But there was more than just feasting and festivities for Thanksgiving Day that year. Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton, Military Governor, Department of the South, issued a “Proclamation, for a day of Public Thanksgiving and Praise”:
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 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 freedmen 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.
This proclamation was pure Rufus Saxton. We don’t remember Saxton for his military deeds (though, there was much that a casual observer overlooks…). Rather we remember his role with the freedmen. Indeed, Saxton should rightly be seen as the architect of “forty acres and a mule.” It is not hard to take this Thanksgiving proclamation and logically walk over to Sherman’s Special Field Orders No. 15.
All of which brings me to that last sentence. I will often trim out the flourishes and such to focus on the important parts of the text. But that line is significant, considering some events taking place here in 2016. Saxton issued this Thanksgiving for freedom (still weeks ahead of the Emancipation Proclamation, mind you) from Beaufort, South Carolina. And Beaufort is in the news these days as an effort to designate sites in that area as a national monument, with focus on Reconstruction.
Beaufort would be a good selection for a Reconstruction-focused national monument. There is a story to be told. My hope is that, for full understanding of that story, the complete arc from Civil War to Civil Rights is explored within the scope of such a monument. Saxton’s proclamation and many more of his efforts deserve mention as part of that story.