Christmas 1864, Washington D.C. If things were looking dim for Varina Howell and her husband “Jeffie” in Richmond, it was quite the opposite across the Potomac in Washington that same December.
That Fall, General Sherman had begun his famous (or infamous) march through Georgia, but for weeks Lincoln had had no word from Sherman or his army of 62,000.
Finally, on December 21 word came that Sherman had captured the port of Savannah, Georgia. In a telegraph to President Lincoln, General Sherman wrote: “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah…”
When Sherman sent his telegram to the White House, 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 magnanimous towards the citizens of Savannah and “Uncle Billie” provided food and merriment for Christmas to the conquered city.
Sherman meanwhile held a celebratory supper for his officers. He also provided for the citizens of Savannah–with victuals stolen from the farms and plantations of Georgia.
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.
It 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, and Richmond, the Confederate capitol, was doomed.
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. Unlike many parents of their day who believed in “spare the rod, spoil the child,” both Abraham and Mary Lincoln were indulgent parents, who generally spoiled their boys silly. Likely, Lincoln and Tad would have been in Stuntz’s that Christmas.
The situation in Washington and much of the North in 1864 was summed up neatly by Thomas Nast in a famous propaganda poster for Harper’s during Christmas Week of 1864, called The Union Christmas. It depicts President Lincoln standing at a door, with him offering the cold and frostbitten Southern soldiers an invitation to rejoin the Union and enjoy the feast.
For the North, it would be a Christmas of anticipation and joy for many. For the South, it was a season of diminishing hope. The South had but its pride left to sustain it—the kind of pride that goeth before the fall.
For more on Lincoln and the Civil War, 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.