The Christmas Picket: A Civil War Christmas, Part 12

alarmed-picket-guard-harpers-weekly-feb-1862
Advance picket guard keeping watch against surprise attack.

December 25, 1861. A nineteen year old private in the Confederate army, Valerius Cincinnatus Giles, was on guard detail along the Potomac River this Winter day, pacing back and forth and occasionally staring over at the Yankees of General Sickles’ New York Brigade on the Maryland side.

Private Giles of the 4th Texas, was on picket duty on December 21, 1861, when he had an uncanny encounter.
Private Giles of the 4th Texas was on picket duty on December 21, 1861, when he had an uncanny encounter.

As a picket, his duty was give the alarm of any enemy activity, lest the vile Yankees should decide to leave the comfort of their warm huts and brave the bleak cold outside. Private Giles’ unit, a detachment of the 4th Texas Infantry, had just relieved another unit guarding that sector. The men would rather have been back in camp, enjoying the holiday as best they could; but duty called, and someone needed to be on duty, no matter what.

Private Giles and his two brothers had all answered the call of duty and volunteered for the Confederate army. Giles, still smartly dressed in his long grey frock coat with black waist belt and black strap over his right shoulder, and adorned with a black Hardee hat with one side turned up, looked the model of a military man. One of Giles’s brothers was serving with the Tenth Texas Infantry in Arkansas, while the other, brother Lew, was with Terry’s Rangers (Eighth Texas Cavalry), somewhere in Kentucky.

There was little likelihood of Valerius being in any personal danger that Christmas; the Yankees desired a break from war that day as much as the Rebels. That afternoon there was a brief to-do when a Yankee steamboat came in sight. But it was soon recognized as a hospital ship and not a gunboat, and so was left alone to ply it trade on the opposite shore.

Picket Duty for either side in Winter was an unpleasant task--all the more so on Christmas Day.  Illustration by William Trego
Picket Duty for either side in Winter was an unpleasant task–all the more so on Christmas Day. Illustration by William Trego

More out of boredom than necessity, Private Giles began to walk his post, tramping through snow knee deep in places. The colder clime of northern Virginia was a change of scene for the Texas boy and there in the piney woods in midwinter, when the earth and green branches of the trees were covered with snow, there was no sound of birds singing or crickets chirping. With not a breath of air blowing, the stillness all around him seemed oppressive.

Valerius’s thoughts naturally started to wander, thinking about his home and family members on that Christmas Day. It was at four p.m. that afternoon when he heard it. He remembered that he was not sleepy or drowsy and perfectly wide awake when he heard it. He heard his brother Lew Giles’s voice, clear as day, calling out his name:

“It was then 4 P.M., December 25, 1861. I was not sleeping or dreaming. and firmly believed at the time that I heard my brother calling me, but it must have been a delusion of the imagination.”

Knowing Lew was far away to the west somewhere in either Kentucky or Tennessee, Val thought at first that somehow it was just his homesickness playing on his imagination; that it was some kind of delusion. Yet he knew his brother’s voice and knew that the voice he had heard was his brother’s.

Gallatin, Tennessee, where Valerius' brother Lew was brought after being wounded in Kentucky.
Gallatin, Tennessee, where Valerius’ brother Lew was brought after being wounded in Kentucky.

It was only later that Val learned that Lew had been wounded at the Battle of Mumfordville, in Kentucky, on the seventeenth of December. Seriously injured, he had been taken to Gallatin, Tennessee, to the home of a family friend, where he lingered for several days.

That at about the same time that his brother was dying, Valerius heard his voice cry out was  unbelievable, but in his heart the young soldier knew it to be true

According to information the family later received from their father’s friend in Gallatin, Lew Giles expired at exactly four p.m. on Christmas Day of 1861.

