Thanksgiving. We all know it’s about more than turkey, football and kick-starting the holiday shopping season. As I mentioned last year, it’s about coming together with a spirit of gratitude – in good times or bad – in plenty or pain – in peace or war. Yep – even in times of war.
In fact, the first official Thanksgiving was celebrated in the midst of The American Civil War – only months after the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg, where more than 50,000 troops were lost or wounded in a three-day campaign.
Give Thanks – for War?
The link between Thanksgiving and war was established by President Abraham Lincoln, who, in October of 1863, issued a proclamation to “invite my fellow citizens…to observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
Then – only a week before that first Thanksgiving – Lincoln delivered the most famous speech in U.S. political history, during dedication ceremonies for the Soldiers National Cemetery at Gettysburg. His Gettysburg Address not only honored the fallen, but reframed the war, declaring:
…this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
And so the Civil War became recognized as a struggle for freedom from the oppression of slavery.
Earlier this year, I was honored to join fellow Guardsmen in walking the grounds of Gettysburg. It’s an unforgettable experience – not just for soldiers like me. The place instantly surrounds you with its solemn, historical gravity.
Not surprisingly, as Thanksgiving approaches, my mind is traveling back to that hallowed battlefield – as I consider the reasons why Lincoln intentionally connected the dots between war and gratitude. To say it seems counterintuitive is an understatement. Indeed, that juxtaposition of war and gratitude reflects the irony of human existence perhaps better than any poem or proverb.
The loss of life at Gettysburg was massive – but the war didn’t end there. The longer the conflict dragged on, the bloodier it grew, and the more tormented Lincoln became about mounting casualties. Two more years would pass before the Union defeated the Confederate Army. When the South’s slaves were freed, they celebrated with great thanksgiving. Unfortunately, President Lincoln never saw it, but eventually, our nation began to heal.
For most of my 53 years on the planet, our country has celebrated Thanksgiving in relative peace. But sadly, this isn’t one of those years. Today, we find ourselves at war with extremists in Afghanistan – in the most protracted conflict in U.S. history. We long for peace, just as Lincoln did. But peace is not at hand.
Even so, we’ll gather together this week to remember our blessings as citizens of the most prosperous country the world has ever known. In the face of uncertainty, we’ll give thanks for family, home and freedom – freedom to worship, to speak our minds, to dream big, and to pursue those dreams.
A Thanksgiving Prayer for Others
I hope that soon, we’ll see Afghanistan celebrate a new level of freedom and gratitude, as we help loosen the oppressive grip that terrorists have imposed on that region. Until then, we should continue fighting for this cause – just as Lincoln asked of us during the Civil War.
It may not be easy. It may not be quick. But it’s the right thing to do. And as long as we’re doing the right thing, we should feel blessed.
Our nation has faced similar challenges in the past. We’re likely to face them again in the future. After all, if history has taught us anything, it’s that there’s always a “bad guy” – always a bully aiming to exploit the world’s weakest, most vulnerable people. The enemy changes, but the cause of freedom does not. And wherever people live in fear of dreaded enemies, U.S. armed forces continue to be a beacon of liberty and hope.
Therefore, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I thank all those Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines who serve the cause of freedom. And I thank the citizens who support them. May the work we do to “win the peace” bring favor to a grateful nation.
With prayers for a peaceful future.