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Saturday, December 1, 2018

Civil War Christmas Overview

When the United States became disunited in the Civil War, four Christmases were affected. 

The same day this is posted I will bring back my reenactment of Liberetta Lerich Green to talk about her family and, especially, about her brothers Isaac and William who were in the Fighting Fifth and the Third Infantry during the war. 

Wikipedia's article, Christmas in the American Civil War makes a good overview.  Beyond that, this brief summary comes from Civil War Saga's "Christmas during the Civil War" by Rebecca Beatrice Brooks.  She talks about both the homefront and the soldiers themselves.  I particularly appreciate her mention of the soldiers  "decorating their camp Christmas trees with hard-tack and salt-pork and singing carols such as 'Come All Ye Faithful' and 'Silent Night.' ” I also note her mention of some special dinners for "especially Union soldiers in the beginning of the war".  In the coming weeks in December I will post from Detroit newspaper articles about those Christmases.  It's worth noting how circumstances change for the Fighting Fifth Infantry.

My sidebar gives access to the various articles from those Detroit papers I was able to locate and reproduce.  At one time it was a separate blog, but after the sesquicentennial ended in 2015 I transferred it to this site.  The Fighting Fifth was composed of Michigan volunteers.  They were part of the Army of the Potomac and Michigan's contribution to the American Civil War.  Lincoln responded to us with "Thank God for Michigan!" with good reason.

That first Christmas brought contrasts for specific regiments and soldiers versus those at home.  It still does for our military.

"Tad" Lincoln photographed by Matthew Brady
“And when I turned from these musings upon the bill of fare they would have at home to contemplate the dreary realities of my own possible dinner for that day – my oyster can full of coffee and a quarter ration of hard-tack and sow-belly comprised the menu”  wrote one soldier in a book titled The Story of a Common Soldier of Army Life in the Civil War, 1861-1865 while President Lincoln and his family celebrated Christmas during the first year of the war by holding a Christmas party at the White House.  In later years Lincoln had plenty of reason to visit soldiers in the hospital.  He took along his youngest son, "Tad" who, on Christmas Eve 1863, told his father he wanted to send all of his many gifts sent to him by the general public to the soldiers. Lincoln agreed and said: "Yes, my son, Send a big box. Ask Mother for plenty of warm things, and tell David to pack in all the good eatables he can, and let him mark the box, 'From Tad Lincoln."

Mary Todd Lincoln raised money for Christmas dinners for the soldiers and often visited the hospitals bringing fruit and flowers and sometimes even helping with their correspondence.

Over and over I find reference to one of the most famous Christmas gifts: General Sherman after capturing the city of Savannah, Georgia in December of 1864, a significant military achievement  marking the beginning of the end of the war, sent President Lincoln this telegram, “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 100 and 50 guns and plenty of ammunition, also about 25,000 bales of cotton.”

Michigan's 21st Infantry is noted for hitching up several of their mule carts and putting branches on the mules to look like reindeer while they distributed food to the Savannah  area.  I've never had a very favorable view of Sherman, although I understood why he caused the devastation he did.  For a more balanced view, including the "reindeer", here's an interview on National Public Radio to read or hear from Stanley Weintraub, the author of General Sherman's Christmas about that area where many Michigan soldiers became a part of history.

For a further look at the homefront, be sure to see "Civil War Christmas" by Maggie MacLean in her Civil War Women blog
During the Civil War, Christmas was celebrated in both the United States and the Confederate States of America although the day was not recognized until 1870, when President Ulysses S. Grant made Christmas an official Federal holiday in an attempt to unite north and south. The war continued to rage on Christmas Day and skirmishes occurred throughout the country.  …
In the United States, the widespread customs of Christmas cards, carols and trees date back to the 1850s. A feature story in the magazine Godey's Ladys' Book initiated the most beloved symbol of the American family Christmas - the Christmas tree. The story was about Queen Victoria's and Prince Albert's Christmas tree, which was a custom Prince Albert brought to England from his native country, Germany.
Godey's Lady's Book on left; Illustrated London News on right
I use both Godey's Lady's Book illustration from 1860 and the Illustrated London News engraving from 1848 in my Victorian Christmas program about turn of the Century Christmas and how it shaped our holiday traditions.  Can you spot the differences between the royal versus American?

While soldier's Civil War trees were decorated with their rations of hard tack and salt pork, at home were strings of popcorn, ribbon, pine cones, and other homemade paper and foil decorations carefully combined with candles.  Traditional greenery, including holly and mistletoe decorated home mantels, windows and doors and even a Yule log in the fireplace, while the soldiers scrounged for firewood just as they would on any winter day.

Santa Claus was particularly used in the war by German immigrant, Thomas Nast, creating so many visuals promoting both Union war efforts and Christmas traditions. His images of Santa Claus combine both the Clement Moore 1822 poem called both "A Visit from St. Nicholas" or "Night Before Christmas" and his own German idea of St. Nicholas.  Nast images of Santa Claus and of the Civil War are Public Domain, but some, like Paul's at have been digitally enhanced and are copyrighted.  Nast is often called the father of American political cartoonists.  Lincoln called him "our best recruiting sergeant."  There is much online about him and I would love to use his illustrations from Harper's Weekly, but for now will go on with more about Christmas at home during the war.

Presents were often homemade, but the economy, especially in the South, sometimes made even the materials to make them difficult to obtain.  In many historical accounts I find mothers explained the absence of presents because Santa Claus couldn't run the 1863 blockade of Southern coasts, or that the Yankees had shot him!

Thanks to the Victorian influence Christmas carols were sung both at home and by homesick soldiers during the Civil War along with more secular songs like "Jingle Bells", "Deck the Halls", and, I was surprised to learn, even "Up on the House Top." The latter surely goes back to the importance of Santa Claus by then.