For more true Civil War stories, see: Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground and Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War.  Now out is my latest Civil War book,  Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife.

ambrose-bierce-and-the-period-of-honorable-strife-cover

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paranormal Presidency cover   suitable for online use 96dpi
The Paranormal Presidency delves into the more esoteric aspects of Abraham Lincoln and his presidency
GHOSTS AND HAUNTS OF THE CIVIL WAR 3x5
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War,  uncanny tales of the Civil War.
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Show and Tell: the Franklin Civil War Show

Opdycke's Brigade (US) repulses the Confederate Breakthrough near the Carter House.  The Battle of Franklin, (Don Troiani).
Opdycke’s Brigade (US) repulses the Confederate Breakthrough near the Carter House. The Battle of Franklin, (Don Troiani).

Normally I don’t blog about current events and prefer to focus on subjects directly related to the Civil War, especially the more esoteric or unusual aspects of the Late Unpleasantness.  Since there is so much going on in Middle Tennessee regarding the Sesquicentennial, however, I am going to digress a bit this go round.  Hopefully I will be able to get back on track with blog entries before the big Battle of Nashville celebrations coming up next week.

While there has been a number of interesting 150th events going on in the Mid South since September, this author has been distracted putting his latest book “to bed,” dealing with Ambrose Bierce and his Civil War experiences (more of that at another time), so I have been very remiss of late.  However, this weekend I did have a booth at Mike Kent’s venerable Mid South Civil War Show, now named (I think) the Franklin Civil War Show, ever since the powers that be in Music City decided turning their state fair grounds into a quick profit for developers would be a good idea.  That the voters in Nashville did not agree with the politicians and their developer friends has only temporarily delayed them, unfortunately.

The Battle of Nashville has been called "Decisive" by historian  Stanley Horn.   Next week is the 150th Anniversary of it.  Howard Pyle, artist
The Battle of Nashville has been called “Decisive” by historian
Stanley Horn. Next week is the 150th Anniversary of it. Howard Pyle, artist

 

As an aside, any travelers to Nashville for the anniversary of the battle should be aware that the state fairground itself is smack dab in the middle of battlefield.  There is a Confederate “lunette” just down the road on a hill overlooking Nolensville Pike on a small road that leads over a railroad cut and over to Murfreesboro Road.  This is the same part of the Nashville battlefield I blogged about in “Captain Aldrich and the Dance of Death” (July, 2014).

In any case, only fifteen minutes south of Nashville by interstate sits Franklin, which, while it too loves its developers and their bulldozers, has done a great deal to not only preserve its historic heritage, but in recent years been highly pro-active in reclaiming parts of the Battle of Franklin battlefield.  Yes, you can have prosperity and history side by side and the city of Franklin is proving it–which is one good reason why one of the largest Civil War shows in the South moved down the road to Franklin a few years back.

As usual, Mike Kent’s show had an army of people attending, many in mufti, and there were excellent booths of all descriptions lining both levels of the Williamson County Agricultural Center.  In between selling and jabbering about my Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln books, I talked with a number of nice folks on various topics of the War, (many of which are still in dispute) and learned a thing or three I didn’t know about before.  Besides the two main Civil War books, I also had Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground on sale, as well as Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, which also cover a number of Civil War topics and I sold a few of those as well.  I also did a bit of jawboning about my upcoming Bierce book and ran into one Civil War enthusiast from Indiana was quite knowledgeable about the Ninth Indiana Infantry regiment.  Apropos of Civil War ghosts, several of the visitors to my booth told me about their family’s encounters with the supernatural at Civil War sites, which I will relate in a later blog or two.

When time allowed, I also went to the other booths to take a look see at what they had available.  While I did buy one or two items, I wish my budget had been as big as my eyes, as there were quite a few collector’s gems on display there.  Of course, by gems I mean uniforms, bayonets, swords, muskets and the like.  Military Images magazine, a gold mine of pictorial information about the war, also had a booth there and I got to meet Ron Coddington there.  In case you are not familiar with him and his work, he is the go-to expert for Civil War photography, especially cartes de visites and the like, and has written extensively, not only for MI for Civil War News and the New York Times.  If ya’ll have never seen Military Images, I recommend it highly.

An officer orders his men to attention, but their attention is elsewhere.  Civil War "patriotic" envelope.
An officer orders his men to attention, but their attention is elsewhere. Civil War “patriotic” envelope

 

There were some unusual booths as well.  I have blogged about sex and single soldier before and I still have hopes of convincing some publisher to let me do a book just on real romances of the Civil War (yes, folks, grandpa and grandma somehow managed to meet and reproduce, even during the Civil War), but one lady had a booth which was a revelation even to me.  It had a wealth of documents, photos and other memorabilia about the distaff side of the Civil War, especially with regard to the armies of “shady ladies” who served their country in way not often written about.  All of her displays were interesting and some surprisingly risqué for the 1860’s.  Almost all of what her booth on exhibit has never been published before—which goes to show that there is quite a lot still out there about the war all of which have yet to see their way into print.

All in all, the 26th annual show was a success, both for my own books, but for Civil War enthusiasts attending in general.  This year in particular the show occurred at an ideal time, bracketing as it does the sesquicentennials of both the Battle of Franklin and the Battle of Nashville.  Not to be down on my home town, but compared to little Franklin, one would expect Nashville to have done more over the years regarding its Civil War heritage and preservation.  In fairness, there have been some very active people interested in promoting Nashville’s Civil War sites and their preservation; and coming up in mid month there will be a lot going on in Nashville to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the battle one historian called  “decisive.” If anyone out there reading this happens to be traveling through the city for the holidays on their way towards other destinations, be sure to take a day or two to linger and take in one or another of the special events happening for the Battle of Nashville anniversary.  You’ll be glad you did.

On December 15-16th, The Army of the Cumberland, under General Thomas, launched their counterattack, virtually annihilating the once proud Army of Tennessee.
On December 15-16th, The Army of the Cumberland, under General Thomas, launched their counterattack, virtually annihilating the once proud Army of Tennessee.

 

Christmas, 1864. A Union Christmas: Washington, D.C. Civil War Christmas, Part 10

An artist's conception of the Lincoln family having Christmas dinner in the White House.
An artist’s conception of the Lincoln family having Christmas dinner in the White House.

Christmas 1864, Washington D.C.   If things were looking gloomy for Varina Howell and her “Jeffie” in Richmond, across the Potomac in Washington it was quite the opposite that 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.

After capturing Savannah, General Sherman sent Lincoln a brief note: “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah…”
After capturing Savannah, General Sherman sent Lincoln a brief note: “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah…”

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 hosts a victory dinner on Christmas day for his officers.
Sherman hosts a victory dinner on Christmas day for his officers.

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.

After December 1864, General George H. Thomas added "the Sledge of Nashville" to his epithet, "Rock of Chickamauga."
After December 1864, General George H. Thomas added “the Sledge of Nashville” to his epithet, “Rock of Chickamauga.”

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.

The Battle of Nashville in mid December 1864 sealed the Confederacy's fate. (Attack on Shy's Hill by Howard Pyle).
The Battle of Nashville in mid December 1864 sealed the Confederacy’s fate. (Attack on Shy’s Hill by Howard Pyle).

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Lincoln and his son Tad often visited Stuntz's Toy Shop in Washington, DC.
Lincoln and his son Tad often visited Stuntz’s Toy Shop in Washington, DC.

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.

Lincoln welcoming defeated Confederates to the "Union Christmas Dinner." Nast contrasts the wealth and plenty of the Union with the poverty and hunger of Rebellion.
Lincoln welcoming defeated Confederates to the “Union Christmas Dinner.” Nast contrasts the wealth and plenty of the Union with the poverty and hunger of Rebellion.

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-and-the-period-of-honorable-strife-cover

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.

 

The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer, 2012)
The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer, 2012)
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.

Starvation Christmas, Richmond, 1864: A Civil War Christmas, Part 9

The Confederate "White House" where the Davis family resided during the war.  One of their children died there.  By Christmas of 1864, although still defiant, privation and defeat were in the air.
The Confederate “White House” where the Davis family resided during the war. One of their children died there. By Christmas of 1864, although still defiant, privation and defeat were in the air.

Christmas 1864 Richmond.  Christmas is traditionally a celebration of abundance and cheer, but as Dickens pointed out in his famous Yuletide tale, for many it can also be a time of want and need.  The South had seceded to much jubilation and overweening confidence.  They would lick the Yankees in a few months and then the Confederacy would be independent and everyone would live happily ever after—except the slaves, of course.  Well, by Christmas of 1864, Confederate confidence had waned drastically, with Richmond under siege and Southern forces in retreat on all fronts.

Varina Davis, the beautiful and sympathetic wife of the Confederate President, gave a vivid description of the Christmas of 1864 in Richmond.
Varina Davis, the beautiful and sympathetic wife of the Confederate President, gave a vivid description of the Christmas of 1864 in Richmond.

The following memoir was written by Varina Davis, the wife of former Confederate president, Jefferson C. Davis.  She contributed it to a newspaper in that hotbed of Secessionism, New York City, in 1896.  While she had the advantage of hindsight, it is enlightening as to conditions in the Confederate capitol nonetheless.  So be your Christmas happy or sad, may this serve as a reminder of how they managed in the last winter of the Civil War:

“…Rice, flour, molasses and tiny pieces of meat, most of them sent to the President’s wife anonymously to be distributed to the poor, had all be weighed and issued, and the playtime of the family began, but like a clap of thunder out of a clear sky came the information that the orphans at the Episcopalian home had been promised a Christmas tree and the toys, candy and cakes must be provided, as well as one pretty prize for the most orderly girl among the orphans. The kind-hearted confectioner was interviewed by our committee of managers, and he promised a certain amount of his simpler kinds of candy, which he sold easily a dollar and a half a pound, but he drew the line at cornucopias to hold it, or sugared fruits to hang on the tree, and all the other vestiges of Christmas creations which had lain on his hands for years. The ladies dispersed in anxious squads of toy-hunters, and each one turned over the store of her children’s treasures for a contribution to the orphans’ tree, my little ones rushed over the great house looking up their treasure: eyeless dolls, three-legged horses, tops with the upper peg broken off, rubber tops, monkeys with all the squeak gone silent and all the ruck of children’s toys that gather in a nursery closet.

Makeshift Toys for the Orphans

Some small feathered chickens and parrots which nodded their heads in obedience to a weight beneath them were furnished with new tail feathers, lambs minus much of their wool were supplied with a cotton wool substitute, rag dolls were plumped out and recovered with clean cloth, and the young ladies painted their fat faces in bright colors and furnished them with beads for eyes.

But the tug of war was how to get something with which to decorate the orphans’ tree. Our man servant, Robert Brown, was much interested and offered to make the prize toy. He contemplated a “sure enough house, with four rooms.” His part in the domestic service was delegated to another and he gave himself over in silence and solitude to the labors of the architect.

My sister painted mantel shelves, door panels, pictures and frames for the walls, and finished with black grates in which there blazed a roaring fire, which was pronounced marvelously realistic. We all made furniture of twigs and pasteboard, and my mother made pillows, mattresses, sheets and pillow cases for the two little bedrooms.

Christmas Eve a number of young people were invited to come and string apples and popcorn for the trees; a neighbor very deft in domestic arts had tiny candle moulds made and furnished all the candles for the tree. However the puzzle and triumph of all was the construction of a large number of cornucopias. At last someone suggested a conical block of wood, about which the drawing paper could be wound and pasted. In a little book shop a number of small, highly colored pictures cut out and ready to apply were unearthed, and our old confectioner friend, Mr. Piazzi, consented, with a broad smile, to give “all the love verses the young people wanted to roll with the candy.”

A Christmas Eve Party

About twenty young men and girls gathered around small tables in one of the drawing rooms of the mansion and the cornucopias were begun. The men wrapped the squares of candy, first reading the “sentiments” printed upon them, such as “Roses are red, violets blue, sugar’s sweet and so are you,” “If you love me as I love you no knife can cut our love in two.” The fresh young faces, wreathed in smiles, nodded attention to the reading, while with their small deft hands they gined the cornucopias and pasted on the pictures. Where were the silk tops to come from? Trunks of old things were turned out and snippings of silk and even woolen of bright colors were found to close the tops, and some of the young people twisted sewing silk into cords with which to draw the bags up. The beauty of those home-made things astonished us all, for they looked quite “custom-made,” but when the “sure enough house” was revealed to our longing gaze the young people clapped their approbation, while Robert, whose sense of dignity did not permit him to smile, stood the impersonation of successful artist and bowed his thanks for our approval. Then the coveted eggnog was passed around in tiny glass cups and pronounced good. Crisp home-made ginger snaps and snowy lady cake completed the refreshments of Christmas Eve. The children allowed to sit up and be noisy in their way as an indulgence took a sip of eggnog out of my cup, and the eldest boy confided to his father: “Now I just know this is Christmas.” In most of the houses in Richmond these same scenes were enacted, certainly in every one of the homes of the managers of the Episcopalian Orphanage. A bowl of eggnog was sent to the servants, and a part of everything they coveted of the dainties.

At last quiet settled on the household and the older members of the family began to stuff stockings with molasses candy, red apples, an orange, small whips plaited by the family with high-colored crackers, worsted reins knitted at home, paper dolls, teetotums made of large horn bottoms and a match which could spin indefinitely, balls of worsted rags wound hard and covered with old kid gloves, a pair of pretty woolen gloves for each, either cut of cloth and embroidered on the back or knitted by some deft hand out of home-spun wool. For the President there were a pair of chamois-skin riding gauntlets exquisitely embroidered on the back with his monogram in red and white silk, made, as the giver wrote, under the guns of Fortress Monroe late at night for fear of discovery. There was a hemstitched linen handkerchief, with a little sketch in indelible ink in one corner; the children had written him little letters, their grandmother having held their hands, the burthen of which compositions was how they loved their dear father. For one of the inmates of the home, who was greatly loved but whose irritable temper was his prominent failing, there was a pretty cravat, the ends of which were embroidered, as was the fashion of the day. The pattern chosen was simple and on it was pinned a card with the word “amiable” to complete the sentence. One of the [missing] received a present of an illuminated copy of Solomon’s proverbs found in the same old store from which the pictures came. He studied it for some time and announced: “I have changed my opinion of Solomon, he uttered such unnecessary platitudes — now why should he have said ‘The foolishness of a fool is his folly’?”

On Christmas morning the children awoke early and came in to see their toys. They were followed by the negro women, who one after another “caught” us by wishing us a merry Christmas before we could say it to them, which gave them a right to a gift. Of course, there was a present for every one, small though it might be, and one who had been born and brought up at our plantation was vocal in her admiration of a gay handkerchief. As she left the room she ejaculated: “Lord knows mistress knows our insides; she jest got the very thing I wanted.”

Strange Presents

The Davis family tried to make the best of Christmas, despite the lack of even basic staples. Jeff Davis even played Santa.
The Davis family tried to make the best of Christmas, despite the lack of even basic staples. Gifts were homemade and simple.  Supper was spare, but there was still a celebration.

