By Richard H. Allen
Special to the Observer
Why would Thanksgiving be noted in August of 1863? The country was in the middle of a brutal Civil War. The fortunes of the respective armies varied over the months as battles were fought and won. In July, the Battle of Gettysburg had turned back the Confederate advance into the northern states and Lee was forced to retreat into Virginia. So in early August, President Lincoln proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving for the fortunes of the Union troops.
Proclamations for a national day of Thanksgiving were not new in 1863. As early as 1777 and again in 1789, the government had urged its citizens to give thanks for the blessings they received. Sarah Josepha Hale, born in Newport, N. H., led a campaign for a national Thanksgiving Day for a good number of years prior to the Civil War. She was the editor of Goedy’s Lady’s Book, the leading magazine for women at the time, and she used this position to extoll the joys of a New England Thanksgiving observation. Her efforts included many letters to the U.S. presidents and governors over the years.
During the Civil War, both President Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis declared days of Thanksgiving after their troops achieved victory on the battlefields. Lincoln’s first declaration was on April 13, 1862 after the battles of Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, and Fort Shiloh. In 1863, he issued two proclamations; the first was for Aug. 6 after the victory at Gettysburg, and the second, Oct. 3, was for a national Thanksgiving to be observed on the last Thursday of November each year.
Thanksgiving was observed in Williston on Aug. 6, 1863 and detailed in an unsigned letter to the “Vermont Watchman and State Journal” on Aug. 14. “…The three religious societies met at 10 ½ o’clock, at the Congregational Church. The services were opened by prayer by the Rev. Mr. Barber. The Proclamation was read by Mr. Edward [sic] Whitney, after which much patriotic speeches were pronounced by Rev. Mr. Howe, Hon. A. C. Welch, Rev. Mr. Cutting, J. S. Cilley, Esq., Rev. John Hough, and Rev. Jesse W. Hough, interspersed with selections of patriotic music from an able choir. During the singing a collection was taken for the benefit of sick and wounded soldiers, amounting to $59.00. After the benediction, the congregation adjourned to the Town Hall, where [there] were tables loaded with refreshments enough for all and more ‘than twelve baskets full’ besides, for distribution for those who need it. During the day a subscription paper was circulated, and funds to the amount of $80.00 collected for the widow of Rev. Joseph Sargeant [sic], late Chaplain of the 13th Regiment. Thus has passed the second National Thanksgiving which our country has witnessed, and while thousands of grateful hearts have been turned in thankfulness to God, for His special mercy to our armies, thousands of prayers have been offered for a permanent peace.
Copperheads are scarce here.”
The Congregational Church mentioned in the letter is now the Old Brick Church on the north side of Williston Road, opposite the present Town Hall. The Town Hall in 1863 was located between what is now the Town Hall Annex and the Armory on the south side of the road.
Besides the ministers, the other dignitaries involved were: Edmund Whitney, a prosperous farmer, Alvin C. Welch, a physician and sometime Williston representative to the Vermont legislature, and Joseph S. Cilley, the principal of the Williston Academy.
Reverend Joseph Sargent had served churches in Barnard, Barre and Plainfield before Williston’s Universalist Church voted on Jan. 14, 1861 to employ him. The Universalist Church was completed in 1860; it is now the present Williston Town Hall. Prior to the construction of the church, the congregation worshiped in the old Town Hall referred to in the letter.
“A History of the Town of Williston” (1913) gave this description of Sargent’s support for the war: “He was active and influential in the rallies held at that time, and spoke with great force and conviction. One time, as he stood beside the table where the boys were enlisting, he signed his name to the enlistment roll saying that he could not ask so many others to go and stay at home himself.”
Sargent enlisted on Aug. 4, 1862 and helped form the Richmond unit. On Oct. 10 he was mustered in as the chaplain for the 13th Vermont Volunteer Infantry. He died in Virginia on April 20, 1863 of typhoid fever, survived by his wife Lucinda and four children. His wife would have received a widow’s pension from the federal government, in addition to the charity of the “subscription” collected during Williston’s Thanksgiving observance.
The last line of the letter, “Copperheads are scarce here,” is a reference to northern Democrats who opposed the prosecution of the war against the Confederates and favored a negotiated peace. The letter’s author, given his later proven talent for writing, was probably Reverend Alanson D. Barber. With the reference to Copperheads he emphasized the patriotic nature of the Williston gathering and the town’s resolute support for the war effort.
The military influence on the basis of our modern Thanksgiving celebration has faded over time. Williston residents today can note the day with the traditional meal, family gatherings, and perhaps some football on television.
Richard Allen is a local historian and author. He has written a series of articles for Williston’s 250th anniversary. His research is supported by the Williston Historical Society.