Another song began as a poem when Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the pacifist poem, "Christmas Bells" on Christmas Day 1863 in the wake of his son, Lieutenant Charles Longfellow's serious injuries.  Charles had enlisted against his father's wishes and had been injured once before in the war.  Longfellow's second wife and Charles's mother, Fanny, earlier had died tragically and his grief is obvious.  (That link is also to the Civil War Women blog and provides an interesting supplement to the more traditional Wikipedia article on Longfellow. ) After the war the poem was set to music and became the carol, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" omitting two stanzas from the original poem about the war.  It was a long way from the Christmas of 1861 which saw soldiers full of bravado, still relatively well fed and equipped, and eagerly anticipating Christmas boxes of treats from home. Often officers then authorized extra rations of spirits and men engaged in greased pig-catching.

Finally this comes from Steven N. Cone's American Civil  I give it here as an excellent grouping year by year of Christmas during the war years.  He credits his sources this way:
Information taken from "We Were Marching on Christmas Day:
A History and Chronicle of Christmas During the Civil War" by Kevin Rawlings.
Unfortunately I don't have the book and I'm uncertain how much is originally written by Kevin Rawlings.  It is enough of a standard to find him often quoted elsewhere.  He has graciously given me permission to include work from that book now in its second printing and he is at work on an expanded edition.  He's also planning a new website (that's guaranteed to take time and attention!)  Here's his present site where you can see he portrays the Patriotic Civil War Santa based on Thomas Nast's front page illustration on Harper's Weekly, January 3, 1863. 

His site credits the photo as an Ambrotype image taken by Claude Levet in 1989.

I continue with the information found on American Civil, but, due to the possibility of copyright problems, as explained in "Are Civil War images in Harpers Weekly protected by copyright" I omit the illustrations.

Many southern children were told that "Santa was a Yankee" so Confederate pickets would not let Santa through.
By contrast though, Many northern children still received gifts and treats because the northern economy actually flourished and expanded as the war dragged on.
One soldier described Christmas 1862 in the union Iron brigade.. " two men from company f provided a temporary diversion on Christmas Day. The two got into a fight that ended with one struck the other over the head with a musket bending the barrel so badly as to render it unserviceable.

"Ought it not be a Merry Christmas?"

Lonely camp scene from an 1862 Harper's Weekly entitled "Christmas Eve".
Even with all the sorrow that hangs, and will forever hang, over so many households;
even while war still rages; even while there are serious questions yet to be settled - ought
it not to be, and is it not, a merry Christmas?"
Harper's Weekly, December 26, 1863
vs. the familiar Harper's Weekly January 3, 1863 edition about separation.
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.
By 1860, many worried about civil unrest, fearful this Christmas would be the last before the outbreak of war. An Arkansas diarist writes:
"Christmas has come around in the circle of time, but is not a day of
rejoicing. Some of the usual ceremonies are going on, but there is
gloom on the thoughts and countenances of all the better portion of our people."
Men of the 5th New Hampshire engaged in a hilarious greased pig chase as their
Christmas entertainment. From Frank Leslie's Illustrated History of the Civil War.
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.
"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."
. . .
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.
Artist Winslow Homer depicts soldiers' joy at receiving holiday boxes
from home in this 1861 Harper's Weekly illustration.
By Christmas, 1862, Thomas Nast had allied Santa Claus with the Union Army.
From Harper's Weekly, January 3, 1863.
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."
John Haley of the 17th Maine, for instance, wrote the day before Christmas. "It is rumored that there are sundry boxes and mysterious parcels over at Stoneman's Station directed to us," Haley continued in his diary. "We retire to sleep with feelings akin to those of children expecting Santa Claus. We have become very childish in some matters--grub being one of them." On Christmas Day, Haley returned to his tent to endure a practical joke from his tentmate:
On returning to camp, I was informed by my tentmate that there was no parcel at the station bearing my name. My mental thermometer not only plummeted to below zero, it got right down off the nail and lay on the floor. Seeing this, my tentmate made haste to dive under the bed and produce the box, which he had brought from the station during my absence, and in a few minutes we were discussing the merits of its contents. Most of the men have been remembered, and any that have not received something from home are allowed to share with their more fortunate neighbors.
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.
Children still found Christmas morning joyful in this 1864 Harper's Weekly edition.
Note that the youngster on the right is equipped with sword, drum, kepi and a haversack
with "U.S." prominently displayed.
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:
"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."
Cavada continued:
"Christmas Day! A day which was made for
smiles, not sighs - for laughter, not tears - for the hearth, not prison."
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 deal of bad dancing" during which hats were crushed and trousers torn. Sentries called "lights out" at 9 p.m.
General William Tecumseh Sherman is host at a celebratory Christmas dinner
in Savannah after presenting the captured city to President Lincoln as a holiday.
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.
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.
Moods were more bouyant in Washington and New York, where celebrants supped on substantial feasts and attended the theatre.
"Snowy Morning on Picket" from Harper's Weekly January 30, 1864.
After the war
Thomas Nast's most famous image of Santa Claus was published in Harper's Weekly on January 1, 1881.
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:
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.
(LSK: After that, the site gives “The Story Behind: 'I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day' “)

Finally I've previously mentioned the network, My Merry Christmas.  I recommend prowling it thoroughly.  I've published some of my Public Domain stories there and back in 2011 Mary Hansel published in the Christmas History section "Christmas during the Civil War", which draws from many of the sources above for yet another nice summary.

I will publish the relevant Detroit newspaper articles over each of the coming December Saturdays.


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