November 10, 2023 at 8:21 a.m.
We're still two weeks away from Thanksgiving; but in Canada, they celebrate Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October. One of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the United States actually occurred in December. It's the major part of this article, another in the series from the DAR & SAR leading up to the celebration of America's 250th birthday in 2026.
Saratoga, Thanksgiving and the French Alliance
Complied by Jennifer Baker, DAR Vesuvius Furnace Chapter
The Battle of Saratoga occurred in September and October of 1777, during the second year of the American Revolution. It included two crucial battles, fought eighteen days apart, and was a decisive victory for the Continental Army and a crucial turning point in the Revolutionary War. After a failed Canadian invasion known as the Battle of Quebec (December 1775 - May 1776) left much of the Continental Army beaten, sick and in retreat, the British hoped to quash the rebellion once and for all by isolating the New England colonies from the other American colonies.
They also hoped to discourage potential American allies such as France from joining the fight. To accomplish this, the British Redcoats needed to take upstate New York and control the Hudson River. In the spring of 1777, the British ordered three of their armies to merge in Albany, New York. Only one army, however, commanded by General John Burgoyne, made the final push to its destination. Waiting for them was the heavily fortified Northern Department of the Continental Army, commanded by General Horatio Gates.
In the summer of 1777, General Burgoyne led an army of 8,000 men south through New York in an effort to join forces with British General Sir William Howe’s troops along the Hudson River. After capturing several forts, Burgoyne’s force camped near Saratoga while a larger Patriot army under General Gates gathered just four miles away. On September 19th, a British advance column marched out and engaged the Patriot force at the Battle of Freeman’s Farm, or the First Battle of Saratoga. Momentum changed sides several times, but neither side gained significant ground until Burgoyne ordered his column of German troops to support the faltering British line and forced the Americans to pull back. Still, the British suffered twice the number of casualties than the Americans and couldn’t continue their drive to Albany. Failing to break through the American lines, Burgoyne’s force retreated.
On October 7th, another British reconnaissance force was repulsed by an American force under General Benedict Arnold in the Battle of Bemis Heights, also known as the Second Battle of Saratoga. With supplies dwindling fast, Burgoyne realized waiting for backup was in vain. He sent out a reconnaissance force to attack the Americans' left flank in the wooded area of Bemis Heights, south of Saratoga. The Americans got wind of the movement, however, and forced the British to withdraw. Burgoyne decided to take his army north to safety, but heavy rain and frigid temperatures slowed their retreat. Within two days, Gates’ soldiers surrounded what remained of Burgoyne’s army. Supporting the Patriot cause was Colonel Thaddeus Kosciusko, a Polish engineer who built strong field fortifications on Bemis Heights overlooking the Hudson River.
Burgoyne retreated north to the village of Saratoga with his surviving troops. By October 13th, some 20,000 Americans had surrounded the British, and four days later Burgoyne was forced to agree to the first large-scale surrender of British forces in the Revolutionary War. British general and playwright John Burgoyne surrendered more than 5,000 British and Hessian troops to American General Horatio Gates at Saratoga, New York, on October 17, 1777.
Burgoyne successfully negotiated that his surviving men would be returned to Britain by pledging that they would never again serve in North America. The nearly 6,000-man army was kept in captivity at great expense to the Continental Congress until the end of the war.
Soon after word of the Patriot victory at Saratoga reached France, King Louis XVI agreed to recognize the independence of the United States and French Foreign Minister Charles Gravier, Count de Vergennes, made arrangements with US Ambassador Benjamin Franklin to begin providing formal French aid to the Patriot cause. This assistance was crucial to the eventual American victory in the Revolutionary War. To celebrate the American victory at Saratoga, the Continental Congress issued a proclamation for a national day "for solemn Thanksgiving and praise," the first official holiday observance with that name.
Declared to commemorate the American victory at Saratoga, Congress recommended "to the legislative or executive powers" that 18 December 1777 be set aside for "solemn thanksgiving and praise.” The text, believed largely the work of Samuel Adams, opened: “Forasmuch as it is the indispensable duty of all men to adore the superintending providence of Almighty God … and it having pleased him in his abundant mercy not only to continue to us the innumerable bounties of his common providence, but also to smile upon us in the prosecution of a just and necessary war, for the defence 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."
After setting the 18th of December as the day of observance, the resolution continues with the intent "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 favour, 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." Congress hoped that God would bless "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 human blessings, independence and peace; that it may please him to prosper the trade and manufactures of the people and the labour of the husbandman, that our land may yet 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.'" Congress recommended further "that servile labor, and such recreation as thought at other times innocent, may be unbecoming the purpose of this appointment, may be omitted on so solemn an occasion."
Below the printed signature of Henry Laurens, who had been elected as President of the Continental Congress the morning of November 1st, appears a resolution of the State of Massachusetts, dated 21 November 1777, adopting the recommendation of the Continental Congress, and calling "upon Ministers and People of every denomination, religiously to observe the said day accordingly." Signed in print by Jeremiah Powell and fourteen others, it closes with: "GOD SAVE THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA!"
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