Baptists and the American Civil War: November 27, 1862

Civil War States MapOn this last Thursday of November, many Northerners celebrate a day of Thanksgiving. The day is not yet recognized as a national holiday (this will not take place until next year), but is increasingly recognized as a localized or even statewide event throughout the Northern states. And while Northerners find much for which to be grateful during the terrible war whose end is not in sight, a group of Southerners are especially joyous in celebrating with the North.

On the coast of South Carolina, in areas occupied by U.S. forces, Union Gen. Rufus R. Saxton oversees, as military governor, the many former Southern plantations now under control of the United States. Saxton is charged with protecting and assisting “the inhabitants remaining thereon within the department or which theĀ  fortunes of war may hereafter bring into it, with authority to take such measures, make such rules and regulations for the cultivation of the land, and for the protection, employment, and government of the inhabitants, as circumstances may seem to require.” The aforementioned “inhabitants” are former African slaves who have been freed by Union forces, or who have escaped their masters and fled to Union-controlled territory.

The predominant religion among the freedmen is the Baptist faith, and today many freedmen at large crowd into Baptist churches to celebrate their freedom on a day that Gen. Saxton had previously decreed as a day of Thanksgiving.


I hereby appoint and set apart THURSDAY, THE TWENTY-SEVENTH DAY OF NOVEMBER, as a day of Public Thanksgiving and Praise; and I earnestly recommend to the Superintendents of Plantations, Teachers and Freedmen in this Department, to abstain on that day from their ordinary business, and assemble in their respective places of worship, and render praise and thanksgiving to Almighty God for the manifold blessings and mercies he has bestowed upon us during the past year; and more especially for the signal success which has attended the great experiment for freedom and the rights of oppressed humanity, inaugurated in the Department of the South. Our work has been crowned with a glorious success. The hand of God has been in it, and we have faith to believe the recording angel has placed the record of it in the Book of Life.

You freed men and women have never before had such cause for thankfulness. Your simple faith has been vindicated. ” The Lord has come” to you and has answered your prayers. Your chains are broken. Your days of bondage and mourning are ended, and you are forever free. If you cannot yet see your way clearly in the future; fear not; put your trust in the Lord, and He will vouchsafe, as he did to the Israelites of old, the ”cloud by day, and the pillar of fire by night,” to guide your footsteps ” through the wilderness ” to the promised land.

I therefore advise you all to meet and offer up fitting songs of thanksgiving for all these great mercies which you have received; and, with them, forget not to breathe an earnest prayer for your brethren who are still in bondage.

Given at Beaufort, S. C., this Ninth day of November, in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two.

Brig. Gen. and Military Governor.

An observer records today’s celebration in Beaufort:

[Today] according to Gen. Saxton’s noble Proclamation, was observed as a day of “Thanksgiving and praise.” It has been a lovely day–cool, delicious air, golden, gladdening sunlight, deep blue sky, with soft white clouds floating over it. Had we no other causes the glory and beauty of the day alone make it a day for which to give thanks. But we have other causes, great and glorious, which united to make this peculiarly a day of thanksgiving and praise. It has been a general holiday. According to Gen. Saxton’s orders an animal was killed on each plantation that the people might to-day eat fresh meat, which is a great luxury to them, and indeed to all of us here. This morning a large number — Superintendents, teachers, and freed people, assembled in the little Baptist church. It was a sight that I shall not soon forget — that crowd of eager, happy black faces from which the shadow of slavery had forever passed. “Forever free!” “Forever free!”….

Sources: Rufus R. Saxton, “Proclamation for a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise” (link); “Thanksgiving Day,” November 27, 1862, in Brenda Stevenson, Editor, The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimke, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988, pp. 404-407 (link)