Thanksgiving Day and the Military Are Directly Connected

June 18, 2022
Thanksgiving Day and the Military Are Directly Connected

Spc. John Sever has Thanksgiving dinner while standing watch in Matakhan, Afghanistan. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images.

To be thankful is to express gratitude, and in one way or another as individuals or as a republic, this coming Thursday – Thanksgiving – represents a historically driven fulfillment of that expression.

The day after tomorrow will be characterized in many households by a large turkey dinner with family and friends.  At some point during the day, there may even be a friendly game of touch football – that is if everyone is not in front of the television either watching an NFL game or asleep on the couch!

But Thanksgiving is also characterized by a connection with the military and of how the act of “thanksgiving” became “Thanksgiving Day.”

The Pilgrims and A Day of Thanks

Following their arrival on the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock on December 11, 1620, the English Pilgrims suffered a hard reality; of the original 102 who came ashore, 46 died during the winter.

Without the help of Squanto and the Wampanoag tribe during that winter, the death toll among the Pilgrims would have been much higher.

The native Americans assisted the Pilgrims during the spring months by showing them how to grow corn and other crops in the unfamiliar soil. 

In that autumn of 1621, and with bountiful crops of corn, barley, beans and pumpkins, the Puritans planned a traditional three-day English harvest festival. 

In a spirit of gratitude, the Pilgrims invited the Wampanoags to join them in an observance of “thanksgiving.”  The approximate 90 native Americans who attended brought wild game – to include turkeys – to be roasted.

This tradition of giving thanks continued in New England but only in a haphazard manner.

How thanksgiving Became Thanksgiving

The first gobble gobble of recognition occurred during the American Revolution in “A Proclamation for a General Thanksgiving, Throughout the United States of America” issued by the Second Continental Congress on November 1, 1777.

In 1789 President George Washington suggested that November 26 be remembered as Thanksgiving Day.  

Both Presidents John Adams and James Madison (2nd and 4th, respectively) issued similar proclamations, though fellow President Thomas Jefferson (3rd) argued that the religious connotations connected to the event were not in keeping with a nation founded on the separation of church and state. Consequently, no formal declarations were issued after 1815.

This changed in 1863.

Thanksgiving Day and Sarah Josepha Hale

A prominent writer and editor, Hale had not only written the children’s poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in 1830, she had also become the editor of “Godey’s Lady Book” in 1837. 

She had written a number of editorials during the 1850s about the need for a national day of thanks on the last Thursday of November – a unifying measure that she believed would help ease the tensions between North and South that eventually led to the Civil War.

With a circulation of more than 150,000 by the beginning of the War Between the States, Hale could make her voice heard.

Both President Abraham Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis heard her.

In 1861 and 1862, Davis had issued Thanksgiving Proclamations following Southern victories.  Lincoln followed suit in 1862 in asking for a day of thanks after Union victories at Fort Donelson, Fort Henry and at Shiloh, and again in the summer of 1863 after the Battle of Gettysburg.

But Hale was not satisfied, and in September of 1863 she urged Lincoln to declare a national Thanksgiving, reminding the president that only he had the ability to make the holiday, “permanently, an American custom and institution.”

In the midst of the Civil War on October 3, 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed:

It has seemed to me fit and proper that these gifts should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people; I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea, and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and a Prayer to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.

The menu looks remarkably the same as what is served today.
The menu looks remarkably the same as what is served today.

While Thanksgiving Day was recognized as a national holiday during World War I, the date was changed at the beginning of World War II.

In 1939 President Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving up a week, in an attempt to extend the shopping period before Christmas in order to spur economic activity.

While some states followed the president’s lead, others did not when 16 states flatly refused to honor Roosevelt’s calendar shift, thereby leaving the country with dueling Thanksgivings.

Just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, in the fall of 1941 the president his position, and Congress passed a resolution returning the holiday to the fourth Thursday of November.

Thanksgiving Day and the Military

From the American Revolution and the War of 1812 to the Civil War and the World Wars, Thanksgiving is linked to the military. What follows are some traditions observed by our service members.

Serving New Military Members

For junior military members, many of whom are away from home for the first time, they receive a Thanksgiving meal as their dining facility which is served by senior leaders.

An Invitation to Thanksgiving Dinner

Experienced service members who have families nearby often invited younger service members to dinner.  What’s more, some retired military members do the same thing.

Operation Homefront – Holiday Meals for Military

Since 2008 this organization has served nearly 90,000 military families, impacting over 420,000 family members.  

Deployed Service Members

Each service branch goes to great lengths to create its own Thanksgiving menu to ensure that each soldier, sailor, airmen, Marine and Coastie receives partakes in a Thanksgiving dinner that has a direct connection to American history.

This cartoon by Dave Granlund captures what some families will face at Thanksgiving. Credit: Dave Granlund.
This cartoon by Dave Granlund captures what some families will face at Thanksgiving. Credit: Dave Granlund.

As President Barack Obama once said of Thanksgiving Day:

“Let’s be grateful for what we have. Let’s be mindful of those who have less. Let’s appreciate those who hold a special place in our lives, and make sure that they know it. And let’s think about those who can’t spend the holiday with their loved ones — especially the members of our military serving overseas.”

Happy Thanksgiving.

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