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Thursday, November 25, 2004; Page A42

WHAT MIGHT BE called the first modern Thanksgiving -- one much like the one we celebrate today -- was observed 140 years ago this week. Abraham Lincoln had issued a proclamation of thanksgiving the previous year, in 1863, but too late for a large segment of the population -- the soldiers in the field -- to have a proper feast. In his proclamation for 1864, the president said, "It has pleased Almighty God to prolong our national life another year," and he went on to speak of our "free population" having been augmented "by emancipation and by immigration," of "new sources of wealth" being opened up to us and of the crowning of "the labor of our working men in every department of industry with abundant awards."

And, of course, unmentioned but hanging over that day, just as it does over this one, was the pall of distant smoke and fire and the gnawing fear that many families live with in time of war, day after day, when one of their number is far away and in danger. By Thanksgiving Day 1864 the war dead and wounded numbered in the hundreds of thousands, and yet that same month the Union's soldiers cast a decisive vote to continue the fight until the awful thing was done. A sizable number of their fellow voters had had enough by then, and even today their views, and votes, can be defended when we look back on the horrors that were yet to come after that Thanksgiving. In just about every conflict, it becomes clear to most people, sooner or later, that there really is no such thing as a good war. The argument over whether one should be fought is never settled, and shouldn't be.

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And yet even so there was and is unity on certain things. "We desire that on the twenty-fourth day of November there shall be no soldier in the Army of the Potomac, the James, the Shenandoah, and no sailor in the North Atlantic Squadron who does not receive tangible evidence that those for whom he is periling his life, remember him," said the Union Club of New York, in an appeal to the country. "We ask primarily for donations of cooked poultry and other proper meats, as well as for mince pies, sausages and fruits. . . . To those who are unable to send donations in kind, we appeal for generous contributions in money." (Thanks, by the way, to the Pilgrim Hall Museum, which disseminates these Thanksgiving documents.)

The call brought in a huge amount of food, enough to feed an army, and it evoked this grateful response from a captain in the Army of the Shenandoah: "The want of proper appliances compelled most of the men to broil or stew their turkeys, but everyone seemed fully satisfied, and appreciated the signifi- cance of this sympathetic thank-offering from the loyal North. One soldier said to me, 'It isn't the turkey, but the idea that we care for.' "

Such gratitude is moving, coming from those to whom so much more of it is owed. Then as now, it's a thing to wonder over, and be thankful for.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company