For me there were six cakes of delicious soap, made from the grease of ham boiled for a family at Farmville, a skein of exquisitely fine gray linen thread spun at home, a pincushion of some plain brown cotton material made by some poor woman and stuffed with wool from her pet sheep, and a little baby hat plaited by the orphans and presented by the industrious little pair who sewed the straw together. They pushed each other silently to speak, and at last mutely offered the hat, and considered the kiss they gave the sleeping little one ample reward for the industry and far above the fruit with which they were laden. Another present was a fine, delicate little baby frock without an inch of lace or embroidery upon it, but the delicate fabric was set with fairy stitches by the dear invalid neighbor who made it, and it was very precious in my eyes. There were also a few of Swinburne’s best songs bound in wall-paper and a chamois needle-book left for me by young Mr. P., now succeeded to his title in England. In it was a Brobdingnagian thimble “for my own finger, you know,” said the handsome, cheerful young fellow.

After breakfast, at which all the family, great and small, were present, came the walk to St. Paul’s Church. We did not use our carriage on Christmas or, if possible to avoid it, on Sunday. The saintly Dr. Minnegerode preached a sermon on Christian love, the introit was sung by a beautiful young society woman and the angels might have joyfully listened. Our chef did wonders with the turkey and roast beef, and drove the children quite out of their propriety by a spun sugar hen, life-size, on a nest full of blanc mange eggs. The mince pie and plum pudding made them feel, as one of the gentlemen laughingly remarked, “like their jackets were buttoned,” a strong description of repletion which I have never forgotten. They waited with great impatience and evident dyspeptic symptoms for the crowning amusement of the day, “the children’s tree.” My eldest boy, a chubby little fellow of seven, came to me several times to whisper: “Do you think I ought to give the orphans my I.D. studs?” When told no, he beamed with the delight of an approving conscience. All throughout the afternoon first one little head and then another popped in at the door to ask: “Isn’t it 8 o’clock yet?,” burning with impatience to see the “children’s tree.”

Davis Plays Santa Claus

Jefferson Davis, the embattled president of the Confederacy, tried to put on his best face for the holiday and played Santa for war orphans .
Jefferson Davis, the embattled president of the Confederacy, tried to put on his best face for the holiday and played Santa for war orphans .

When at last we reached the basement of St. Paul’s Church the tree burst upon their view like the realization of Aladdin’s subterranean orchard, and they were awed by its grandeur.

The orphans sat mute with astonishment until the opening hymn and prayer and the last amen had been said, and then they at a signal warily and slowly gathered around the tree to receive from a lovely young girl their allotted present. The different gradations from joy to ecstasy which illuminated their faces was “worth two years of peaceful life” to see. The President became so enthusiastic that he undertook to help in the distribution, but worked such wild confusion giving everything asked for into their outstretched hands, that we called a halt, so he contented himself with unwinding one or two tots from a network of strung popcorn in which they had become entangled and taking off all apples he could when unobserved, and presenting them to the smaller children. When at last the house was given to the “honor girl” she moved her lips without emitting a sound, but held it close to her breast and went off in a corner to look and be glad without witnesses.

“When the lights were fled, the garlands dead, and all but we departed” we also went home to find that Gen. Lee had called in our absence, and many other people. Gen. Lee had left word that he had received a barrel of sweet potatoes for us, which had been sent to him by mistake. He did not discover the mistake until he had taken his share (a dishful) and given the rest to the soldiers! We wished it had been much more for them and him.

A Starvation Dance

If Christmas was threadbare in Richmond, for the Confederate soldiers at the front it was even more Spartan.
If Christmas was threadbare in Richmond, for the Confederate soldiers at the front it was even more Spartan.

The night closed with a “starvation” party, where there were no refreshments, at a neighboring house. The rooms lighted as well as practicable, some one willing to play dance music on the piano and plenty of young men and girls comprised the entertainment. Sam Weller’s soiry, consisting of boiled mutton and capers, would have been a royal feast in the Confederacy. The officers, who rode into town with their long cavalry boots pulled well up over their knees, but splashed up their waists, put up their horses and rushed to the places where their dress uniform suits had been left for safekeeping. They very soon emerged, however, in full toggery and entered into the pleasures of their dance with the bright-eyed girls, who many of them were fragile as fairies, but worked like peasants for their home and country. These young people are gray-haired now, but the lessons of self-denial, industry and frugality in which they became past mistresses then, have made of them the most dignified, self-reliant and tender women I have ever known — all honor to them.

