The Civil War was the bloodiest war in American History. The horrors of war cannot be overstated. However, war did not stop Christmas from being celebrated. For some, the holiday brought joy and hope. For others, it was a reminder of what and who was lost. In this article, we will take a look at Christmas during the Civil War and see how the holiday impacted those of the Civil War era.
A Joyous Day
Even with the war raging, many soldiers tried to find ways to celebrate and many of the men and women of the Civil War era participated in many of the same traditions that we do today. Alfred Bellard, a soldier in the 5th New Jersey, wrote, “In order to make it look much like Christmas as possible, a small tree was stuck up in front of our tent, decked off with hard tack and pork, in lieu of cakes and orgenes, etc.” A soldier in the 17th Maine, John Haley, wrote, “It is rumored that there are sundry boxes and mysterious parcels over at Stoneman’s Station directed to us. We retire with feelings akin to those of children expecting Santa Claus.”
Soldiers exchanged gifts, ate and drank, and rested. James A. Wright of the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry wrote, “The men had been allowed as much liberty as consistent with discipline and were ‘circulating around’ among their acquaintances in other regiments. I was frequently invited to ‘smile…’” A member of the 5th New Hampshire, Charles N. Scott wrote, “We are goin to keep Christmas and we are goin to have a little funn tomorrow. We are goin to have some rassslin and running and jumping and then we are goin to have gressed pig. There is 4 dollars for the best rassler and two dollars for the second best and fore dollars for the best jumper and two for the secon best.”
Julia Johnson Fisher of Georgia wrote, “On Christmas day, we fared sumptuously. Mrs. Lynn dined with us and furnished the turkey. We had some chickens and a piece of fresh pork. Gussie had been off ten miles and brought oysters – so we had an oyster stew and chicken salad, minus the greens, potatoes and rice. The turkey was dressed with corn bread. Our dessert was a corn meal pudding… how we did relish it! We are always hungry – hungry the year round, but do not grow fat.”
On the opposite side of the fighting, a Confederate prisoner of war wrote, “A friend had sent me in a package a bottle of old brandy. On Christmas morning I quietly called several comrades up to my bunk to taste the precious fluid of…DISAPPOINTMENT! THe bottle had been opened outside, the brandy taken and replaced with water…and sent in. I hope the Yankee who played that practical joke lived to repent it and was shot before the war ended.”
A Blue Christmas
However, Christmas was not all joy. In the South, parents informed their children that Santa may not be able to visit their house because of the Northern blockade. Soldiers who were suffering in the cold of winter remembered the joys of being home. Robert Gould Shaw wrote, “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.” Sallie Brock Putnam, a Richmond resident wrote, “Never before had so sad a Christmas dawned upon us…We had neither the heart nor inclination to make the week merry with joyousness when such a sad calamity hovered over us.”
Nathaniel Dawson, a Confederate soldier, wrote to his future wife, Elodie Todd, and said, “I wish I could be with you at Christmas, the festival season, where age is rejuvenated and lives again in the merry carols of youth. Bad whiskey is abundant and pleasure and sorrow drowned in large potations.”
James Holloway, a member of the 18th Mississippi, wrote, “You have no idea how lonesome I feel this day… I presume you are in New Orleans and in a few hours the house will be astir – the children crazy over their stockings. Were I there, I’d fill them up to the brim with bon-bons – I’d make them think for one day that plenty abounded, that no war existed, and that each was a King or Queen.”
Lucy Buck of Virginia wrote, “I cannot but feel a little sad this morning for my thoughts continually revert to those dear absent brothers who were wont to share our Christmas cheer and gladden the hours of this festive season for us. Poor boys! I wonder if they think of the blazing hearthstone at old Bel Air [the family home] and wish for a place in the home-circle. I think of it all and sicken when I think.”
Fredericksburg celebrated a bleak holiday, having just seen some of the worst fighting of the Civil War. Savannah was presented to Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas present. For the citizens of these cities, the joy and fun of Christmas was dampened and the horrors of war were made apparent.