Lincoln renewed the tradition of the thanksgiving - giving thanks even as war raged across the land. He called for the last Thursday in November of that year to be a day of thanks:

"In the midst of a civil war of unequalled 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 theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. "

By tradition, the presidents who followed Lincoln kept Thanksgiving on the final Thursday in November. In World War II, politics became involved in the holiday, as 1940 and 1941 each featured Novembers with five Thursdays, causing some national leaders to squabble over the correct date to celebrate the day. In 1942, Congress passed a resolution, fixing the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.

Major holidays such as Thanksgiving often present a challenge for military personnel who can be stationed far from home and their families on the holidays. Traditionally, senior leaders will serve dinner to junior personnel on Thanksgiving when possible. In perhaps one of the more notable examples of this tradition, President George W. Bush made a surprise, unannounced visit to Baghdad, Iraq, in 2003 and assisted in the serving of the Thanksgiving meal to military personnel there. It was the first trip by a U.S. president to Iraq and came at a time when an average of more than 30 attacks against U.S. forces per day were taking place in that city.

Commanders in chief have a history of visiting troops in combat areas around the holidays. Last year, President Obama made a surprise visit to Afghanistan about a week after Thanksgiving. President George H.W. Bush served Thanksgiving dinner at a base in Saudi Arabia in 1990, prior to the start of the first Gulf War. President Richard Nixon, once, and Lyndon Johnson, twice, each made trips to Vietnam during that war. President Dwight Eisenhower visited Korea during that war.