City of Alexandria, VA
Page updated Apr 3, 2012 10:51 AM
"Ought it not be a Merry Christmas?"
For a nation torn by civil war, Christmas in the 1860s was observed with conflicting emotions. Nineteenth-century Americans embraced Christmas with all the Victorian trappings that had moved the holiday from the private and religious realm to a public celebration. Christmas cards were in vogue, carol singing was common in public venues, and greenery festooned communities north and south. Christmas trees stood in places of honor in many homes, and a mirthful poem about the jolly old elf who delivered toys to well-behaved children captivated Americans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.
But Christmas also made the heartache for lost loved ones more acute. As the Civil 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.
Before the war
Many of the holiday customs we associate with Christmas today were familiar to 1840s celebrants. Christmas cards were popularized that decade and Christmas trees were a stylish addition to the parlor. By the 1850s, Americans were singing "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem," and "Away in a Manger" in public settings. In 1850 and 1860, Godey's Lady's Book featured Queen Victoria's tabletop Christmas tree, placed there by her German husband Prince Albert. Closer to home, in December, 1853, Robert E. Lee's daughter recorded in her diary that her father - then superintendent at West Point - possessed an evergreen tree decorated with dried and sugared fruit, popcorn, ribbon, spun glass ornaments, and silver foil.
Clement Clarke Moore, a religious scholar who for decades was too embarrassed to claim authorship of the 1822 poem, "A Visit From St. Nicholas," was now well-known for his tribute to Santa Claus. "Santa Claus" made his first public appearance in a Philadelphia department store in 1849, marking the advent of holiday commercialism.
For enslaved African Americans, the Christmas season often meant a mighty bustle of cooking, housekeeping, and other chores. "Reward" for these efforts was a suspension of duties for a day or two and the opportunity for singing, dancing, and possible brief reunions with separated family members. Further gestures of "goodwill" by masters who saw themselves as benevolent owners were small and the semi-annual clothing allotment.
By 1860, many worried about civil unrest, fearful this Christmas would be the last before the outbreak of war. An Arkansas diarist writes:
Events proceeded quickly in 1861, hastening war. Abraham Lincoln became the 16th president of the United States in March and the bombardment of Fort Sumter occurred in April. Southern states seceded and the Confederates claimed their first major victory at the first battle of Manassas. For the shopkeeper or farm boy or student away from home for Christmas the first time, melancholy set in.
Robert Gould Shaw, then a 2nd lieutenant in the 2d Massachusetts Infantry, writes about guard duty near Frederick, MD. He would later earn fame as the commander of the heroic African American unit, the 54th Massachusetts.
James Holloway, writing from Dranesville, VA tells his family that Christmas:
On the civilian front, Sallie Brock Putnam describes Christmas, 1861 in Richmond, VA.
Yet Christmas 1861 also saw soldiers full of bravado, still relatively well fed and equipped, and eagerly anticipating Christmas boxes of treats from home. Often officers authorized extra rations of spirits and men engaged in greased pig-catching contests, footraces, jumping matches, and impromptu pageants dressed as women. Soldiers erected small evergreen trees strung with hardtack and pork. Some were excused from drills, although other references point to the need to haul logs and forage for firewood no matter what day of the year it was.
This sad year brought forth the war's impact full force with battles at Shiloh, Manassas, and Antietam, and campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley and the Peninsula. Many Fredericksburg, Virginia citizens were homeless or fled their town just prior to Christmas.
Harper's Weekly illustrator Thomas Nast, a staunch Unionist, is now depicting Santa Claus entertaining Federal soldiers by showing them Jefferson Davis with a cord around his neck. Abraham Lincoln would later refer to a politicized Santa as "the best recruiting sergeant the North ever had." More moderate illustrations show soldiers decorating camps with greens and firing salutes to Santa. Ironically, it was Nast who fixed Santa's home and toy workshop address at the "North Pole" "so no nation can claim him as their own."
Officers of the 20th Tennessee gave their men a barrel of whisky to mark the day. "We had many a drunken fight and knock-down before the day closed," wrote one participant. But there were other more somber occurrences recorded for Christmas 1862. One account tells of soldiers being forced to witness an execution for desertion and another grim letter describes how men firing their weapons in a funeral salute were mistakenly punished for unauthorized holiday merrymaking.
This year saw the battles of Gettysburg and Vickburg and the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. Thomas Nast portrayed Santa Claus in a patriotic uniform, distributing to Yankee soldiers to raise their morale. Southern parents were gently preparing their children that Santa Claus may not "make it through the blockade" to deliver presents this year. Harper's Weekly depicted a tender reunion scene of a soldier husband and father briefly reunited with his family during furlough.
Holiday boxes and barrels from home containing food, clothing and small articles of comfort were highly anticipated by soldier recipients. Depending on their duty assignment, Christmas dinner may have consisted of only crackers, hard tack, rice, beans and a casting of lots for a single piece of beef too small to divide. Those lucky enough to receive boxes from home could supplement a meager meal with turkey, oysters, potatoes, ham, cabbage, eggnog, cranberries and fruitcake.
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:
He described a makeshift dinner set on a tea towel-covered box. Each prisoner brought his own knife and fork and drank "Eau de James" (water from the nearby James River.) Cavada reported he combed his hair for the occasion and further related that the prisoners staged a "ball" with a "great eal of bad dancing" during which hats were crushed and trousers torn. Sentries called "lights out" at 9 p.m.
The final wartime Christmas came as the Confederacy floundered, Lee's Army behind entrenchments in Petersburg and Richmond. Abraham Lincoln received a most unusual holiday - the city of Savannah, GA - presented by General William Tecumseh Sherman via telegram. Union and Confederate sympathizers were hoping this Christmas would be the last at conflict.
Johnny Green, of the 4th Kentucky's Orphan Brigade, expressed this sentiment:
Green further reports he and his comrades received an unexpected and very welcome holiday:
Holiday season charity was not forgotten this year. On Christmas Day, 90 Michigan men and their captain loaded up wagons with food and supplies and distributed them to destitute civilians in the Georgia countryside. The Union "Santa Clauses" tied tree branches to the heads of the mule teams to resemble reindeer.
Many other units, however, 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:
His wife, who was with him at headquarters, presented him with a most precious treat for Christmas 1864 - "real" coffee brought from home 'to celebrate our victories in the first years and to sustain us in defeat at the last.'
Moods were more bouyant in Washington and New York, where celebrants supped on substantial feasts and attended the theatre.
After the War
The events of 1865 again influenced holiday celebrations. President Lincoln's assassination shocked the nation, but by mid-summer, the conspirators were hung or imprisoned for lengthy terms. War was ended and many soldiers had been mustered out of service. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution became law on December 18, 1865, abolishing the institution of slavery. Soldiers and civilians alike were ready to reunite with their families and again embrace Victorian holiday customs.
At the end of hostilities, commerce once again flowed southward, and goods filled Northern shops. Long-held holiday traditions were re-introduced, as ornamental greens and trees filled the markets and toys and other items went on display. Newspaper illustrations were of domestic and wintry scenes.
The final verse of a poem By the Christmas Hearth published in the Christmas edition of Harper's Weekly reflected the sentiments of many: