As we come to the week leading up to one of our biggest holidays, I want to talk about our very first official national Thanksgiving in the United States of America, 1777.
We were mid-war for Independence and Democracy.
It was cold. One in 4 of the 11,000 men in the fight for freedom was barefoot which led their leader, George Washington, to offer a $10 reward for the best design of a substitute for shoes.
They were on the road to Valley Forge, the deeply rutted, frozen road brutal for the more than 2,000 soldiers whose sensitive feet took each step in sheer barefoot agony. A biting wind stung them with freezing rain.
Lieutenant Colonel Henry Dearborn wrote of the bloody footprints they left on this day, “Hundreds of my companions might be tracked by their blood on the rough, frozen ground”.
The troops had not been paid since August, rations were short.
Joseph Plumb Martin, a Private from Massachusetts, wrote about the first Thanksgiving in his memoir entitled, A Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Danger and Suffering of a Revolutionary Soldier, Interspersed with Anecdotes of Incidents that Occurred Within His Own Observation.
Martin writes, “While we lay here there was a Continental Thanksgiving ordered by Congress, and as the army had all the cause in the world to be particularly thankful, if not for being well off, at least that it was no worse, we were ordered to participate in it. We had nothing to eat for two or three days previous … But we must now have what Congress said, a sumptuous Thanksgiving … Well, to add something extraordinary … our country, every mindful of its suffering army, opened her sympathizing heart so wide, upon this occasion, as to give us something to make the world stare. And what do you think it was, dear reader? Guess. You cannot guess, be you as much of a Yankee as you will. I will tell you; it gave each man four ounces of rice and a tablespoonful of vinegar!!”
Imagine celebrating Thanksgiving with 4 ounces of rice and vinegar. They supplemented this with “bread cakes” made from flour mixed with water, cooked on hot rocks.
And yet, their morale was described as “merry” by all who wrote about it later.
That’s leadership. How did George Washington do it?
The word Leadership means to cause to follow. I’ve made an observation that in the presence of great leadership, people don’t follow a person, they follow an idea. They have confidence that this person can move civilization forward and cause that idea to become reality.
Great leaders, the ones who make history, are the ones who lead others to greater freedom. The idea George symbolized, and that they had confidence he would make real if they followed him, was that, for the first time since ancient Greece, people could be free to govern themselves. That they could pursue happiness on their own terms.
In his orders to the troops the day before Thanksgiving, Washington wrote he had confidence that this freezing, tattered, hungry army would, “with one heart and one mind resolve to surmount every difficulty with a fortitude and a patience, becoming their profession, and the sacred cause in which we are engaged.” He added that he himself would, “share in the hardship and partake of every inconvenience” and he too slept on the frozen ground that night.
Freedom is a sacred cause. I am extremely grateful to honor this group of men who maintained a merry spirit, despite the most horrific of hardships, to shape the soul of a nation born of freedom, where I am free to pursue life, liberty and happiness.
Happy Thanksgiving to all of them! And too you as well. I trust you have much more than 4 ounces of rice and a tablespoon of vinegar with which to celebrate! And I hope you have much to be thankful for.