CHRISTMAS, 1861. Across the Potomac from the White House in 1861, although thousands of soldiers faced each other with bayonet and gun and cannon, the attitudes among the combatants was far more merry than among Lincoln and his cabinet that December 25. To be sure, men were far from hearth and home and longed to be with their loved ones. But among their comrades in camp, the soldiers on both sides tried to make merry in their own ways, and if they lacked all the niceties of home, still some found ways to make the holiday special.
On the Union side, at least, there was an abundance of Christmas packages, delivered by the United States Post Office. From home, families and friends sent “care” 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, as special artist for Harper’s Weekly, was present to witness the boys turned soldiers as they frolicked on Christmas Day and document it with his sketch-pad.
On the other side of the lines in northern Virginia, the boys in gray were celebrating in their traditional way, insofar as the war allowed. Just outside of Manassas, where the Battle of Bull Run had been won that summer, a small group of officers and men from the 1st Virginia Cavalry were gathered in a Tavern to celebrate the birth of the Christ-child as befitted the bold Virginia cavaliers.
The gentlemen soldiers of the 1st Virginia wore 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, 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, they were fully as skilled an elite group of warriors as they fancied themselves.
They were gathered that Christmas day 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 cavalry general, 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 and, later in the day, a table laid to overflowing with victuals to fill the largest of cavalryman’s stomachs, which was, it was averred, of greater capacity than the ordinary soldier’s.
It was a “cold and dark and dreary” day without, but a roaring fire glowed from the hearth in the tavern, reflecting off the iron fittings and brass buttons, and the polished steel side-arms standing in the corner, and 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, less some rude and ungentlemanly Yankee foraging party disturb their celebration. 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 the 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.
In the midst of the festivities, a lone horseman appeared at the door to the tavern, apparently with similar motives as the cavalrymen for being there. His uniform was gray as well, but with the collars and cuffs of a captain of infantry. When he saw that there was a private party already going on in the tavern, however, he was about to beat a hasty retreat. The cavaliers of the 1st Virginia were in such good cheer, however, that they were even disposed to welcome a more pedestrian warrior to their midst.
When pressed, the captain of infantry accepted their hospitality and gave them his name and affilitation: Captain Atkins of Wheat’s Battalion. His unit was on picket duty that day and he had been making the rounds to be sure all his men were doing their duty. It being cold and blustery on horseback, he had stopped at Stuart’s to warm up a bit before returning to the cold comfort of his fly-tent. Learning that his commander, Major Wheat, was likewise quartered in a flimsy fly-tent, the horse-masters promptly sent an embassy to Wheat’s headquarters to invite him to share their repast. In due course the major arrived to reinforce their band and with them assailed the alcohol with equal abandon, accompanied by occasional toasts to “Our Dixie Land!”
To those present at Stuart’s Tavern that winter of ’61 it was a particularly memorable Christmas repast; all the more so as for several there it would be their last. By the next year the war had taken its toll and following Christmases saw their numbers further reduced, with Colonel Drake falling in the retreat from Gettysburg and Major Wheat meeting his end at Cold Harbor. In the winter of 1861, the Southern soldier had not yet met defeat and so the boys of ’61 enjoyed that Christmas with “the halo that invested all things with a beautiful romance.”
Farther afield from Stuart’s Tavern, other Southerners had more mixed sentiments that season; Robert E. Lee, for one, was on duty in South Carolina, far from home. He wrote to his wife on Christmas Day, trying to console her. Mrs. Lee and the family had been forced to flee Arlington, their home, which had been seized by the Yankees. She was now a refugee, residing in exile on The Peninsula, south of Richmond.
Stonewall Jackson was in the field as well, in the Shenandoah Valley, bedeviling the Yankees as well as that devout Christian could. But Jackson took time out to celebrate Christmas with his wife in Winchester, Virginia; a brief respite from war which, one surmises, was how his wife became pregnant with child.
In Cairo, Illinois, Ulysses S. Grant was also able to share the holiday with his family and celebrate, as well, his promotion to brigadier and as commandant of that border post. After the holiday he would undertake a winter campaign that would soon catapult him to fame and start him on the road to greatness.
In England, Queen Victoria most certainly had a cheerless Christmas, with her beloved husband, Prince Albert dying just a short time before the holiday.
It doubtless gave Queen Victoria little solace to know that her husband, as one of his final acts–one might call it a heroic act–had helped prevent a needless war with the United States, a war which would surely have benefited no one—save perhaps “The Mongoose” (Prime Minister Palmerston) and his minions.
Christmas of 1861 was for many still a joyous holiday; for some a season tinged with sadness, while for a few it was a dark and joyless time. For most, however, that darkness lay still in the future.
For more true stories of the Late Unpleasantness, see: Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln. My latest nonfiction book on the Civil War, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, is now in print and available at better bookstores everywhere.
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.