SHILOH AND THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE: care of the wounded at Pittsburg Landing, April 6-7, 1862.

In 1895, Stephen Crane coined the phrase "red badge of courage" to describe wounds that soldiers received in battle during the Civil War. Truth be told, more soldiers died of disease and other causes than as a result of actual combat wounds. To be wounded or to die in heat of battle was viewed as far more heroic than soldiers falling ill with Typhus, Malaria, Dysentery or other common diseases of war.
The “Desperate Defence” mostly shows wounded and shell shocked men. Henry Lovie, combat artist for Leslie’s.

In 1895, Stephen Crane coined the phrase “red badge of courage” to describe wounds that soldiers received in battle during the Civil War. Truth be told, more soldiers died of disease and other causes than as a result of actual combat wounds. To be wounded or to die in heat of battle was viewed as far more heroic than soldiers falling ill with Typhus, Malaria, Dysentery or other common diseases of war. All those who fell ill and who died on campaign suffered serving in the line of duty; by rights, how they became incapacitated or died should not matter. But nineteenth century notions of manliness and honor colored much of the thinking with regard to suffering and death during the war.

As with so many other things, the Civil War was a watershed period in the medical treatment of combat casualties and wartime wounded. By the standards of just a few years later, the treatment of the sick seemed primitive, barbaric even. But out of this initial chaos, doctors and nurses, and the institutions that oversaw the care for sick and wounded soldiers made great advances in care and treatment.

In earlier wars, treatment of the wounded was not the concern of the armies and governments who sent them off to war. More often than not, if a soldier suffered a wound and survived, his treatment was in the hands of his “camp follower”–his common-law wife or mistress who, with thousands of others, followed in the wake of the marching armies. The philosophy of “laissez-faire” government extended not just to economics but even to their own soldier’s well-being. A smart uniform, functioning equipment, bad food and meagre pay were the limits of a governments’ obligation to its soldiers–and sometimes not even that.

To be sure, during the latter part of the 18th century, armies began to have physicians attached to regiments and larger units, more for morale purposes, one suspects, than for any deep concern for the cannon fodder that fought for the European, and later American, states as they emerged from Medieval times to a supposedly more “enlightened” era.

But up until the Civil War, save for a few exceptions, most wars were fought on a much smaller scale, with the numbers of dead surprisingly small, and the wounds inflicted on the participants, while painful and often ghastly to behold, less fatal than one might suppose. Disease and malnutrition killed far more soldiers than battlefield wounds.

As nations became more “civilized” and technologically advanced, however, weapons too became more advanced-and more lethal. Save but for the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War was fought on a scale unimaginable to most modern nations and their leaders and soon the number of men needing immediate medical care could be counted not in the hundreds, but thousands, and at times tens of thousands.

The Union and Confederate armies had been in a deadly contest for nearly a year when both sides met by the banks of the Tennessee River on Easter Sunday of 1862 near a small rural church whose name meant “peace.” The level of bloodletting that April 6, 1862, was on a scale that shocked even the most hardened of warriors and forever labeled that two-day conflict as “Bloody Shiloh.”

We cannot hope in this limited venue to describe the all aspects of the care of the wounded at Bloody Shiloh and its immediate aftermath, much less the changes which the war wrought to medicine and combat surgery. So we shall have it chronicled by one lone voice, a man who was in the very center of the carnage and did his utmost to save the lives of as many American soldiers, regardless of whether they wore blue or grey, those terrible two days in April.

At the time of the Battle of Shiloh, Major Robert Murray was Medical Director for the Army of the Ohio, under General Don Carlos Buell. Most of Buell’s troops did arrive until after dark on the sixth; but they got in position overnight and on the next day were the main force which counter-attacked the Rebel Army, turning defeat into victory. By far, most of the Union casualties were from Grant’s army who, though warned, was still taken by surprise on the sixth and his forces driven back and demoralized by the large Rebel force.

Major Murray was originally from the border state of Maryland and while he served loyally in the Union Army, two of his brothers fought in the Confederate Army. What follows is his report on the medical services under his command at Shiloh, published in the OR, the massive publications of the records of the Union and Confederate armies.

Camp on Field of Shiloh, April 21, 1862.

SIR: I have the honor to submit the following report of the operations of the medical department during and after the battle of the 6th and 7th instant:

On the morning of the 6th I was at Savannah, and being ordered to remain at that place, I occupied myself in procuring all the hospital accommodation possible in that small village and in directing the preparation of bunks and other conveniences for wounded. In the afternoon the wounded were brought down in large numbers, and I then superintended their removal to hospitals, and did all in my power to provide for their comfort. On Sunday evening, the divisions being under orders to come up as rapidly as possible, I ordered the medical officers, as it was impossible to take their medical and hospital supplies — the teams and ambulances being in the rear and the roads blocked up with trains — to take their instruments and hospital knapsacks and such dressings and stimulants as could be carried on horseback, and to go on with their regiments.

I left Savannah by the first boat on Monday, and arrived at Pittsburg Landing at about 10 a.m. I found the principal depot for wounded established at the small log building now used as a field post-office. They were coming in very rapidly, and very inadequate arrangements had been made for their reception. I found Brigade Surgeon Goldsmith endeavoring to make provision for them, and at his suggestion immediately saw General Grant, and obtained his order for a number of tents to be pitched about the log house.

I then rode to the front and reported to you. The great number of wounded which I saw being transported to the main depot, and the Almost insurmountable difficulties which I foresaw would exist in providing for them, convinced me that my presence was needed there more than at any other point on the field. After spending an hour in riding a little to the rear of our lines, and seeing as far as possible that there were surgeons in position to attend immediately to the most urgent cases, I returned to the hill above the Landing, and used every exertion to provide for the wounded there. I ordered Brigade Surgeons Gross, Goldsmith, Johnson, and Gay to take charge of the different depots which were established in tents on the hills above the Landing, directing such regimental and contract surgeons as I could find to aid them.

Many of the wounded were taken on board boats at the Landing and some of our surgeons were ordered on board to attend them. On Tuesday I had such beats as I could obtain possession of fitted up with such bed-sacks as were on hand and with straw and hay for the wounded to lie upon, and filled to their utmost capacity, and at once dispatched to convey the worst cases to the hospitals on the Ohio River, at Evansville, New Albany, Louisville, and Cincinnati.

In removing the wounded we were aided by boats fitted up by sanitary commissions and soldiers’ relief societies and sent to the battle-field to convey wounded to the hospitals. Some of these, especially those under the direction of the United States Sanitary Commission, were of great service. They were ready to receive all sick and wounded, without regard to States or even to politics, taking the wounded Confederates as willingly as our own. Others, especially those who came under the orders of Governors of States, were of little assistance, and caused much irregularity. Messages were sent to the regiments that a boat was at the Landing ready to take to their homes all wounded and sick from certain States. The men would crowd in numbers to the Landing, a few wounded, but mostly the sick and homesick. After the men had been enticed to the river and were lying in the mud in front of the boats it was determined in one instance by the Governor to take only the wounded, and this boat went off with a few wounded, leaving many very sick men to get back to their camps as they best could. By the end of the week after the battle all our wounded had been sent off, with but few exceptions of men who had been taken to camps of regiments in General Grant’s army during the battle. These have since been found and provided for.

The division medical directors were very efficient in the discharge of their duties, and they report most favorably of the energy and zeal displayed by the medical officers under them in the care of the wounded under most trying circumstances — of want of medical and hospital stores, and even tents. Owing to the fact that a large majority of the wounded brought in on Monday and Tuesday were from General Grant’s army, some of whom had been wounded the day before, it was impossible to attend particularly to those from our own divisions. Many Confederate wounded also fell in our hands, and I am happy to say that our officers and men attended with equal assiduity to all. Indeed, our soldiers were more ready to wait on the wounded of the enemy than our own. I regret to say that they showed incredible apathy and repugnance to nursing or attending to the wants of their wounded comrades, but in the case of the Confederates this seemed in some measure overcome by a feeling of curiosity and a wish to be near them and converse with them.

We were poorly supplied with dressings and comforts for the wounded and with ambulances for their transportation, and it was several days after the battle before all could be brought in. Our principal difficulty, however, in providing for the wounded was in the utter impossibility to obtain proper details of men to nurse them and to cook and attend generally to their wants, and in the impossibility of getting a sufficient number of tents pitched, or in the confusion which prevailed during and after the battle to get hay or straw as bedding for the wounded or to have it transported to the tents. The only details we could obtain were from the disorganized mob which lined the hills near the Landing, and who were utterly inert and inefficient. From the sad experience of this battle and the recollections of the sufferings of thousands of poor wounded soldiers crowded into tents on the wet ground, their wants partially attended to by an unwilling and forced detail of panic-stricken deserters from the battle-field, I am confirmed in the belief of the absolute necessity for a class of hospital attendants, enlisted as such, whose duties are distinct and exclusive as nurses and attendants for the sick, and also of a corps of medical purveyors, to act not only in supplying medicines, but as quartermasters for the medical department.

I append a list of the number of killed and wounded in each regiment, brigade, and division engaged, in all amounting to 236 killed and 1,728 wounded.(*)

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Surgeon, U. S. Army, Medical Director.
Col. J. B. FRY,
Asst. Adjt. Gen. and Chief of Staff, Army of Ohio.

*Major Murray’s figures are way off, but he may only be counting Buell’s casualties, mostly received on the second day. Best estimate is that Union losses were 1754 killed, 8408 wounded, and 2885 captured: total, 13,047–of which only about 2,000 were Buell’s men.

These casualties never even made it to an aid station. Two men, one blue and one in butternut, likely decapitated by the same round. Watercolor by Captain Metzner, 32nd Indiana.


A Union soldier returns home for the Holidays on furlough, greeted by his loving wife. Harpers Weekly.

In Art, Literature and Music, the 1860’s were the very pinnacle of the Age of Romanticism. The spirit of the times allowed free rein to a whole host of human emotions, and men were not thought weak or effeminate if they dared express their emotions freely in public.

In the Age of Romanticism, women were given leave to feel emotions deeply and passionately and might even hope for a love match that might fulfill their heart’s desires, although their willingness to express emotions were strictly circumscribed by the mores of the day, for it was also the Victorian Era as well, and women, like children, were often taught to be seen and not heard when in male company. But the advent of Civil War in America changed all that.

N. C. Wyeth’s illustration of a Confederate officer and his beloved, from The Long Roll (1911).

When war finally came, both sides encouraged women to speak out, to motivate their men to volunteer for war, or shame those who hung back and shirked their duty to state and region. Women, whether out of patriotism, or devotion to The Cause, could now be outspoken in their political beliefs—so long as those beliefs were aligned with that of the state they dwelt in.

The heightened emotional environment of wartime, when couples met in the knowledge that they might never see one another again, raised the stakes for couples whose romance was compressed into days or weeks instead of years, throwing people into each other’s arms with a bitter sweetness virtually unknown in less dangerous times.

Romance, the high-flown, sentimental, overwhelming passion between a man and a woman, pulled soldiers and civilians into its orbit during the Civil War in a manner never known before in America. Traditional rituals of courtship and mating were abbreviated or abandoned entirely. The war raised the stakes for couples whose passions were further fanned by the flames of war.   

Moreover, traditional gender roles to which young men and women had been accustomed were suddenly challenged in ways unimaginable only a few years before. Women, hitherto restricted to the domestic sphere almost exclusively, who dared not express their political views openly, now became outspoken on partisan topics. They might even dare risk life, limb and reputation for causes they passionately believed in.

Soldier’s Ball, Union Army, Huntsville Alabama, April 9, 1864. Union soldiers fraternizing with Southern women became more frequent as the war wore on, sometimes leading to marriage. Harpers Weekly

Members of opposite genders might meet through chance and without warning find the soul-mate they longed for but would otherwise never have met. Conversely, in a war where members of the same family might don different hued uniforms and oppose each other on the battlefield, men and women of radically different views on the war were often thrown together for good or ill. Sometimes, though, the bitterest of enemies found themselves falling in love despite themselves.

For some returning Rebel soldiers, homecoming was a bittersweet affair, for there was little left of their home to return to. But so long as their wife was still there, they might hope to rebuild anew.

Even where lovers saw eye to eye by staring deeply into each other’s eyes, their families ties often proved a fateful—even fatal—barrier to love. For war respects neither rank nor reason, right or wrong and even with the most honorable intent, death might still be the outcome.

Because, after all, love is a battlefield, one in which the heart’s desire is the prize to be fought for and won, and where no quarter is given.

Home from the War. Currier & Ives lithograph
For more on the Civil War in the West read Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife.

Christmas, 1865: Home is the Hunter. A Civil War Christmas

Christmas, 1865.  The fighting is over at last. The great armies are disbanded; all over the America men are returning to hearth and home—if anything is left of their homes.  When the war began the United States are an agrarian republic; by war’s end, the re-United States is a nation quickly transforming into an industrial giant, beginning to flex its might, bound together from coast to coast by a band of steel rails.  While most still lived on farms at war’s end, changes were already in the air. While want and fear stalked much of the South, at least there is peace; in the North, despite the empty chairs beside the fireside, there is much for people to celebrate and be thankful for this Christmas.

The war did not end with Lee’s surrender to Grant, or even with Joe Johnstons surrender to Sherman; there were holdouts throughout the South and skirmishes continued through the spring and longer at sea. But gradually the realization that the struggle for Secession was over settled in. Some Confederate units surrendered and received their parole; many others just simply went home. But at last there was peace; it was not the peace many had hoped for, but it had come. The armies in blue were gradually demobilized; some participated in a grand review in Washington; most did not. Going home was the main thing, and for that all could be grateful.

At home, women, bereft of their husbands, brothers and fathers had become use to fending for themselves. Now, the men-folk were back by their sides and all hoped things would return to normal. While no one realized it yet, society had been fundamentally altered by the war.

Soldiers returned to warm welcomes from family and friends. In towns across the North there were parades and celebrations as the local regiments came marching home. Those who were maimed—those who won their ‘red badge’—were celebrated as heroes. But many who came home sound in body also had wounds, invisible wounds.  Many wives welcomed their husbands back to their side, only find themselves sleeping next to a stranger.  Today we have a name for it—PTSD—but back then it was just attributed to “the war.” Men could not explain what had happened and women often could not understand. With time, some wounds healed, but some did not.

Winslow Homer, whose evocative art captured camp life during the war, also captured something of this new domestic reality in his artwork. In “Hanging up the Musket,” from 1865, Homer shows a veteran hanging up his gun over the mantle below his father’s old flintlock, while his wife has a curious expression on her face. She seems none too happy with him putting this weapon of death in a place of pride.

Hanging up the Musket” Winslow Homer

With “The Empty Sleeve” Homer goes a step further, clearly showing the changed domestic relations. We see a Union soldier, an amputee, riding in a buggy with his fiancée or wife to “Our Watering Place” ostensibly an enjoyable vacation spot. She is in the driver’s seat, looking straight ahead, whip firmly in hand, and has a determined, almost grim, look on her face:

Home from the War” by Winslow Homer illustrates the joyous return to family by northern troops.

In “Home from the War” Homer depicts the happy reunion of Union troops happy to back at last with loved ones. These are not fresh-faced recruits but matured mustachioed veterans, welcomed home by mothers, lovers and wives.

All told, Christmas of 1865 in the North was mostly a joyous time: the nation was reunited and finally at peace.  Moreover, only a week before Christmas Secretary State Seward announced with the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, officially doing away with slavery once and for all.  On December 18, the words of the new amendment at last became the law of the land:

“neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” 

The Christmas cover of Harper’s had a religious theme for a change, not a political one. But Thomas Nast still weighed in with his usual centerfold celebrating both Christmas and the Union victory.  Although with “Merry Christmas to All” as a garland in the middle below Santa Claus, and with most of the tableau celebrating the new peace, down at the bottom General Grant stands center stage with the heads of Jefferson Davis, General Lee and other Rebel leaders at his feet.  The caption in part reads: “For the heroic dead, the flower of our youth which the fierce war withered, there will be forever renewed tenderness of private remembrance and of public respect with every Christmas season. For most Americans in the North, Christmas was a time of plenty and celebration, food was abundant on every table and scarcely anyone had cause for complaint.

African Americans received a particularly significant Christmas present just a few days before the holiday. On December 18, Secretary State Seward announced the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, officially doing away with slavery.  Only a few days before Christmas, the words of the new amendment became the supreme law of the land:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” 

All told, Christmas of 1865 in the North was indeed a joyous time with the nation finally at peace. In eastern Illinois, the Marshall Messenger, a local newspaper, reflected on the state of Christmas 1865: “this was perhaps the merriest Christmas ever spent by the citizens of Marshall. The war is over and those whose friends survived the devastation of bloody war are happy in the enjoyment of their society; and all are happy that war has vanished from our land, and that we are still a united people.”

IN THE SOUTH, however, the situation in December of 1865 was far different.  Peace had come to the land it was true and for the most part the soldiers were home with their loved ones—if they still had homes to live in.  But throughout the South, many cities were in ruins: Atlanta, Charleston, Columbia and Selma; the work of rebuilding and recovery had barely begun.  Many parts of the countryside had also been ravaged by the passage of armies.  Far more so than in the North, there were many families where the man of the household would never be returning. Food was scarce and many who had known plenty before the war, now faced want and deprivation.  Even where there was adequate shelter and food, and loved ones had made it safely home again, the bitter gall of defeat left a pall over the holiday season that was hard for many to erase.

Early Klansmen, arrested for violence. More often than not they escaped justice.

Christmas Eve, December 24, 1865, marked a notable new institution.  On that date, eight former Confederate soldiers gathered in Pulaski, Tennessee to form a new fraternal organization.  As former Rebels they were prohibited by law from working in business, so they decided to while away their idle hours in “social” activities; they concocted a secret regime to occupy their idleness, with secret handshakes, signs and other occult activities known only to the members of their fraternal organization—or kuklos (Greek for circle).  They adopted an anglicized name for their fraternity: the Klu Klux Klan.

Although initially organized more from boredom than animosity, the night-time rides of this Kuklos started to take on more sinister character, morphing into a vigilante organization as it grew. Lubricated by ample quantities of liquor, their activities soon turned from practical jokes to violence. The Klan was not the only vigilante group to arise in the immediate postwar South. In East Tennessee a group labeled the “White Caps” had as their main target for violence former Confederates, many of whom had committed atrocities against families of local Unionists during the war.

In many parts of the former Confederacy, civil government had virtually ceased to exist by the summer of ’65 and the isolated Federal garrisons throughout the South were resented as an occupying army.  Life and property was defended by knife and gun and wartime scores were evened in the same manner.  Vendetta and vigilantism soon became the order of the day in many parts of the South. Into this void the Kuklos-Klan and other vigilante groups stepped to restore what they saw as the status quo.

Added to the general lawlessness was the fact that cotton farmers had been forced to sell their last cotton harvest to the Confederate government in return for virtually worthless Confederate paper money.  With the collapse of the Rebel government, many farmers hid their bales of cotton in hopes of somehow getting it to market in England, where cotton was going for record prices.  Meanwhile, close behind Union troops had come a small army of Treasury Agents who were paid on commission for every bale of Confederate cotton they seized.  Corruption was rife among the Federal agents who pocketed much of the profits for themselves.  While Southern planters were primarily interested in their making money back on cotton, killing a Federal Agent or two in the process was more or less a bonus.

There also arose a scare throughout the South among former slaveholders, who feared a Negro Insurrection Plot was afoot and that it would happen during Christmas of 1865. The Federal government had control of vast tracts of land abandoned by planters before the advancing Union army, and promises had been made in many cases by local Union commanders to grant tracts of land to former slaves as reparations for their long period of bondage. “Forty Acres and a Mule” became the motto, and both freedmen and white planters both had cause to believe the Yankee occupation government would carry through with its promises.

The former masters also had to confront the radical transformation of their former “chattel.” The Planter Class had deluded themselves that slaves needed a master, that they were incapable of fending for themselves. Yet as word spread throughout the former slaves that the war was over and that they would soon be free in law as well as deed, they quickly began organizing themselves to a degree the former white overlords wouldn’t have believed and genuinely feared. Moreover, many of the Union garrisons consisted of USCT units: mostly runaway slaves who now were in possession of weapons and had already proven in the war they were perfectly capable of using them.

Throughout the recently occupied South, northern travelers and Federal officers kept hearing from local planters of an alleged mass uprising planned for the Christmas holidays, a time when slaves had formerly been given the liberty to visit friends and relatives on neighboring plantations. “Everywhere there were vivid, secondhand accounts of armed blacks drilling in nightly conclaves, waiting only for the signal which would trigger a coordinated massacre sometime during the Christmas holidays” wrote one historian. Yet, when northern missionaries, military officers or Freedmans Bureau officials investigated such rumors, they were all found groundless. Nevertheless, as Christmas approached, the level of paranoia among whites increased to irrational degree; even those who formerly scoffed at the reports came to believe the rumors. Ironically, when local Federal garrisons responded to panicked calls for help in mid-December to these imaginary insurrections, local whites welcomed the Yankee troops as saviors!

Here is a typical case by an official investigating a “dangerous” gathering from Tallahassee, Florida that Christmas:

Colonel, I have the honor to report, that in obedience to your instructions I went to “Mr. F. R. Cotton’s plantation near Lake Imonia” yesterday, the 25th inst. to learn the object of a large gathering of colored people, reported to be assembling on the above named place by Mr. Swain and forty others.  I arrived there about 1 O’ clock P.M. I was not surprised at the “immence assemblage” of colored people” there.  I found some thirty persons men, women and children, the rest of the people of that plantation were off gunning and fishing.  No one was there from any other plantation.  So very quiet were the people, that it appeared like a Sabbath day.

Christmas came and went and none of the dire predictions came true. If anything, Christmas among former slaves was exceptionally peaceful and, besides a communal feast or two, church meetings seemed to be the most common events on the plantations. This Christmas was a day of thanksgiving and praise, not one of fear, hatred or vengeance–at least among the black population.

Emancipation, 1865

Just before Christmas, the editor of Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly expressed the optimistic sentiment of many in the recently reunited republic when he exclaimed that, 

“The lands devastated by the tramp of armies, and the homes laid waste by the invader of either side are once more being brought back to the standard they held five years agone….A stranger coming among us would hardly believe, looking at our wealth, prosperity and happiness that but a few months had elapsed since the most terrible war of the last thousand years has just closed; that thousands of miles of territory have been despoiled, and hundreds of thousands of lives sacrificed. And yet in the face of this we have great cause for thankfulness.  We are everywhere overburdened with natural wealth.  We have national recuperative power beyond telling, and we are, as a people, determined upon the ultimate greatness of the nation, and that is the grand secret of all our success….The camp gives way to the pleasant church and the joys of home, the sword is almost literally beaten into a ploughshare, and the “hardtack” gives place to the thanksgiving turkey and the pumkin pie….Never before, since we have had a record of great nations, has one year made so great a difference in their status of happiness as that of the past twelve months in the welfare, prosperity and cause for thankfulness of this country.”

In this montage, Winslow Homer reflects on the previous decade and all its strife & suffering but ending on an optimistic note for the future: veterans, still wearing their military kepis, sow a bountiful harvest, as their families prosper and grow.

The last vignette is reminiscent of his 1865 painting “The Veteran in the New Field” similarly “bringing in the sheaves.” The visual reference may refer to the Old Testament Psalm 126:6: “He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.”
Winslow Homer, 1865, The “Veteran in the New Field”

For more true accounts of less publicized aspects of the Civil War, read Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.  Now in print for the first time is also Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, chronicling American author Ambrose Bierce’s wartime experiences with the Army of the Cumberland.

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, explores the wartime career of famed American author Ambrose Bierce with the Army of the Cumberland.

Christmas 1864, Part 2: A Union Christmas. A Civil War Christmas

Lincoln welcoming defeated Confederates to a “Union Christmas Dinner.” Thomas Nast contrasts the wealth and plenty of the Union with the poverty and hunger of Rebellion, with a passing reference to the parable of the Prodigal Son.

Christmas 1864. There could have been no greater contrast this Christmas between North and South. While the North could look forward to the New Year with optimism and hope, and with final victory now in sight, in Dixie, except among the long-oppressed Southern Unionists and some three million African Americans on the verge of liberation, this Christmas was a hard-candy Christmas, one with a future that seemed dim with every new dispatch from the front.

The situation in Washington and most of the North in 1864 was summed up neatly by Thomas Nast in a famous propaganda poster for Harper’s Weekly during Christmas Week of 1864, called The Union Christmas Dinner. It depicts President Lincoln standing at a door to a large banquet, with him offering the hungry and frostbitten Southern soldiers an invitation to rejoin the Union and enjoy the feast, with side panels emphasizing Christian forgiveness.

With most Confederate ports now in Federal hands, the Union naval blockade was choking off not just war supplies but civilian necessities as well. It was a difficult Christmas for many, even in the North. It was a winter few on either side would ever forget. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia were closely besieged at Richmond and Petersburg. General Sherman was advancing with fire and sword like an avenging demon through Georgia. Only at Nashville did it seem that a glimmer of hope remained for the Confederacy, where Hood and the Army of Tennessee were besieging General Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland at the beginning of December.

That Fall, General Sherman had begun his famous (or infamous) march through Georgia, and for weeks Lincoln had heard no word from Sherman or his army of 62,000, ravaging, burning and destroying the heartland of the South. Finally, on December 21, after no word from Sherman and his “bummers” with concerns that the large army had been annihilated, word came from Sherman that he had captured the decisive port of Savannah, Georgia. 

On December 22, Sherman occupied the port of Savannah and wired Lincoln:

“I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.”

Sherman’s dispatch to Lincoln, presenting the city of Savannah as his “Christmas Present” to the President.

The President was both relieved and jubilant.  Lincoln telegraphed back: “Many, many thanks for your Christmas gift – the capture of Savannah…Please make my grateful acknowledgements to your whole army – officers and men.”

In contrast to his scorched earth campaign through rural Georgia, Sherman and his men were actually magnanimous towards the citizens of Savannah and “Uncle Billie” even provided food and merriment for Christmas to the conquered city.


Sherman hosted a victory banquet for his senior officers on Christmas Day in Savannah.

Sherman held a celebratory supper for his officers on Christmas.  He also provided for the citizens of Savannah–with victuals stolen from the farms and plantations of Georgia.

Pap Thomas and the Battle that ended the Confederate Dream of Victory

In Tennessee, less theatrically, but far more importantly, General Thomas had performed a great service to the Union cause, decimating the Army of Tennessee at the Battle of Nashville.

Far to the west, the Confederacy’s last field army was seemingly on the offensive, bottling the Yankees up in the strategic stronghold of Nashville. The Rebels, under John Bell Hood, had built siege lines and were shelling the Yankees within the city—and their own folk too.

General John Bell Hood, whose aggressive temperament was what Jefferson Davis wanted in the West, attempted to turn the tide of war in a bold invasion of Tennessee in the Fall and Winter of 1864.

Hood’s army was the last effective field army the Confederates had outside of Virginia. To all intents and purposes, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was isolated, cut off in Richmond, and the encircled Confederate capitol was doomed without some outside force to relieve the siege.

That December, among the Barbarians in Blue besieged by the Rebels, was a young staff officer, named Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce. He was dashing and handsome and brave, with a talent for sarcasm—and after the war proved to have a talent for writing as well. In the early part of December, as life settled into a routine within the besieged city, the Union officer had time to ponder what his foes felt about their relatives caught in the city with the Yankees:

“I sometimes wondered what were the feelings of those fellows, gazing over our heads at their own dwellings, where their wives and children or their aged parents were perhaps suffering for the necessaries of life, and certainly (so their reasoning would run) cowering under the tyranny and power of the barbarous Yankees.”

Lt. Ambrose Bierce, future journalist, editor and author, was one of the “barbarous Yankees” besieged by Hood’s Army of Tennessee in Dec. 1864.

Holed up in the Lawrence Mansion, overlooking Granny White Pike on a ridgeline south of the city, Bierce and his fellow staff offers did not want for either the necessities—or a few luxuries for that matter. Old “Pap” Thomas’s army was ensconced behind a belt of fortifications and were sitting on a mountain of supplies. Despite the large number of troops stationed within, the Federals had ample resources at their disposal.

The same could not be said for their ill-fed, ill-clothed and ill-supplied besiegers. In truth, as the days dwindled down in December, it became clear that General Hood had the Yankees trapped–just where old Pap Thomas wanted them. General Winter was doing most of the fighting for the wily Thomas, an ice storm hindering any movement by either side.

The Battle of Nashville in mid December 1864 sealed the Confederacy’s fate. (Attack on Shy’s Hill by Howard Pyle).
General George Thomas, the “Rock of Chickamauga” and the “Sledge of Nashville.”

Finally on the fifteenth of December, General George Thomas unleashed his massive onslaught against the Rebel army the likes of which had not been seen before in the war. Over two days of constant pounding, the outnumbered Confederates resisted bravely but their cause was doomed. It was a battle of annihilation. By the end of the battle the Army of Tennessee was in tatters, demoralized and had virtually ceased to exist as an effective fighting force.

It was said that the road southward from Nashville that Christmas was marked in red—the trail the bloody feet of the shoeless Rebel survivors left in the snow as they fled back to Alabama. The pursuit did not lessen up until the remnants of the Rebels had crossed the Tennessee River.

For Union troops it was a joyous time; but it was a cheerless Christmas for those Southern troops still alive to mark its passing.

The victory at Nashville was indeed a welcome relief to Lincoln that Christmas, and while Thomas had not the dramatic flair of Sherman, his victory was more important strategically.

Christmas in the Lincoln White House 1864

While the Lincolns are not thought to have had a Christmas tree in the White House, it is known that the President would take Tad to the city’s best toy shop, Stuntz’s Toy Store, to buy him presents. 

Lincoln and Tad often visited Stuntz’s Toy Shop in Washington, DC

Unlike many parents of their day who believed in “spare the rod, spoil the child,” both Abraham and Mary Lincoln were indulgent parents, who indulged their boys in most things.  Likely, Lincoln and Tad would have been in Stuntz’s that Christmas.

Artist’s conception of the Lincoln family at Christmas Dinner

For the North, 1864 would be a Christmas of anticipation and joy for many.  For the South, it was a season of diminishing hope. The South still had its pride left to sustain it—the kind of pride that goes before the fall.

For more on Lincoln, read The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln and Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War.  Now out is Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, published by the University of Tennessee Press.

Ambrose Bierce is famed as a noted American writer, satirist and cynic. Less well known is Bierce’s military career during the Civil War, where he fought with distinction in many of the major battles of the war. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife chronicles his wartime experiences in depth for the first time.
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.

Christmas 1864, PART 1: A “Starvation” Christmas in Richmond. A Civil War Christmas

Christmas 1864. Richmond.  Christmas is traditionally a celebration of abundance and cheer; but as Charles Dickens pointed out in his famous Yuletide tale, for many it can also be a time of want, need and hunger. 

The South had seceded to much jubilation and overweening confidence—some would say arrogance.  They would lick the Yankees in a few months it was boasted, and then the Confederacy would be a proud, independent nation and everyone would live happily ever after—except the slaves, of course. But by Christmas of 1864, that confidence had waned drastically, with Richmond under siege and Southern forces in retreat on all fronts.

The Confederate “White House” where the Davis family resided during the war. One of their children died there. By Christmas of 1864, although still defiant, privation and defeat were in the air.

The following memoir was written by Varina Davis, the wife of former Confederate president, Jefferson C. Davis.  She contributed it to a newspaper in that hotbed of Secessionism, New York City, in 1896.  While she had the advantage of hindsight, it is nonetheless enlightening as to conditions in the Confederate capital during the last Christmas of the War.  So be your Christmas merry or morose, may this serve as a reminder of how the once proud overlords of King Cotton South– and the “mudsills” who had made their wealth possible– managed during that last winter of the Civil War:

Varina Davis, the beautiful and sympathetic wife of the Confederate President, gave a vivid description of the Christmas of 1864 in Richmond.

“…Rice, flour, molasses and tiny pieces of meat, most of them sent to the President’s wife anonymously to be distributed to the poor, had all be weighed and issued, and the playtime of the family began, but like a clap of thunder out of a clear sky came the information that the orphans at the Episcopalian home had been promised a Christmas tree and the toys, candy and cakes must be provided, as well as one pretty prize for the most orderly girl among the orphans. The kind-hearted confectioner was interviewed by our committee of managers, and he promised a certain amount of his simpler kinds of candy, which he sold easily a dollar and a half a pound, but he drew the line at cornucopias to hold it, or sugared fruits to hang on the tree, and all the other vestiges of Christmas creations which had lain on his hands for years. The ladies dispersed in anxious squads of toy-hunters, and each one turned over the store of her children’s treasures for a contribution to the orphans’ tree, my little ones rushed over the great house looking up their treasure: eyeless dolls, three-legged horses, tops with the upper peg broken off, rubber tops, monkeys with all the squeak gone silent and all the ruck of children’s toys that gather in a nursery closet.

Makeshift Toys for the Orphans

Some small, feathered chickens and parrots which nodded their heads in obedience to a weight beneath them were furnished with new tail feathers, lambs minus much of their wool were supplied with a cotton wool substitute, rag dolls were plumped out and recovered with clean cloth, and the young ladies painted their fat faces in bright colors and furnished them with beads for eyes.

But the tug of war was how to get something with which to decorate the orphans’ tree. Our man servant, Robert Brown, was much interested and offered to make the prize toy. He contemplated a “sure enough house, with four rooms.” His part in the domestic service was delegated to another and he gave himself over in silence and solitude to the labors of the architect.

My sister painted mantel shelves, door panels, pictures and frames for the walls, and finished with black grates in which there blazed a roaring fire, which was pronounced marvelously realistic. We all made furniture of twigs and pasteboard, and my mother made pillows, mattresses, sheets and pillow cases for the two little bedrooms.

Christmas Eve a number of young people were invited to come and string apples and popcorn for the trees; a neighbor very deft in domestic arts had tiny candle moulds made and furnished all the candles for the tree. However the puzzle and triumph of all was the construction of a large number of cornucopias. At last someone suggested a conical block of wood, about which the drawing paper could be wound and pasted. In a little book shop a number of small, highly colored pictures cut out and ready to apply were unearthed, and our old confectioner friend, Mr. Piazzi, consented, with a broad smile, to give “all the love verses the young people wanted to roll with the candy.”

A Christmas Eve Party

About twenty young men and girls gathered around small tables in one of the drawing rooms of the mansion and the cornucopias were begun. The men wrapped the squares of candy, first reading the “sentiments” printed upon them, such as “Roses are red, violets blue, sugar’s sweet and so are you,” “If you love me as I love you no knife can cut our love in two.” The fresh young faces, wreathed in smiles, nodded attention to the reading, while with their small deft hands they gined the cornucopias and pasted on the pictures. Where were the silk tops to come from? Trunks of old things were turned out and snippings of silk and even woolen of bright colors were found to close the tops, and some of the young people twisted sewing silk into cords with which to draw the bags up. The beauty of those home-made things astonished us all, for they looked quite “custom-made,” but when the “sure enough house” was revealed to our longing gaze the young people clapped their approbation, while Robert, whose sense of dignity did not permit him to smile, stood the impersonation of successful artist and bowed his thanks for our approval. Then the coveted eggnog was passed around in tiny glass cups and pronounced good. Crisp home-made ginger snaps and snowy lady cake completed the refreshments of Christmas Eve. The children allowed to sit up and be noisy in their way as an indulgence took a sip of eggnog out of my cup, and the eldest boy confided to his father: “Now I just know this is Christmas.” In most of the houses in Richmond these same scenes were enacted, certainly in every one of the homes of the managers of the Episcopalian Orphanage. A bowl of eggnog was sent to the servants, and a part of everything they coveted of the dainties.

At last quiet settled on the household and the older members of the family began to stuff stockings with molasses candy, red apples, an orange, small whips plaited by the family with high-colored crackers, worsted reins knitted at home, paper dolls, teetotums made of large horn bottoms and a match which could spin indefinitely, balls of worsted rags wound hard and covered with old kid gloves, a pair of pretty woolen gloves for each, either cut of cloth and embroidered on the back or knitted by some deft hand out of home-spun wool. For the President there were a pair of chamois-skin riding gauntlets exquisitely embroidered on the back with his monogram in red and white silk, made, as the giver wrote, under the guns of Fortress Monroe late at night for fear of discovery. There was a hemstitched linen handkerchief, with a little sketch in indelible ink in one corner; the children had written him little letters, their grandmother having held their hands, the burthen of which compositions was how they loved their dear father. For one of the inmates of the home, who was greatly loved but whose irritable temper was his prominent failing, there was a pretty cravat, the ends of which were embroidered, as was the fashion of the day. The pattern chosen was simple and on it was pinned a card with the word “amiable” to complete the sentence. One of the [missing] received a present of an illuminated copy of Solomon’s proverbs found in the same old store from which the pictures came. He studied it for some time and announced: “I have changed my opinion of Solomon, he uttered such unnecessary platitudes — now why should he have said ‘The foolishness of a fool is his folly’?”

On Christmas morning the children awoke early and came in to see their toys. They were followed by the negro women, who one after another “caught” us by wishing us a merry Christmas before we could say it to them, which gave them a right to a gift. Of course, there was a present for every one, small though it might be, and one who had been born and brought up at our plantation was vocal in her admiration of a gay handkerchief. As she left the room she ejaculated: “Lord knows mistress knows our insides; she jest got the very thing I wanted.”

The Davis family tried to make the best of Christmas, despite the lack of even basic staples. Gifts were homemade and simple.  Supper was spare, but there was still a celebration

Strange Presents

For me there were six cakes of delicious soap, made from the grease of ham boiled for a family at Farmville, a skein of exquisitely fine gray linen thread spun at home, a pincushion of some plain brown cotton material made by some poor woman and stuffed with wool from her pet sheep, and a little baby hat plaited by the orphans and presented by the industrious little pair who sewed the straw together. They pushed each other silently to speak, and at last mutely offered the hat, and considered the kiss they gave the sleeping little one ample reward for the industry and far above the fruit with which they were laden. Another present was a fine, delicate little baby frock without an inch of lace or embroidery upon it, but the delicate fabric was set with fairy stitches by the dear invalid neighbor who made it, and it was very precious in my eyes. There were also a few of Swinburne’s best songs bound in wall-paper and a chamois needle-book left for me by young Mr. P., now succeeded to his title in England. In it was a Brobdingnagian thimble “for my own finger, you know,” said the handsome, cheerful young fellow.

If Christmas was threadbare in Richmond, for Confederate soldiers at the front it was far more Spartan.

After breakfast, at which all the family, great and small, were present, came the walk to St. Paul’s Church. We did not use our carriage on Christmas or, if possible, to avoid it, on Sunday. The saintly Dr. Minnegerode preached a sermon on Christian love, the introit was sung by a beautiful young society woman and the angels might have joyfully listened. Our chef did wonders with the turkey and roast beef and drove the children quite out of their propriety by a spun sugar hen, life-size, on a nest full of blanc mange eggs. The mince pie and plum pudding made them feel, as one of the gentlemen laughingly remarked, “like their jackets were buttoned,” a strong description of repletion which I have never forgotten. They waited with great impatience and evident dyspeptic symptoms for the crowning amusement of the day, “the children’s tree.” My eldest boy, a chubby little fellow of seven, came to me several times to whisper: “Do you think I ought to give the orphans my I.D. studs?” When told no, he beamed with the delight of an approving conscience. All throughout the afternoon first one little head and then another popped in at the door to ask: “Isn’t it 8 o’clock yet?,” burning with impatience to see the “children’s tree.”

When at last we reached the basement of St. Paul’s Church the tree burst upon their view like the realization of Aladdin’s subterranean orchard, and they were awed by its grandeur.

Jefferson Davis, the embattled president of the Confederacy, tried to put on his best face for the holiday and played Santa for war orphans.

Davis Plays Santa Claus

The orphans sat mute with astonishment until the opening hymn and prayer and the last amen had been said, and then they at a signal warily and slowly gathered around the tree to receive from a lovely young girl their allotted present. The different gradations from joy to ecstasy which illuminated their faces was “worth two years of peaceful life” to see. The President became so enthusiastic that he undertook to help in the distribution but worked such wild confusion giving everything asked for into their outstretched hands, that we called a halt, so he contented himself with unwinding one or two tots from a network of strung popcorn in which they had become entangled and taking off all apples he could when unobserved, and presenting them to the smaller children. When at last the house was given to the “honor girl” she moved her lips without emitting a sound, but held it close to her breast and went off in a corner to look and be glad without witnesses.

“When the lights were fled, the garlands dead, and all but we departed” we also went home to find that Gen. Lee had called in our absence, and many other people. Gen. Lee had left word that he had received a barrel of sweet potatoes for us, which had been sent to him by mistake. He did not discover the mistake until he had taken his share (a dishful) and given the rest to the soldiers! We wished it had been much more for them and him.

In Richmond, the belles, Varina Davis tells us, were, “fragile as fairies, but worked like peasants for their home and country.” From Godey’s Ladies Book, featuring fashions for Christmas, 1864.

A Starvation Dance

The night closed with a “starvation” party, where there were no refreshments, at a neighboring house. The rooms lighted as well as practicable, some one willing to play dance music on the piano and plenty of young men and girls comprised the entertainment. Sam Weller’s soiry, consisting of boiled mutton and capers, would have been a royal feast in the Confederacy. The officers, who rode into town with their long cavalry boots pulled well up over their knees, but splashed up their waists, put up their horses and rushed to the places where their dress uniform suits had been left for safekeeping. They very soon emerged, however, in full toggery and entered into the pleasures of their dance with the bright-eyed girls, who many of them were fragile as fairies, but worked like peasants for their home and country. These young people are gray-haired now, but the lessons of self-denial, industry and frugality in which they became past mistresses then, have made of them the most dignified, self-reliant and tender women I have ever known — all honor to them.

So, in the interchange of the courtesies and charities of life, to which we could not add its comforts and pleasures, passed the last Christmas in the Confederate mansion.”

—Varina Davis, “Christmas in the Confederate White House,” New York Sunday World, December 13, 1896. Many former Confederates found a congenial home in New York City after the war, where they found the upper class had more in common with the former overlords of the South than the multitude of “mudsills” in the Union armies who suppressed Secessionism, saved the Nation and freed the slaves.

For more stories of the Civil War, see Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.  Now in print, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, chronicles the famous American author’s wartime experiences.

Ambrose Bierce is famed as a noted American writer, satirist and cynic. Less well known is Bierce’s military career during the Civil War, where he fought with distinction in many of the major battles of the war. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife chronicles his wartime experiences in depth for the first time
For the first time documents Abraham Lincoln’s beliefs and experiences dealing with the paranormal. The Paranormal Presidency chronicles his prophetic dreams, premonitions and beliefs, as well as his participation in séances and Spiritualism.

Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True tales of the Civil War, uncanny, strange and wondrous.

Christmas 1863. Ought it not be Merry Christmas? A Civil War Christmas

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

Christmas 1863 had been a pivotal year, even if many on both sides still did not realize it. During the summer, the Federals had scored three stunning triumphs across the nation, all done at the same time. The Fourth of July 1863 witnessed the fall of Vicksburg to Grant; the defeat & retreat of Lee before Gettysburg; plus, Old Rosey had outfoxed, outmaneuvered and generally bumfuzzled General Bragg and his hard-fighting Army of Tennessee, pushing them all the way back to northern Alabama and Georgia, with only the city of Chattanooga remaining to open the door to the deep South.

But all was not lost for the Confederacy, not yet at least. The invasion of the North had not succeeded, true, but Lee withdrew in good order and the Army of Northern Virginia re-crossed the Potomac intact and ready to fight another day. In the Western Theater, Bragg retreated from Chattanooga, but the irascible and erratic Rebel general turned around and whupped Rosecrans at Chickamauga. Even the surrendered Rebel army at Vicksburg had been paroled to fight another day.

As Christmas approached, both sides shad concerns and doubts; but both sides still hoped for eventual victory. At home, meanwhile, loved ones celebrated a bittersweet Christmas as they grieved for those lost and worried for those still at the front. Soldiers far from home celebrated Christmas as best as their situation would allow. Happy were those few who were granted furlough home for the holidays; for these it was indeed a merry, even joyous, Christmas.

As this centerfold from the Harper’s Weekly 1863 Christmas Issue makes clear, those Union soldiers lucky enough to be granted furlough home had a very merry Christmas indeed. A lull in fighting allowed many soldiers in blue to return home. In the Confederacy, even when the military situation allowed, they could not go home for their states were occupied by the enemy.

In East Tennessee, because the 9th Indiana had re-enlisted en masse, they were given a whole month’s leave home, with the proviso they did some recruiting to replace losses in the regiment. Their families were thus granted an extra special Christmas this year. But not every northern household was so lucky as those in northern Indiana where the men of the 9th Indiana spent the holiday. In many households the breadwinner of the family was absent from home and in some cases, not only the father, but all the sons were away as well, leaving many northern women and children to make do and the usual sweets and other gifts were not so abundant this Christmas as before. As Louis May Alcott’s heroine observes at the beginning of her classic tale about the home front during the Civil War, Little Women, “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.” In the end, most households prayed that the “empty chair” would soon be occupied once more rather than pine over a lack of abundance under the Christmas tree.

As in previous wartime Christmases, the arrival of “boxes” was a much-anticipated event among troops in the field. While Christmas care boxes were important for morale among the Federals, for troops in the Confederate camp, it was sometimes ore a matter of survival. One of the many refugees from Tennessee residing in Georgia, Mrs. S.C. Law, grew concerned about the frontline Confederate troops in December of 1863 and resolved to get as many “boxes” filled with necessities to them by Christmas:

While at Columbus, Ga., I heard of the terrible destitution of the soldiers at Dalton, Ga. in Gen. J.E. Johnston’s division. Hundreds, yes, thousands of soldiers having to sit up all night round a log fire, for want of a blanket. I was so greatly troubled to hear of the brave heroes standing like a “stone wall” between the women and children of the South and the enemy, that after a sleepless night, I went directly to a Ladies’ Aid Society, where a number of patriotic women…were at work for the soldiers. I told what I had heard of the suffering, for want of blankets by the soldiers and made an appeal to them for aid, telling them if they would furnish the blankets, I would go in person to Dalton and distribute them to the soldiers… and in one week large boxes were packed with one hundred blankets, three hundred pairs of socks, several boxes of underclothing for the needy soldiers.

….. On Christmas night I left for Dalton, accompanied by the noble, patriotic president of that Aid Society…. I then sent a note to Gen. Hardee, (Gen. Johnston being absent) telling him my mission. He came immediately. I told him I desired to go to the different commands, as I had promised the Ladies’ Aid Society to do…That evening a wagon was sent, with twenty soldiers, to receive the blankets I had brought… and I distributed blankets and clothing to those who needed them….

I then returned to Columbus, wrote and published in the papers what I had seen and heard at Dalton, of the great need of blankets for the Confederate soldiers, and made another appeal to that Ladies’ Aid Society for more blankets….The women and children worked night and day, and in ten days I returned to the army in Dalton with seven large dry goods boxes, one for Tennessee, one for Kentucky, one for Mississippi, one for Louisiana, one for Arkansas, one for Missouri, and one for Texas, all packed with five hundred and thirty blankets and coverings, and sixteen hundred pairs of socks for the soldiers…. but for the generous aid of the noble, patriotic women of Columbus, Ga. I would have been powerless to have taken those needed stores of blankets and socks to our suffering soldiers.

Henry Kyd Douglas, a handsome young Irishman who served on Stonewall Jackson’s staff, spent Christmas 1863 in the Yankee prison camp on Johnson Island. He is best known for his evocative memoir of his service in the Stonewall Brigade.

For those captured at Gettysburg, their Christmas was less than a joyous one. Henry Kyd Douglas, formerly on Stonewall Jackson’s staff, had been taken during the three-day battle and was held in an overcrowded Yankee prison at Johnson Island at Christmas. The Rebel prisoners did get Christmas boxes from home, but only after their captors had inspected them to make sure the contents were “safe” to be distributed. Kyd notes in his memoirs:

“There came a carload of boxes for the prisoners about Christmas which after reasonable inspection, they were allowed to receive. My box contained more cause for merriment and speculation as to its contents than satisfaction. It had received rough treatment on its way, and a bottle of catsup had broken and its contents very generally distributed through the box. Mince pie and fruit cake saturated with tomato catsup was about as palatable as “embalmed beef” of the Cuban memory, but there were other things. Then, too, 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, adroitly recorded, and sent in. I hope the Yankee who played that practical joke lived to repent it and was shot before the war ended.….”

Frederick Cavada was Colonel of the 114th Pennsylvania Zouaves when captured at Gettysburg in 1863. After the war he returned to Cuba and led Cuban patriots fight Spanish occupation.

Lt. Colonel Frederic Cavada, of the 114th Pennsylvania, was also captured at Gettysburg but by the opposite side. He found Christmas at Richmond’s Libby Prison equally, if not more, dismal a holiday destination. He tells us that, “The north wind comes reeling in fitful gushes through the iron bars and jingles a sleigh-bell in the prisoner’s ear, and puffs in his pale face with a breath suggestively odorous of eggnog.” The colonel and his fellow prisoner improvised a Christmas supper of sorts, with a tea-towel for their tablecloth over a wooden box. The inmates even put on a Christmas Ball, of sorts, with a great deal of “bad dancing” in torn uniforms. Cavada closes his memoir of Christmas 1863 with the note, “Christmas Day! A day which was made for smiles, not sighs – for laughter, not tears – for the hearth, not prison.”

For civilians in the South, Christmas of 1863 was far less joyous than ever before, with the Union naval blockade beginning to have its effect. Many items that had been standard fare had to be substituted with something else – “ersatz”– such as chicory and roasted grain for coffee (and if you have ever tasted chicory tea you know how awful it can be); trees were trimmed with pig’s ears and tails instead of candy canes and small presents and mothers tried to improvise gifts as best they could. Many children went without anything at all, and all their heartbroken mothers could say to them was that “Santa couldn’t get through the blockade.”

In the White House during the Lincoln years, like many northern households, there was no Christmas Tree in evidence. Nonetheless, the Lincoln family observed the holiday in a manner that would have done Charles Dickens proud. Earlier in the war, Mary visited the hospitals at Christmas to tend to the wounded; she also raised thousands of dollars to provide Christmas Dinner for those without and similarly raised money to provide oranges and lemons for the soldiers when she heard of the danger of scurvy among the troops, whose regular military rations lacked such amenities. Mary went about all such charitable work quietly and without any fanfare, even as her many detractors North and South labeled her as vain and selfish.

Tad had been fond of dressing up like a soldier in the white house, having gotten Secretary of War Stanton's special permission to wear an officer's uniform.
Tad was fond of dressing like a soldier, having gotten Secretary of War Stanton’s special permission to wear an officer’s uniform.

During Christmas of 1863, young Tad Lincoln accompanied his father to visit the wounded soldiers in the hospitals in Washington. Tad could not help but notice how sad and lonely many of the young soldiers looked. Tad had been fond of dressing up like a soldier in the white house, even getting hold of an old musket once, and so he closely identified with the wounded warriors he saw. He prevailed on his father that he might send them books and clothing for Christmas, and Lincoln agreed. Soldiers in the hospitals in the Washington area that Yuletide received presents signed, “From Tad Lincoln.”

Young Tad also started a holiday tradition which is still observed to this day. Tad befriended a turkey that was being fattened for Christmas Dinner, nicknaming him “Jack.” When the lad learned the fate that awaited Jack, Tad burst into a cabinet meeting to plead with his father to spare Jack’s life.

Most fathers of that day would have rewarded their son with a whipping for breaking in on an important business meeting, but Lincoln was more indulgent than most, especially after losing his middle son Willie to a fever. President Lincoln therefore drew up a formal pardon and officially signed it, sparing Jack’s turkey neck to gobble for another year.

Statue honoring “Jack” erected in Hartford by Lincoln Financial Group, created by New York artist Philip Grausman.

Young Tad was a precocious lad and at times a handful for the staff in the White House; yet he had his father’s great heart and an empathy for others. Had he survived to adulthood he may well have followed in this father’s steps.

While he never uttered the words of Dickens’ Tiny Tim, one could well imagine the precocious young Tad Lincoln bursting out that Christmas of ’63 at dinner: “God Bless Us Everyone!”

Forbes, “Christmas Dinner on the Picket Line”

For more about Lincoln and his family, see The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, and for curious lore about the Civil War, read Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War.  Now in print is Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, about the famous author and his service in the Civil War.

Ambrose Bierce, famed American author, is best known for his macabre fiction and cynical humor, served as a soldier in the front lines throughout the Civil War. Bierce’s wartime experiences were the transformative events of the young author’s life. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife for the first time chronicles this pivotal period of Bierce’s life.
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.
The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer) chronicles documented encounters by Lincoln and family with the uncanny, esoteric and unexplained.

Christmas 1862, Part 3: “My home is in the bivouac.” A Civil War Christmas

William Gordon McCabe, was a soldier in the Confederate Army, and in the postwar era a noted Latin scholar with the University of Virginia. In December of 1862 he was moved to write this poem expressing his feelings while on guard duty in winter bivouac around Christmas of that year. It is known as “Christmas, 1862” and occasionally by its last line, “My Home is in the Bivouacs.” Although we do not honor the cause he and his comrades fought for, or the banner they fought under, we may still honor those American soldiers who served honorably and well and commemorate in word and prayer the trials and travail which soldiers on both sides endured.

It may seem so long ago, but the notion that the Nation could tear itself apart over something not worth the taking of one human life is something that is not so far away today–perhaps more so than at any time since then. If, instead of being told you were being sent overseas to “defend Democracy,” you were informed that you were to endure suffering, privation and death so a handful of Oil Barons might become even more obscenely rich, would you still go? Then be not too hasty in your condemnation, if an earlier generation of Americans were similarly deceived, and did their duty as they saw it.

William Gordon McCabe‘s poem has been preserved through the good offices of the Civil War Trust, now known as The American Battlefield Trust, which seeks to preserve sites and monuments commemorating our past from destruction by commercial greed and, more recently, by extremists who seek to erase our history.

The Vedette by N. C. Wyeth. A vedette was the cavalry equivalent of a picquet or advance guard.

Christmas Night of ’62

The wintry blast goes wailing by,
the snow is falling overhead;
I hear the lonely sentry’s tread,
and distant watch-fires light the sky.

Dim forms go flitting through the gloom;
The soldiers cluster round the blaze
To talk of other Christmas days,
And softly speak of home and home

My saber swinging overhead,
gleams in the watch-fire’s fitful glow,
while fiercely drives the blinding snow,
and memory leads me to the dead.

My thoughts go wandering to and fro,
vibrating ‘twixt the Now and Then;
I see the low-browed home again,
the old hall wreathed in mistletoe.

And sweetly from the far off years
comes borne the laughter faint and low,
the voices of the Long Ago!
My eyes are wet with tender tears.

I feel again the mother kiss,
I see again the glad surprise
That lighted up the tranquil eyes
And brimmed them o’er with tears of bliss

As, rushing from the old hall-door,
She fondly clasped her wayward boy –
Her face all radiant with they joy
She felt to see him home once more.

My saber swinging on the bough
Gleams in the watch-fire’s fitful glow,
while fiercely drives the blinding snow
aslant upon my saddened brow.

Those cherished faces are all gone!
Asleep within the quiet graves
where lies the snow in drifting waves, –
And I am sitting here alone.

There’s not a comrade here tonight
but knows that loved ones far away
on bended knees this night will pray:
“God bring our darling from the fight.”

But there are none to wish me back,
for me no yearning prayers arise
the lips are mute and closed the eyes –
My home is in the bivouac.

William Gordon McCabe

“On Picket in Winter”

For more on the Civil War, read Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln and Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, available at better bookstores everywhere,

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife: The Civil War and the Emergence of an American Writer. Chronicles his wartime career with the 7th Indiana Infantry and Army of the Cumberland. He fought at Stones River, Shiloh, Chickamauga and Nashville, as well as other major battles and campaigns of the war.
For those to whom the Long Shadows of the War still cast shade upon their souls, Ghost and Haunts of the Civil War is the book for you.
The Paranormal Presidency documents a lesser-known side of Abraham Lincoln, but one that played an important role in his life and career.

Christmas 1862, Part 2: Home Sweet Home. A Civil War Christmas

Louis Prang’s somewhat romanticized portrayal of Christmas in 1862. Many a Union soldier wished the food were that abundant at the front.

Back east both armies had had enough fighting at Fredericksburg before Christmas to satisfy the politicians and so Christmas Day, as cold and snowy as it was, came as peaceful relief. Not so in the western Confederacy.

Out west, Christmas Day was anything but a day of peace for the Army of the Cumberland. The days leading up to the Holy Day were filled with ‘alarms and excursions’ as Federal units were alternatively being told to prepare to march the next morning or else sent on “foraging” expeditions to skirmish with Rebels picquets and gather up whatever foodstuffs they could steal from area farmers.

“The Alarmed Picket” (Harpers Weekly, 1862) A common occurrence on guard duty, when one never knew when the sound of a broken branch was an enemy attack or some animal hunting for food.

The army quartermaster apparently dreamed up a new foodstuff to torture the soldiers with for the holiday besides the standard hardtack and salt pork. This was something the soldiers called “Hot Trinity.” In an effort to provide vegetables, some commissary officer at headquarters evidently combined every vegetable they could lay their hands on, partially cooked them and then, using a brick mold otherwise used to make building materials, compressed and then dried them into hard compacted mass. One midwestern soldier gives us a first-hand account of the result:

“It was queer looking stuff, pressed into cakes a foot square and two inches thick and consisting of all possible garden greens…. When to be used, they were soaked in water overnight which dissolved the cakes. It needed a tremendous boiling to get it done, some bacon or grease was added and it was ready to be served, but nobody could tell exactly how it tasted because there were so many tastes that it was difficult to give any one the preference, except that all agreed that it was hot, hot like blazes.”

Whoever was in charge of its composition apparently had an overabundance of hot red peppers on hand and used them in larger proportion than the other ingredients, at least according to the palates of mid-western Yankee soldiers for, “when you began to eat it, it was hot, when you were half through it was hotter, and when you have done with it, it is just the hottest.” Hence the sobriquet “Hot Trinity.”

“Christmas Dinner on the Picket Line” by Forbes. Beyond the comradery of the regimental bivouacs, soldiers still had to do guard duty on Christmas, which could be a lonely affair.

In the many bivouacs that dotted the city of Nashville and its environs, the Federal soldiers did their best to enjoy the holiday, the different regiments each according to their own inclinations. A few units went out on foraging details on Christmas Day, but other than those, it was generally a quiet day for the Army of the Cumberland. Not so at headquarters, however.

Almost from the day he was appointed to command the army, General Rosecrans was under pressure from Washington to take the field against the Confederate foe. Old Rosey (as his men called him) may have felt unfairly put upon by the Lincoln administration, but in truth all the field commanders had been pressured to undertake major operations as fall turned into winter.

In the east, Burnside’s ill prepared campaign had resulted in the debacle of Fredericksburg. Along the Mississippi, Grant’s army was tasked with taking the “Gibraltar” of the west—Vicksburg. Although Grant’s initial maneuvers were bloodily repulsed, they at least had the saving grace of giving Washington the appearance of action and so temporarily relieved Grant from the pressure for further action.

Rosecrans, hastily appointed after his predecessor’s summary dismissal, had the task of merging two armies into one unified whole, as well as reorganizing the units under his command, whom he found in disarray and whose leadership in many cases were incompetent or craven. Meanwhile, resupply was greatly impeded by Rebel guerillas and cavalry raiders constantly attacking overland supply lines, railroads and outlying garrisons. All the while, the Lincoln administration was dunning Rosecrans to take to the field with his force, prepared or not.

Although Rosecrans would have preferred more time, by Christmas he could forestall the Lincoln administration no longer. On Christmas Day, at the Army of the Cumberland’s headquarters, in the Cunningham house on what is today Sixth Avenue North, was abuzz with activity. Messengers were coming and going, and the generals and their aides had gathered to receive their final marching orders. That evening, after a brief consult with General Thomas, Rosecrans came into the room where his corps and divisional commanders were gathered and gave them the final command:

“We move tomorrow gentlemen! We shall begin to skirmish, probably as soon as we pass the outposts. Press them hard! Drive them out of their nests! Make them fight or run! Strike hard and fast! Give them no rest! Fight them! Fight them! Fight, I say!” And with that, Old Rosey’s right hand “dashed into the palm of his sacrificed left, ringing as is cymbals were clanging” to further punctuate the drama of his oratory.

In the early morning darkness, some 44,000 men moved out in columns from their camps along designated routes southward. The Confederate Army was deployed around the nearby city of Murfreesboro, some thirty miles distant. Despite desultory skirmishing, heavy rains and Confederate cavalry harassing their flanks and rear, Federal forces advanced on the main Rebel positions with a steady but determined progress and by the 30th, they were facing off against Bragg’s Army of Tennessee along Stone’s River, which meandered just a little north of the city of Murfreesboro.

As the troops on both sides settled in for the, with nervous anticipation of a major battle on the morrow, one of the regimental bands began to strike up a tune to raise the spirits of their side. Which regimental band began the serenade is not recorded, nor even whether the first band to play was Yankee or Rebel. At first the brass bands played patriotic tunes: “Hail Columbia!” was answered by “Bonnie Blue Flag,” “Star Spangled Banner” versus “Dixie.” Somewhere in the musical duel, the songs grew more sentimental: “Lorena,” “Aura Lee” and the like.

At last, as the musicians waxed homesick, one of the brass bands started up “Home Sweet Home” touching a common chord on both sides. Soon another band chimed in, and another, followed by voices from men in the encampments. Soon, it was no longer a competing cacophony of brass, but a sad, bittersweet harmony as soldiers, blue and gray alike, were reminded of loved ones at home that, after tomorrow, they might never see again:

No more from that cottage again will I roam,
Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.”

Destroyed artillery, Stones River Battlefield.

Beginning “at first light” on the 31st and again on January 2, a savage, bloody contest was fought along the banks of Stones River. It was one of the bloodiest battles of the war, with one of the highest casualty rates per unit recorded in either army. Both sides claimed victory–although when the smoke cleared from the massed Union artillery barrage overlooking McFadden’s Ford on second of January, the stream had turned a ghastly crimson hue, dyed with the blood of Breckenridge’s brave troops and it was shivering Federal troops, bloodied but unbroken, who remained on the corpse-strewn field of battle. When Rosecrans telegraphed the results, Lincoln optimistically declared it a victory–although none but the Grim Reaper could truly be said to have won the contest.

On both sides of Stones River, the fading strains of music had summoned wistful memories of home as they drifted off to sleep that night before the battle—a home many would never see again. For those who fell beside its curving banks, this had been their last Christmas. And the long shadows of that fading New Year’s Day would cast pallid shade across their final resting places by the shallow stream they’d fought beside.

Winslow Homer, “Home, Sweet Home” (1863), National Gallery of Art. Whether inspired by the incident at Stones River or not, the painting reflects the common soldier’s pensive response to their regimental band playing this nostalgic song.

For those of you who are new to Nashville and unaware of its Civil War heritage, or who enjoy Bluegrass music AND Civil War history, let me recommend a group named The Steeldrivers. In particular, they did one song that relates to the Battle of Stones River and the topic we just discussed. They tell it far better than I ever possibly could: “River Runs Red“. Also check out “Sticks That Made Thunder.” Take a listen and go see them live if you can.

My latest book on the Late Unpleasantness, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, is now out and available at all the better bookstores. For those to whom the Long Shadows of the War still cast a shade upon their souls, Ghost and Haunts of the Civil War is recommended. For esoteric aspects of Abraham Lincoln and his presidency, read The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln; there are those who may scoff at Lincoln’s beliefs in the paranormal, but I have gone back to primary sources of the period and document it.

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife: The Civil War and the Emergence of an American Writer. Chronicles his wartime career with the 9th Indiana Infantry and Army of the Cumberland. He fought at Stones River, Shiloh, Chickamauga and Nashville, as well as other major battles and campaigns of the war.

Christmas 1862, Part 1: Divided and United. A Civil War Christmas


CHRISTMAS 1862. It had been a bloodier year than either side had counted on–on that fact all could agree. December of ’62 proved a bloodier month than most. Yet despite all the death and destruction, Christmas that year still offered a glimmer of hope that goodwill and peace might prevail.

Christmas Eve, 1862. Both sides were filled with thoughts of home, sweet home. Thomas Nast (color version)

The initial optimism of the Confederates after their great victory at Bull Run in ‘61 were dashed in ’62: first by the fall of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in January, followed by widespread panic in the west and loss of the Confederate state capital of Nashville and the ensuing loss of the entire mid-South during February and March, pushing front lines from the Ohio down to the farthest reaches of the Tennessee River Valley.

A Confederate $20 bill showing the Tennessee state capitol, not issued until after the city fell to the Yankees!

To be sure, a combined Confederate force whipped Grant’s overconfident army at Shiloh Church on Easter Sunday, pushing the survivors, battered, shattered and shaken, to the river’s edge at Pittsburgh Landing by day’s end. No sooner had the Rebel army’s commander, Beauregard, declared victory than the next very day they lost to General Buell’s Army of the Ohio, which had arrived in the rain-filled night. The Confederates could claim was a draw, but at a terrible cost The horrific losses of “Bloody Shiloh” in April appalled both sides.

There was also the futile Fall Campaign in Kentucky, where the Army of Tennessee almost conquered the Bluegrass State—almost, but not quite. At the Battle of Perryville, General Braxton Bragg earned his reputation for snatching defeat out of the mouth of victory, by first demolishing the Yankee army’s left flank and then the next day retreating headlong out of the state!

Back east, General Lee, son of a Revolutionary War hero and related by marriage to Washington, a man who avowed to not believe in either slavery or secession, inflicted defeat after defeat on Yankees forces throughout the year. Still, the numerous, better equipped and well-dressed Army of the Potomac kept coming back again and again, with little net effect to claim for either side. On December 13, at the river town of Fredericksburg the latest Union leader, Ambrose Burnside, after piddling away the element of surprise, crossed the Rappahannock and after looting the town, hurled his army against a well-defended ridgeline, behind whose stone wall lay the entire might of the Army of Virginia. It was one of the worst bloodbaths of the war and only darkness halted the Federal slaughter. After the battle, Union & Confederate lines remained more or less as they had before the battle and an unofficial truce prevailed between the two armies as Christmas approached.

The Surgeon with the 13th South Carolina Infantry, Spencer Welch, wrote in a letter to his wife just after Christmas that, “our regiment was on picket at the river a few days ago and the Yankee pickets were on the opposite bank. There is no firing between pickets now…The men do not even have their guns loaded. The two sides talk familiarly with each other, and the Yankees say they are very anxious to have peace and get home.”

On the north bank of the river, a member of the 140th Pennsylvania, was on picquet duty that Christmas, and recorded his Christmas in considerably more detail: “‘And so this is war,’ my old me said to himself while he paced in the snow his two hours on the river’s brink. ‘And I am out here to shoot that lean, lank, coughing, cadaverous-looking butternut fellow over the river….Pshaw, I wish I were home. Let me see. Home? God’s country. A tear? Yes, it is a tear. What are they doing at home? This is Christmas Day. Home? Well, stockings on the wall, candy, turkey, fun, merry Christmas, and the face of the girl I left behind. Another tear? Yes, I couldn’t help it. I was only eighteen, and there was such a contrast between Christmas, 1862, on the Rappahannock and other Christmases.”

Out of boredom, this one young defender of the Union struck up a conversation with his opposite number on the other bank of the river, whose coughing he could hear clear as day:

—–“Hello, Johnny, what you coughing so for?” –

—–“Yank, with no overcoat, shoes full of holes, nothing to eat but parched corn and tobacco, and with this derned Yankee snow a foot deep, there’s no-thin’ left, nothin’ but to get up a cough by way of protestin’ against this infernal ill treatment of the body. We uns, Yank, all have a cough over here, and there’s no sayin’ which will run us to hole first, the cough or
your bullets

After exchanging Christmas salutations and sharing complaints about the miserable cold, and the snowy conditions both sides shared, the Union picquets sent over a small boat with such Christmas gifts as they had on hand: salt pork, sugar and most precious of all, coffee. In a return boat, the boys in butternut sent what they had to spare: parched corn, ripe persimmons and fine Viginia pipe-tobacco. If it wasn’t exactly the gift of the Magi, the gifts both sides received were appreciated as though they’d gotten as though they were frankincense, myrrh and gold.

Somehow, as the two sides settled in to enjoy their humble fare, out there along the edge of the Rappahannock the wind was less biting, the snow less cold and the men on the far bank, for the day at least, seemed less the enemy as fellow soldiers sharing the same experience on Christmas.

As young scholar turned soldier John Paxton observed, “We had bridged the river, spanned the bloody chasm. We
were brothers, not foes, waving salutations of good-will in the name of the Babe of Bethlehem, on Christmas Day in ’62….We exchanged gifts. We shouted greetings back and forth. We kept Christmas and our hearts were lighter for it, and our shivering bodies were not quite so cold.”

General Lee, in his Christmas Day letter to his wife Mary Custis Lee, echoed the sentiments of soldiers on both sides of the Rappahannock:

But what a cruel thing is war: to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world. I pray that, on this day when only peace and good-will are preached to mankind, better thoughts may fill the hearts of our enemies and turn them to peace.” —General Robert E. Lee to his wife, December 25, 1862

Santa visits the Union camp at Christmas. As far as Thomas Nast was concerned, Santa was definitely a Union man.

For those to whom the Long Shadows of the War still cast shade upon their souls, Ghost and Haunts of the Civil War is recommended. For esoteric aspects of Abraham Lincoln and his presidency, see The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln. My latest book on the Late Unpleasantness, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, is now out and available at all the better bookstores

Ambrose Bierce is famed as a noted American writer, satirist and cynic. Less well known is Bierce’s military career during the Civil War, where he fought with distinction in many of the major battles of the war. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife chronicles his wartime experiences in depth for the first time

Christmas 1861 Part 2: Having a Blue–and Gray–Christmas Without You.

CHRISTMAS DAY 1861. Thousands of soldiers, clothed in alternating shades of blue and gray, lay encamped, confronting one another across the battlelines, armed with musket, sword, cannon and bayonet. Far from hearth, home and family, thousands long to be with loved ones on this special day and though the miles are many, thoughts of loved ones are close. Failing to be with those they love most, soldiers seek to make the day as merry as wartime allows. Even if lacking the amenities of home, the boys in blue and those in gray still strive to find a way to make the wintry holiday gay and cheery.

Victoria was Empress of the most powerful nation in the world, but her beloved husband had died only a few days before Christmas
Albert with his remaining strength had helped avert war, although few would know the peace they enjoyed at Christmas was largely of his doing.

Across the ocean, in Britain, Queen Victoria most certainly had a cheerless Christmas. It gave the Queen little solace that, with her beloved husband Prince Albert, they had averted a needless war, and one that could easily become spun into a world war. For, just a short time after helping resolve the crisis with the United States, Prince Albert died in Windsor Castle, on December14.

In the White House, the dominant feeling as Christmas waned was neither grief nor joy but simply relief. A war that no one wanted–except The Mongoose (Lord Palmerston, British Prime Minister) –had been narrowly averted. Some Cabinet members, in the debate over their response to Palmerston’s ultimatum, had at first advocated war, and the possibility of Russia and Prussia allying with the United States in such a war was strong. Although Lincoln initially had been adamant in defending American honor, he came to the realization that, as he said, “one war at a time” was the wiser course of action. The “better angels of our nature” prevailed and if peace on earth, good will to men was not possible Christmas of 1861, peace with Britain was.

Winslow Homer’s depiction of the opening of a Christmas box from home shows the raucous celebration such holiday arrivals were greeted with by Union troops.

Meanwhile, around the Union campfires, soldiers made merry, bolstered by a multitude of boxes of gifts from home. The abundance of Christmas packages delivered was thanks to the efforts of the United States Post Office. From home, families and friends came packages laden with preserves and hard candy, clothing (an abundance of woolen socks it seems) and even uplifting books—the latter duly ignored by the soldiers as they tore into the boxes. Winslow Homer, special artist for Harper’s Weekly, witnessed how boys in blue frolicked on Christmas Day, recording the festivities it with his sketchpad.

The 1st Virginia Cavalry were notable for their distinctive uniform and esprit de corps.

Not far to the south, on the other side of the lines in northern Virginia, boys in gray were celebrating in their traditional way. Just outside of Manassas, where the Battle of Bull Run h had been won just last summer, a small group of officers and men from the 1st Virginia Cavalry were gathered in a Tavern to celebrate the Holiday as befitted such bold cavaliers.

The gentlemen soldiers of the 1st Virginia wore a distinctive garb, which made them an excellent target for Yankee sharpshooters, but also set them apart from more plebian cavalry units. With their broad brimmed and beplumed black hats and jackets sporting distinctive black trim for the coat buttons–The gentlemen soldiers of the 1st Virginia wore distinctive garb which set them apart from more plebian cavalry units, but which also made them an excellent target for Yankee sharpshooters. With their broad brimmed and black hats with large black ostrich plumes, and jackets sporting a distinctive black decoration for the coat buttons–“Hussar Trim”–to decorate their shell jackets, and collars, cuffs and epaulets in black instead of the standard cavalry yellow, the men of the 1st Virginia had a general air of assurance that silently spoke of being scions of FFV’s; and in truth were as skilled an elite group of warriors as they fancied themselves.

This is how Alfred Waud’s field sketch appeared once the engravers at Harper’s Weekly had done their work.

That Christmas day they had gathered at Stuart’s Tavern, which lay along the Little River Turnpike, not far from Bull Run. While the tavern shared the name of their famed commander, likely its title owed more to the Bonnie Prince than it did to J.E.B.  No matter, there was an abundance of punch and egg nogg, suitably fortified with spirits. Later in the day, a table was laid to overflowing with victuals to sate the heartiest of horseman’s appetites, which was, it was averred, of greater capacity than an ordinary soldier’s.

A “cold and dark and dreary” day it may have been without, but a roaring fire glowed from the hearth of the tavern, reflecting off the iron fittings and brass buttons, and the polished steel side-arms standing in the corner, illuming the figures of the men gathered within. After a few toasts and quickly quaffed rounds, the faces around the table also glowed some, although less from the firelight than from their own warm glow within.

Outside, their horses were tied to the front fence, all saddled and ready to mount at a moment’s notice. Despite the celebration, they were ready to return to duty on a moment’s notice. Inside, Captains Drake and Irving, Lieutenants Larrick and two more of the Drake clan, plus horsemen of lesser rank but equal cheer, were all assembled round a large wooden table. The festivities proceeded with jest and song, punctuated by suitable libations at the “Shrine of Bacchus,” with the fragrance of roasting turkey coming from the well-appointed kitchen close at hand. Later a delegation from Wheat’s Battalion also joined the wassail and the assembled multitude culminated their impromptu concert with a chorus or three of “Dixie.”

Farther afield, other Southerners had more mixed sentiments that season. Robert E. Lee, was on duty in South Carolina, far from home and family. He wrote to his wife on Christmas Day, trying to console her:

I cannot let this day of graceful rejoicing pass without some communication with you. I am thankful for the many among the past that I have passed with you, and the remembrance of them fills me with pleasure. For those on which we have been separated we must not repine. Now we must be content with the many blessings we receive.”

Mrs. Lee and the family had been forced to flee from Arlington, their home, which had been seized by the Yankees. She was now a refugee, residing in exile on The Peninsula, south of Richmond. Again, Lee consoled Mary by trying to recall the many happy hours they had passed there: , “They cannot take away the remembrance of the spot, and the memories of those that to us rendered it sacred. That will remain to us as long as life will last, and that we can preserve.”

Stonewall Jackson was in the Shenandoah Valley, bedeviling the Yankees as well as that devout Christian could at Christmas. Nevertheless, despite the war, Jackson took time out to celebrate Christmas with his wife in Winchester, Virginia.

Far to the west, in Cairo, Illinois, Ulysses S. Grant was also able to share the holiday with his family. He celebrated, as well, his promotion to brigadier, and as commandant of that border post. Not long after the holiday, however, Grant would be on the march, with orders to he would undertake a winter campaign along the Tennessee border that would soon catapult him to fame and start him on the road to greatness. But for now, a simple homespun Christmas in Cairo was more than most soldiers of either side could enjoy.

Christmas of 1861 was, for many, still very much a jolly holiday. For some it was a happy season but one tinged with thoughts of loved ones at home. For a few, however, it would be a blue, blue Christmas indeed.

For esoteric aspects of Abraham Lincoln and his presidency, see The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln. For those to whom the Long Shadows of the War still cast shade upon their souls, Ghost and Haunts of the Civil War is recommended. My latest book on the Late Unpleasantness, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, is now out and available at all the better bookstores.

Ambrose Bierce, famed American author, is best known for his macabre fiction and cynical humor, served as a soldier in the front lines throughout the Civil War. Bierce’s wartime experiences were the transformative events of the young author’s life. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife for the first time chronicles this pivotal period of Bierce’s life.