The first national Thanksgiving was not 1620. Oh, the Pilgrims held theirs and I suppose, a decade earlier, settlers in Virginia had one. Thanksgivings are an appropriate way for a community to thank the Lord for his many blessings. But the first national Day of Thanksgiving came not from George Washington shortly after the became president in 1789, although he called for one.
The Continental Congress called the first national Day of Thanksgiving following the Battle of Saratoga, and the subsequent surrender of British General John Burgoyne in the autumn of 1777. Congress declared the third Thursday in December -- December 18, 1777 -- as a day "for solemn thanksgiving and praise." The Packers did not play the Lions. They were serious and devout Christians, whose proclamation ended: "And it is further recommended, that servile labor, and such recreation as, though at other times innocent, may be unbecoming the purpose of this appointment, be omitted on so solemn an occasion."
Saratoga was that important.
Historians say that there were two Battles of Saratoga on September 19, 1777, at Freeman's Farm and a second one on October 7, 1777, at Bemis Heights. But history calls it one battle, for Saratoga triggered France to openly join the American side when the French received word of the Patriot victory. American diplomats Benjamin Franklin and John Adams had spent all of 1777 laying the groundwork for this alliance.
In the summer of 1777, the British were sitting pretty. They owned New York City and were perched to take Philadelphia, which they did. As he headed for Philadelphia by ship, British General William Howe ordered British General John Burgoyne to re-capture Fort Ticonderoga, and swoop down the Hudson Valley from Quebec. Burgoyne brought more than 7,000 troops.
Washington knew what the British planned to do: Divide and re-conquer the colonies. A year after declaring independence the nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal was withering against the best military in the world. When Burgoyne to Fort Ticonderoga with ease, Washington recalled General Philip John Schuyler and replaced him with General Horatio Gates. A later court martial exonerated Schuyler but his career ended with the dismissal. Schuyler went on to serve in the Continental Congress, the New York state senate, and as New York's first U.S. senator.
Gates was an interesting choice. Born on July 26, 1727, in Maldon, Essex, Great Britain, He had served in the War of the Austrian Succession and the French and Indian War before retiring from the British Army as a major in 1769. He served under General Edward Braddock in an ill-fated campaign in 1757 to take the Ohio Valley. Americas serving in that campaign included Thomas Gage, Charles Lee, Daniel Morgan, and of course, Washington.
After leaving the British Army, he settled in Virginia as a plantation owner. He kept in contact with Washington, who had risen as a leader in Colonial Virginia. Following the Battle of Lexington and Concord, Gates immediately rode to Mount Vernon and offered his services to Washington, who made him his adjutant. Washington needed experienced men. Gates was an able administrator and voice of reason in the American siege of Boston. He brought order to the colonial militia.
Gates wanted a field commission and Washington dispatched Gates to take control of the Patriot's "Canada Department" after the failure by Americans to take Quebec that winter. The troops were demoralized, unpaid, and facing a smallpox epidemic. Schuyler and Gates were in conflict. The loss of Fort Ticonderoga decided the issue in favor of Gates, whom Congress appointed as head of the Northern Department on August 4, 1777. With Gates in charge, the situation improved.
Meanwhile, British General Burgoyne sent east 800 Hessians under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Baum and 600 Hessians under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Heinrich von Breymann to the Republic of Vermont to get horses and supplies. The ensuing Battle of Bennington on August 16, 1777, was a rout for the Patriots from New Hampshire and Massachusetts under the command of Colonel John Stark, and the Green Mountain Boys under Colonel Seth Warner (Ethan Allen having been voted out of command earlier). The Americans captured half the Hessians sent and killed 207 more.
This victory cheered the Patriots, but defeating the Hessians was not as satisfying or as challenging as defeating the redcoats.
As Burgoyne moved south, Gates planted his army in Bemis Heights, west of the Hudson. Over a period of time, Burgoyne's troops began to encircle the Patriots. He had no plan or inclination to go after the British. However, other commanders did. Colonel Benedict Arnold knew his men could fight in the forest and wanted to attack the enemy. Along with his friend Colonel Daniel Morgan, Arnold badgered Gates until he finally agreed to let them attack Burgoyne. Likely he was afraid Morgan would kill him if he did not let them go. Morgan's riflemen largely from Pennsylvania (usually his troops came from Virginia and Kentucky) were the first to fire upon the British at Freeman's Farm on September 19, 1777. While rifles were more accurate and had a better range, they took much longer than a musket to load. Still, America wins wars through superior firepower, and the Revolutionary War began that streak.
Arnold's New Hampshire Colonialists followed up, and the man whose name is now synonymous with being a turncoat was simply brilliant that day. The man who had led the capture of Fort Ticonderoga in 1775, and the ill-fated attack on Quebec City in 1776, where Morgan and Arnold became friends.
Technically, Burgoyne won as the Americans eventually retreated to Bemis Heights, but the losses the British suffered were devastating. Had Gates gotten off his duff and followed up, the Battle of Saratoga would have ended in an American victory then and there.
However, the battle left the Americans in disarray. Burgoyne's subordinates urged him to attack Bemis Heights the next day, but he sat too.
On October 7, 1777, the British finally attacked Bemis Heights. The Americans held their fire as the British futilely attacked, then charged the British -- led again by Benedict Arnold. While British casualties were high, Arnold nearly lost his leg. It cost him his combat command, and likely led to his being passed over to promotion to major general, which later led to his flipping sides in 1780. Of course, Washington caught wind of Arnold's defection and had his army chase him down. As Arnold (who escaped) fled, he asked a British companion what the Americans would do to him if caught. The Brotish soldier said, "They will cut off the leg which was wounded when you were fighting so gloriously for the cause of liberty, and bury it with the honors of war, and hang the rest of your body on a gibbet."
That sort of happened. In 1887, Civil War General John Watts de Peyster paid for the Boot Monument, which now stands at the Saratoga National Historical Park, New York.
The Battle of Bemis Heights devastated the British Army and on October 16, 1777, Burgoyne finally surrendered.
The victory should have made heroes of Arnold and Morgan, but Gates and others hogged the credit. Gates was tempted to try to oust Washington as commander-in-chief. If Washington had hard feelings, he did not really show them, and sent Gates in 1780 to head the Southern Command. That resulted in the Battle of Camden catastrophe on August 16, 1780, in which Gates showed considerable talent in retreating 170 miles north in just three days.
The great victory eased the pain of the British ousting Congress from Philadelphia. A grateful Continental Congress issued its proclamation:
Forasmuch as it is the indispensable duty of all men to adore the superintending providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with gratitude their obligation to him for benefits received, and to implore such farther blessings as they stand in need of; and it having pleased him in his abundant mercy not only to continue to us the innumerable bounties of his common providence, but also smile upon us in the prosecution of a just and necessary war, for the defense and establishment of our unalienable rights and liberties; particularly in that he hath been pleased in so great a measure to prosper the means used for the support of our troops and to crown our arms with most signal success:
It is therefore recommended to the legislative or executive powers of these United States, to set apart Thursday, the 18th day of December next, for solemn thanksgiving and praise; that with one heart and one voice the good people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts, and consecrate themselves to the service of their divine benefactor; and that together with their sincere acknowledgments and offerings, they may join the penitent confession of their manifold sins, whereby they had forfeited every favor, and their humble and earnest supplication that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance; that it may please him graciously to afford his blessings on the governments of these states respectively, and prosper the public council of the whole; to inspire our commanders both by land and sea, and all under them, with that wisdom and fortitude which may render them fit instruments, under the providence of Almighty God, to secure for these United States the greatest of all blessings, independence and peace; that it may please him to prosper the trade and manufactures of the people and the labor of the husbandman, that our land may yield its increase; to take schools and seminaries of education, so necessary for cultivating the principles of true liberty, virtue and piety, under his nurturing hand, and to prosper the means of religion for the promotion and enlargement of that kingdom which consisteth in righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.
And it is further recommended, that servile labor, and such recreation as, though at other times innocent, may be unbecoming the purpose of this appointment, be omitted on so solemn an occasion.We should all thank God for that precious victory at Saratoga won by brave men commanded by even braver men.
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