Two weeks after the disastrous Union defeat at 1st Bull Run, Congress requested and Lincoln proclaimed a national Fast Day. Fast Days had been declared from time to time since the early colonial times, especially in New England, where a Fast Day in April remained a legal Holiday in New Hampshire until the early 1990s. The predecessor of our Thanksgiving holiday, Fast Days were meant to be solemn, distinctly religious affairs and were often called in times of great crisis and trial. Much of what you will find about it on-line comes from those not unduly troubled by the separation of church and state.
The 36th Congress requested that Lincoln establish this Fast Day as "a day of public humiliation, prayer and fasting, to be observed by the people of the United States with religious solemnities, and the offering of fervent supplications to Almighty God for the safety and welfare of these States, His blessings on their arms, and a speedy restoration of peace."
At school in Blue Hill Maine, James Elijah Tinker set down his thoughts about the institution of Fast Day and the significance of this one in particular.
"Fast Day 26 Sept. 1861
Fast Day is a time-honored custom; in truth, it has grown to be an established institution. It generally comes regularly, after stated intervals, and has become so customary that the Governor who should fail to appoint and request the observance of it would be considered negligent and insensible to his duties.
Perhaps it might be so. But when it comes, who thinks of observing the true principles of the day by fasting? We may say in truth there is scarcely any one. 'Tis true, they may humble themselves before God in prayer, or chant to Him their songs of praise, and thus perform the high duties devolving to upon them as Christians and citizens of an enlightened nation, bu they fail to recognize the day as particularly a day of fasting and prayer, yes fasting with prayer, and rather make it a day of thanksgiving and feasting."
It is an intriguing distinction that Tinker makes between the "harvest home" and consumption of Thanksgiving and the devout and prayerful act of fasting. That other great secularized religious holiday, Christmas, was not observed in Puritan New England and one can only wonder what this pious youth from Maine made of Victorian America's embrace of Father Christmas and all the rest of the trappings of the season with which Christmas was henceforth festooned.
In a breathless and uninterrupted paragraph, Tinker then lays out what is at stake, and also lays blame for the great calamity which has befallen the nation. He is unsparing in his condemnation of the rebellion but also alludes to the North's complicity in allowing slavery to continue; "And when we come out of the trial, may we be cleansed from that sin of which we have been so long guilty, and which is the loathing of all civilized and Christianized nations."
"A nation, looked to by the civilized world as the embodiment of happiness and prosperity, a government founded on the principles of justice and freedom - though it proved but partial freedom - and considered the best on earth; a country which, when other empires had risen and stood for centuries, and then fallen - when monarchies were crumbling to dust with rottenness and age - was undiscovered by the eyes, and uncultivated by the hands of the civilized world; a land of untold wealth and resources, capable of sustaining a countless multitudes of happy and prosperous people; a republic based on the will of the people, which in its weakness and infancy had defied the most powerful nation on the globe, and now, in an almost incredibly short period of time, having risen to the proud preeminence herself; so suddenly hurled upon the brink of destruction, and plunged into a frightful civil war, as revengeful and vindictive as was that of ancient Peloponnesus (sp). Brother is fighting against brother, and kindred against kindred - who can behold the spectacle and not blush with shame that this should have been in the nineteenth century, an age of the world never before surpassed in intelligence, or by a more enlightened and Christianized people.
But surely Christianity has forsaken them, and even humanity, who will thus wage a cruel warfare without cause, without reason, upon a nation which had hitherto enjoyed, they in common with all, that boon of which we can never be too proud, the blessing of peace. A more wicked, more causeless war, could scarcely be imagined, and most certainly will the wrath of a just God be visited upon them, if they do not turn back to their allegiance, and cease their iniquitous purposes."
It outraged this frugal New Englander that the South would sacrifice all the gains which American civilization had made and pull down the roof that sheltered them all, yet Tinker saw the crisis in religious as well as material terms. He was not alone in these sentiments, and it is instructive for modern critics of Federal war policy during the early stages of the conflict to realize how powerful the desire for re-Union was for many in the North. One does not wage total war when there is hope, however misplaced, for reconciliation.
There is something sad and sweet in the image of a nation at war asking for forgiveness as well as deliverance. Bull Run, rather than Fort Sumter, was the Civil War's Pearl Harbor, or 9/11 if you will: a wake up call that the rebellion would not be put down quickly, that the volunteer regiments and Union army commanders were woefully unprepared to meet the challenges they would be required to face to see the thing through.
Lincoln's 1861 Fast Day was a familiar comfort and source of strength in that religious age for a nation in peril. He declared another Fast Day in March 1863, but fortunes changed and later that year he declared a National day of Thanksgiving instead, setting the precedent for our modern celebration of the blessings of the season on the 4th Thursday in November. Fast Days faded from fashion in the decades after the Civil War, lingering on in New England as secular holidays, which doubtless would have irked James Tinker had he lived. As it was, James Tinker did not celebrate Lincoln's National Day of Thanksgiving. The earnest scholar from Maine died of disease in September, 1863 in the Washington defenses with the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery.