The first national Thanksgiving was observed by Congressional decree on December 18, 1777. But this celebration was not tied to the tradition of the Pilgrims at Plymouth; it arose from the politics of the American Revolution, and in particular was the result of congressional intrigue against General George Washington.
The fall of 1777 was a difficult time for the young nation. Declaring independence was one thing, securing it another. The war had not been going well since July 1776. Patriot forces had been driven out of New York, and a major British invasion from Canada under General John Burgoyne threatened to isolate New England from the lower states. Another British army under William Howe sailed up the Chesapeake Bay, landing forty-five miles southwest of Philadelphia, then the seat of the Continental government. On September 11, Howe’s army defeated George Washington’s troops at the Battle of Brandywine, opening the way to Philadelphia, which was taken two weeks later. The Congress fled to York, where it reconvened September 30.
But good news soon followed from the north. Burgoyne had believed that Howe would reinforce his invasion with a move from New York City towards Albany. When he learned that Howe was not coming, Burgoyne attempted to move on Albany himself. A series of contests followed, collectively known as the Battle of Saratoga, culminating at Bemis Heights on October 7. Burgoyne was decisively repulsed, due largely to the initiative of General Benedict Arnold. But because of an ongoing dispute with his commander, General Horatio Gates, and the fact that he was severely wounded and taken from the field, Arnold was denied proper credit for the victory. When Burgoyne surrendered on October 17, the laurels fell to Gates.
When news of the victory reached Congress, Gates’s friends and supporters, including John and Samuel Adams, and Richard Henry Lee, took the opportunity to promote Gates’s career. Gates was made head of the War Board, which was to oversee the conduct of the war effort. He was awarded a congressional gold medal, the second ever awarded, the first having gone to Washington. And a declaration was passed on November 1 establishing December 18 as a national day “for SOLEMN THANKSGIVING and PRAISE: That at one time and with one voice, the good people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts, and consecrate themselves to the service of their DIVINE BENEFACTOR.”
The declaration was seen as a slap at Washington. It noted in particular that American arms had been crowned “with most signal success.” Washington’s victories at Trenton and Princeton were almost a year earlier. Washington had lost New York and Philadelphia, and been defeated at Germantown. Forts Mifflin and Mercer on the Delaware were under desperate siege and would soon fall. Washington’s greatest recent achievement had been to keep his army intact after its many reverses. Some saw the politically connected Gates as a favorable alternative to Washington, particularly after the exaggerated accounts of his martial prowess at Saratoga. This was the view of a group that came to be known as the Conway Cabal, named after Thomas Conway, an officer in Washington’s command who favored Gates and wrote a series of letters to Congress criticizing his commander.
Thanksgiving’s eve found Washington’s army camped at Gulph, 15 miles northwest of Philadelphia and six miles east of their proposed winter encampment at Valley Forge. They had been playing cat and mouse with Howe, who periodically had sent forces into the countryside seeking the Americans. But the Continental Army remained intact, if only barely. Joseph Plumb Martin, a 16-year-old Continental from Western Massachusetts who had escaped from Ft. Mifflin before it fell, noted the wretched condition of the committed band of patriots:
[W]e were now absolutely in danger of perishing, and that too, in the midst of a plentiful country. … we had nothing and saw no likelihood of any betterment of our condition. Had there fallen deep snows (and it was the time of year to expect them) or even heavy and long rainstorms, the whole army must inevitably have perished. Or had the enemy, strong and well provided as he was, thought fit to pursue us, our poor emaciate carcasses must have ’strewed the plain.’ But a kind and holy Providence took more notice and better care of us than did the country in whose services we were wearing away our lives by piecemeal.
Washington, aware of the implications of the Congressionally mandated thanksgiving, issued orders to his men that the day “be duly observed in the army, agreeably to the intentions of Congress.” But he issued a separate note of thanks to his loyal troops:
The Commander in Chief with the highest satisfaction expresses his thanks to the officers and soldiers for the fortitude and patience with which they have sustained the fatigues of the Campaign—Altho’ in some instances we unfortunately failed, yet upon the whole Heaven hath smiled on our Arms and crowned them with signal success; and we may upon the best grounds conclude, that by a spirited continuance of the measures necessary for our defence we shall finally obtain the end of our Warfare—Independence—Liberty and Peace—These are blessings worth contending for at every hazard.
Washington knew he had to establish permanent shelters for his men or risk losing the Army entirely. He informed his men of his decision to winter nearby, and that he was certain that “the officers and soldiers, with one heart, and one mind, will resolve to surmount every difficulty, with a fortitude and patience, becoming their profession, and the sacred cause in which they are engaged. He himself will share in the hardship, and partake of every inconvenience.”