Christmas 1864 would be the last Christmas of the war. In the span of a year things had changed radically; while the North had not yet won, nor was the final outcome yet secure, everywhere it seemed that Union forces were advancing inevitably onward to a final conclusion. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia were besieged at Richmond and Petersburg; Sherman was advancing with fire and sword through Georgia; only at Nashville did it seem like a glimmer of hope for the Confederacy with Hood and the Army of Tennessee besieging Thomas’s Yankee Army of the Cumberland at the beginning of December. 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; and it was a winter few on either side would ever forget.
Varina Davis, the wife of the Confederate president, left a vivid portrait in the besieged capitol that last Christmas of the war. For her, the deprivations of the children were what pained her most: “For as Christmas season was ushered in under the darkest clouds, everyone felt the cataclysm….but the rosy, expectant faces of our little children were a constant reminder that self-sacrifice must be the personal offering of each member of the family. How to satisfy the children when nothing better could be done than the little makeshift attainable in the Confederacy was the problem of the older members of each household.” In the city was an orphanage for children of soldiers killed in the war and for those already short of everything, a special effort was made to provide them with some sort of Christmas cheer. The Davis’ house servant, Robert Brown volunteered to make by hand a doll house from scratch, “a sure enough house, with four rooms,” he called it. It would be a “pretty prize” for the “most orderly girl” among the orphans.
On Christmas night in Richmond they held a “Starvation Dance.” Officers rode into the city from the front—not a far distance anymore—and changed into formal military attire for the event. In “full toggery” they entered into the dance with bright-eyed young belles, whom Varina tells us were, “fragile as fairies, but worked like peasants for their home and country… 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.”
Far to the west, the Confederacies 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. 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, but 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 the 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.”
Holed up in the Lawrence Mansion, overlooking Granny White Pike, 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 just where old Pap Thomas wanted them.
Finally on the fifteenth of December, General George Thomas unleashed an onslaught against the Rebel army the likes of which had not been seen before in the war. Over two days 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 army. It was said that the road southward 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. For the Union troops it was a joyous time; but it was a cheerless holiday for those Southern troops still alive to mark its passage.
The victory at Nashville was indeed a welcome relief to Lincoln that Christmas; but the President also soon received a welcome gift from another quarter. 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.”
There could have been no greater contrast this Christmas between North and South. While the North could look forward to the New Year with hope and good cheer, in Dixie except among the long suppressed loyal population, this Christmas was a hard one and the future seemed dim indeed.
There are many, many more tales of Christmas during the Civil War; these yuletide blogs have served as but a sampler. Some memories of the war at Christmas were happy ones; others tragic; many more mixed the bitter with the sweet. Yet it was this brief era in which the Christmas as we now know came to full flower, as did the nation as a whole. Perhaps some day I may yet tell the story more fully in a book. Who knows; until then, enjoy this Christmas gift and have a New Year.
For a more esoteric view of the Civil War, see Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee and my latest effort, The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Now in print is Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, chronicling Ambrose Bierce’s war career with the 9th Indiana and the Army of the Cumberland.
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.