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Christmas During the Civil War


   

As the war dragged on, deprivation replaced bounteous repasts and familiar faces were missing from the family dinner table. Soldiers used to "bringing in the tree" and caroling in church were instead scavenging for firewood and singing drinking songs around the campfire. And so the holiday celebration most associated with family and home was a contradiction. It was a joyful, sad, religious, boisterous, and subdued event.

Corporal J. C. Williams, Co. B, 14th Vermont Infantry, December 25, 1862:

"This is Christmas, and my mind wanders back to that home made lonesome by my absence, while far away from the peace and quietude of civil life to undergo the hardships of the camp, and may be the battle field. I think of the many lives that are endangered, and hope that the time will soon come when peace, with its innumerable blessings, shall once more restore our country to happiness and prosperity."

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Gilbert J. Barton, Company I of Charlotte, recorded some of the hardships of camp that day:

"Dec 25th Christmas. Had hard Tack soaked in cold water and then fried in pork Greece [sic]. Fried in a canteen, split into[sic] by putting into the fire & melting the sodder[sic] off. We pick them up on the field left by other soldiers, also had coffee & pork. Ordered up at 5 this morning with guns ready, as it is reported that there are 400 Rebel Cavalry not far off prowling around. Foggy morning."

* * * * *

Robert Gould Shaw, then a 2nd lieutenant in the 2d Massachusetts Infantry, writes in 1861, about guard duty near Frederick, MD. He would later earn fame as the commander of the heroic African American unit, the 54th Massachusetts.

"It is Christmas morning and I hope a happy and merry one for you all, though it looks so stormy for our poor country, one can hardly be in merry humor."

* * * * *

On December 24, 1861, Captain Robert Goldthwaite Carter of the 22nd Mass. Vol. Inf. 4th U.S. Cavalry wrote: 

 "Christmas Eve, and I am on duty as officer of the day, but I am not on duty to-morrow.  As much as I desire to see you all, I would not leave my company alone...I give my company a Christmas dinner to-morrow, consisting of turkey, oysters, pies, apples, etc.; no liquors."

* * * * *

John H. Brinton, a Major and Surgeon U.S.V. wrote:

"During the days preceding Christmas, I received some boxes from home, full of nice comfortable things, and the letter which came to me at that time, you may be sure, made me feel homesick.  On Christmas night, I left for St. Louis as my teeth were troubling me, and greatly in need of the services of a dentist.  I was fortunate in finding a good one, and in a day or two the necessary repairs were made."

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From the diary of Private Robert A. Moore, a Confederate soldier:

Tuesday, Dec 24th, 1861, camp near Swan's...

"This is Christmas Eve but seems but little like it to me"

Wednesday, Dec. 25th, 1861, camp near Swan's...

"This is Christmas & and very dull Christmas it has been to me.  Had an egg-nog to-night but did not enjoy it much as we had no ladies to share it with us."

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One of the dreariest accounts of Christmas during the Civil War came from Lt. Col. Frederic Cavada, captured at Gettysburg and writing about Christmas 1863 in Libby Prison in Richmond:

"The north wind comes reeling in fitful gushes through the iron bars, and jingles a sleighbell in the prisoner's ear, and puffs in his pale face with a breath suggestively odorous of eggnog...."

"...Christmas Day! A day which was made for smiles, not sighs - for laughter, not tears - for the hearth, not prison."

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From the diary of Robert Watson of Key West, Florida.

December 25, 1863 at Dalton, Georgia after action at Chickamauga

"Christmas day and a very dull one but I find a tolerable good dinner.  I had one drink of whiskey in the morning.  There was some serenading last night but I took no part in it for I did not feel merry as my thoughts were of home..."

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From "Diary of An Enlisted Man" by Lawrence VanAlstyne
2nd Lieutenant, 90th United Sates Colored Infantry
December 24, 1863

"As to-morrow is Christmas we went out and made such purchases of good things as our purses would allow, and these we turned over to George and Henry, for safe keeping and for cooking on the morrow."

