Prior to 1863, the U.S. government informally recognized periodic days of thanksgiving. In 1777, for example, Congress declared a day of thanksgiving to celebrate the Continental Army’s victory over the British at Saratoga. Similarly, President George Washington, in 1789, declared a day of thanksgiving and prayer to honor the new Federal Constitution. But it took the national trauma of a Civil War to make Thanksgiving a formal, annual holiday.
With the war raging in the autumn of 1863, President Abraham Lincoln had very little for which to be thankful. The Union victory at Gettysburg the previous July had come at the dreadful human cost of 51,000 estimated casualties, including nearly 8,000 dead. It took the persistence of a woman to make Thanksgiving Day a national holiday. Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, provided the necessary inspiration. Hale, who had been campaigning for a national Thanksgiving holiday for nearly two decades, wrote to President Lincoln on Sept. 23, 1863, and asked him to create the holiday “as a permanent American custom and institution.” The president complied and issued the Thanksgiving Proclamation on October 3, 1863, that the last Thursday of November would be observed annually as Thanksgiving Day.