Christmas, 1865. The fighting was over, the armies disbanded and all over the nation men were returning to hearth and home. When the war began the country was an agrarian republic of dispersed and disputing communities; by war’s end the nation was an industrial giant only beginning to flex its might, bound together from coast to coast by a band of steel rails. While most folk still lived on the farm at war’s end, changes were already in the air.
Women, bereft of their husbands, brothers and fathers had become use to fending for themselves; now their men-folk were back by their sides and all hoped things would return to normal, but while no one realized it, society had been fundamentally altered by the war.
Soldiers returned home to warm welcomes from family and friends. Those who were maimed—who’d won their ‘red badge’—were celebrated as heroes; but many of those who came home whole had wounds as well; 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” and men and women simply made do and got on with their lives.
Winslow Homer, whose evocative art captured camp life during the war, captured something of this new domestic reality in his artwork.
Still, all told, Christmas of 1865 in the North was indeed a joyous time: the nation was reunited and 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. 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.” Slavery was at last abolished; the Union victory was complete.
A terrible winter storm struck the east coast just before Christmas that claimed the lives of many aboard ships at sea, but Christmas Day itself dawned bright and clear in New York City, although the rain melted the snow and ice of the previous days, spoiling the usual skating parties in Central Park.
Although the Christmas cover of Harper’s had a religious theme for a change, Thomas Nast still weighed in with his usual centerfold celebrating both Christmas and the Union victory. Although most of the tableau celebrates 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.
In the South, however, the situation was far different. Peace had come to the land 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 still in ruins: Atlanta, Charleston, Columbia and Selma; the work of rebuilding and recovery had just begun. Many parts of the countryside, moreover, 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.
Christmas Eve, December 24, 1865 marked one notable anniversary in the South, however. 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 merriment, with secret handshakes, signs and other occult activities know only to the members of their circle—or kuklos. Although initially organized more from boredom than animosity, the night-time rides of their Kuklos—their Klu Klux Klan—lubricated by large quantities of liquor, soon turned more sinister and more violent. In many parts of the South, civil government had virtually ceased to exist and the isolated Federal garrisons were resented as an occupying army. Life and property were 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.
Added to that was the fact that in the deep South the 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 government, many farmers hid their bales of cotton in hopes of somehow getting it to market either in the North or in England, where cotton was going for record prices. Meanwhile, close behind the Union troops had also 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 their valuable cotton, killing a Federal agent or two in the process was more or less a bonus. Peace was restored, but in the South it was a fragile peace that Christmas and goodwill to their fellow men was in short supply. The process of healing would a long one.
Just before Christmas, the editor of Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly expressed the 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.”
Christmas in 1865 was a joyous affair, to be sure, but for many it was a bittersweet joy.
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. Coming in mid-2016 will be Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, chronicling American author Ambrose Bierce’s wartime experiences with the Army of the Cumberland.