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After a miserable Holiday, Levi McCormick wrote in a letter to his wife:

Dec 27th 1864
Camp 4th Del Vol 3 Brg 2 Dev 3 Corps

Dear  wife  I will send you a few lines stating how we are  I have bin down with the diarier for about a weak  it has bin the most sevear that I hav ever ha but I feel better to day & I hav washed all of my cloaths & I borrowed some cloathes while mine are drying  I cant write you mutch this time but if I keep wel I will try and write you a interesting leter some of those days  we hav got houses built up wonce more but Christmas was a very dul day hear  we have not had it yet but the war news is good  we have had a despatch from G Shairman  he has done more than we could of asked of him  I hope this will find you all wel  Samey is not very wel  he had a cold  we hav bin very mutch exposed but I dont want to write about   You can sea the reason why I hav not wrote  I send my love to all from you ever true and loving Husband

Levi McCormick
good by
send on your box

* * * * *

In a letter to his sister Anna Simpson, Tally Simpson wrote:

"December 25th

My dear sister,

This is Christmas Day.  The sun shines feeble through a thin cloud, the air is mild and pleasant, a gentle breeze is making music through the leaves of the lofty pines that stand near our bivouac.  All is quiet and still and that very stillness recalls some sad and painful thoughts.  The day, one year ago, how many thousand families, gay and joyous, celebrating Merry Christmas, drinking health to absent members of their family and sending upon the wings of love and affection long, deep, and sincere wishes for their safe return to the loving ones at home, but today are clad in the deepest mourning in memory to some lost and loved member of their circle..."

"When will this war end?  Will another Christmas roll around and find us all wintering in camp?  Oh! That peace may soon be restored to our young but dearly beloved country and that we may all meet again in happiness."  

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From the Civil War diary of General Josiah Gorgas - 1864:

"December 26th  A despondent Christmas has just passed, yet people contrived to eat hearty and good Christmas dinners.  The soldier unfortunately have not even meat, and have had none for several days.  The Commissary General has singlely failed in his duties; while there is plenty of food in Georgia there is none here.  There is no sufficient excuse for this.  The food must be brought here, and the means to so provided and organized.."

* * * * *

Jasper Cockerham wrote the following letter to his niece his niece:

Camp near Dinwiddie Court House
December 26, 1864

Dear Martha,

Your letter came to hand a few days since and I am now seated to answer.  I have but little news times is very dull out here yesterday was the most quiet day we have had for some time.  The soldiers all look sad and lonely.  We have nothing spiritual or refreshing in camp.  Have not see one case of intoxification during our Christmas holiday.  All is calm on the lines in front of Petersburg and Richmond, except some little picket firing on Saturday night.  I have a splendid cain and am living quite comfortable at present.  Rations are rather scanty...

Yours affectionatly,
Jasper

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James Holloway, writing from Dranesville, VA tells his family that same Christmas:

"You have no idea how lonesome I feel this day. It's the first time in my life I'm away from loved ones at home."

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Johnny Green, of the 4th Kentucky's Orphan Brigade, expressed this sentiment:

"Peace on Earth, Good will to men should prevail. We certainly would preserve the peace if they would go home and let us alone..."

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Christmas 1864: Many units were on the march, either trying to evade capture or pursuing the opponent for better position. Soldiers left in the squalid conditions of prison camps spent the day remembering holidays at home, as did others in slightly more comfortable settings. Confederate General Gordon, writing from his headquarters near Petersburg, wrote of fighting famine as well as General Grant:

"The one worn-out railroad running to the far South could not bring us half enough necessary supplies: and even if it could have transported Christmas boxes of good things, the people at home were too depleted to send them."

* * * * *

By late 1865 the country was starting to reunite as the horrors of war and the shock of Lincoln's assassination faded into memory. That December brought the first peacetimeChristmas in five years. Most soldiers had been mustered out of the military and were home to celebrate the holiday with their families. Of course, many others had never returned home. Harper’s published a poem titled "By the Christmas Hearth" that was more in line with the nation's hopeful spirit of reunification. The last stanza especially captures the cheerful holiday mood and eagerness of the American people to put the turbulent conflict behind them:

Bring holly, rich with berries red,
And bring the sacred mistletoe;
Fill high each glass, and let hearts
With kindliest feelings flow;
So sweet it seems at home once more
To sit with those we hold most dear,
And keep absence once again
To keep the Merry Christmas here.


Sources

A Drummer Boy's Diary

"Life in Camp" by J.C. Williams

Twenty-Second Voluntary Infantry

Ought It Not Be a Merry Christmas?

Christmas At The Time Of The Civil War

Civil War Diary of CSA General Josiah Gorgas

December 1998 Civil War Times by Kevin Rawlings

"The Diary of an Enlisted Man" by Lawerence Van Alstyne

"A Life for the Confederacy" (Diary of Pvt. Robert A. Moore)

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