Since Christmas is fast approaching, instead of the day to day war news from 1863, I thought I’d talk about Christmas in Civil War camps.
What was it like for soldiers serving away from their homes, unable to phone, email or do any more than write letters and wait for a lengthy return of news from home?
By this time period, the familiar Christmas traditions that we celebrate to this day, were already in place. “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens had been published in 1843 and the image of Santa Claus as jolly and portly fellow had been established through the drawings of Thomas Nast, a German-speaking immigrant.
According to Civil War soldier, Alfred Ballard of the 5th New Jersey, “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 oranges, etc.”
John Haley, of the 17th Maine, wrote in his diary, “It is rumored that there are sundry boxes and mysterious parcels over at Stoneman’s Station directed to us. We retire to sleep with feelings akin to those of children expecting Santa Claus.”
A Confederate prisoner related: “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 …DISPAPPOINTMENT! 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.”
The war cast a pallor on holiday celebrations. In the South, parents warned children that Santa might not make it through the blockade. Soldiers living in bleak winter quarters missed, more than ever, the domestic bliss they’d left behind.
Robert Gould Shaw, commander of the 54th Massachusetts, recorded in his diary: “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 Putman of Richmond, 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.”
Christmas during the war, could be either an escape or a bitter reminder of the conflict tearing the country in two. Soldiers may have coveted the day of rest and relaxation, but sadness over the separation from loved ones tempered their cheer. Families left at home did their best to celebrate Christmas, but the vacant chairs dwelled on their minds as well.
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