1863 was a pivotal year for all, even if many folk North and South could not see it yet. During the summer, the North had made three stunning victories, all at the same time: on the Fourth of July Grant took Vicksburg, Meade beat back Lee at Gettysburg and Rosecrans had outfoxed and outmaneuvered the Rebels in the heartland, forcing the Confederates back all the way to northern Alabama and Georgia.
Yet all was not lost for the Confederacy: Lee’s invasion of the north had not succeeded, it is true; but he withdrew in good order and his army recrossed the Potomac to fight another day; Bragg had retreated from Chattanooga, only to turn and whup the Yankee army of Rosecrans at Chickamauga; and the Rebel army that surrendered at Vicksburg was paroled to fight another day. Both sides still had hope of eventual victory; both sides still had concerns and doubts. At home, loved ones grieved for those lost and worried for those still at the front.
Henry Kyd Douglas, who had served under Stonewall Jackson until the latter’s death at Chancellorsville in the spring, was captured at Gettysburg and spent Christmas in durance vile as a guest of the Yankees at Johnson Island prison camp. 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….” There was also a bottle of brandy, but Yankee guards had emptied its contents and refilled it with water.
Lt. Colonel Frederic Cavada of the 114th Pennsylvania, also captured at Gettysburg but by the opposite side, 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 table cloth over a wooden box, and 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 less joyous than ever before; many items that had been standard fare had to be substituted with something else—“ersatz”—such as chicory and roasted grain for coffee (if you have ever tasted chicory tea you know how awful that 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 and all the womenfolk could say to them was that “Santa couldn’t get through the blockade.”
In the North, Christmas was more cheerful overall; but the absence of fathers, brothers and sons was still sorely felt. Happy was the household where their men could get furlough from the front for the holiday; but these were not many. Three year regiments which re-enlisted–like the Ninth Indiana–were given a month’s furlough as a reward and were all send home, some in time for Christmas. For those lucky enough to receive leave, it was indeed a merry holiday.
Still, if northern families did not have to suffer from the blockade, the fact that the breadwinner of the family was absent from home meant that many northern women and children too had to make do, and as Louis May Alcott observed in her classic tale of the home front during the Civil War, Little Women, “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.”
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 such charitable work quietly and without fanfare, even as her many detractors North and South labeled her as vain and selfish.
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.” 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 them, but Lincoln was more indulgent than most, especially after losing his middle son Willie to the fever. President Lincoln therefore drew up a formal pardon and officially signed it, sparing Jack’s turkey neck to gobble for another year.
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 lived 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 young Tad Lincoln bursting out that Christmas at dinner, “God Bless Us Everyone!”
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. In 2016, the University of Tennessee Press will be releasing my latest book, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, about the famous author and his service in the Civil War.