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.”

For more stories of the Civil War, see Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.  Now in print, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, chronicles the famous American author’s wartime experiences.

ambrose-bierce-and-the-period-of-honorable-strife-cover

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.

Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.
The Paranormal Presidency delves into the more esoteric aspects of Abraham Lincoln and his presidency
The Paranormal Presidency delves into the more esoteric aspects of Abraham Lincoln and his presidency

Christmas 1864: A Civil War Christmas, Part 8

The Union Christmas Dinner by Thomas Nast. Harpers December, 1864.
The Union Christmas Dinner by Thomas Nast. Harpers December, 1864.

Christmas 1864 In the span of a year things had changed radically. While the North had not yet won, and the ultimate outcome was not yet certain, everywhere it seemed that Union forces were advancing inevitably onward to a final conclusion.

Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia were closely besieged at Richmond and Petersburg. General Sherman was advancing with fire and sword like an avenging demon through Georgia. Only at Nashville did it seem that a glimmer of hope remained for the Confederacy, where Hood and the Army of Tennessee were besieging General Thomas’s 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. It was a winter few on either side would ever forget.

Varina Davis, the beautiful and sympathetic wife of the Confederate President, gave a vivid description of the Christmas of 1864 in Richmond.
Varina Davis, the beautiful and sympathetic wife of the Confederate President, gave a vivid description of the Christmas of 1864 in Richmond.

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.

In Richmond, the belles, Varina Davis tells us were, "fragile as fairies, but worked like peasants for their home and country" Godey's Ladies Book was the arbiter of women's fashions, North and South. This is an illustration from the December 1864 issue showing Christmas dresses.
In Richmond, the belles, Varina Davis tells us, were, “fragile as fairies, but worked like peasants for their home and country.” Godey’s Ladies Book was the arbiter of women’s fashions, North and South. This is an illustration from the December 1864 issue showing Christmas dresses.

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.”

 

Lt__Gen__John_B__Hood
General John Bell Hood, whose aggressive temperament is what Jefferson Davis wanted in the West, attempted to turn the tide of war in a bold invasion of Tennessee in the Fall and Winter of 1864. It proved a tragic failure.

 

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.”

Lt. Ambrose Bierce, future journalist, editor and author, was one of the "barbarous Yankees" besieged by Hood's Army of Tennessee in Dec. 1864.
Lt. Ambrose Bierce, future journalist, editor and author, was one of the “barbarous Yankees” besieged by Hood’s Army of Tennessee in Dec. 1864.

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.

General George Thomas, the Rock of Chickamauga was nearly defeated, not by General Hood but by General Winter
General George Thomas, the Rock of Chickamauga was nearly defeated, not by General Hood but by General Winter

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.”

In December, 1864, General Sherman presented the city of Savannah as his "Christmas Present" to President Lincoln.
In December, 1864, General Sherman presented the city of Savannah as his “Christmas Present” to President Lincoln.

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 white population and African Americans on the verge of liberation, this Christmas was a hard one with a future that seemed dim indeed.

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-and-the-period-of-honorable-strife-cover

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.

Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). 
The Paranormal Presidency delves into the more esoteric aspects of Abraham Lincoln and his presidency
The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

Christmas 1863: “Ought it not be merry Christmas?” A Civil War Christmas, Part 7

Christmas 1863, the Furlough by Thomas Nast. As it appeared in the December 26, 1863 issue of Harper’s it had the caption: “Merry Christmas. Ought it not be merry Christmas? Even with all the sorrow that hangs, and will forever hang, over so many households; even while the war still rages; even while there are serious questions yet to be settled — ought it not to be, and is it not, a merry Christmas?”
Christmas 1863, the Furlough by Thomas Nast. As it appeared in the December 26, 1863 issue of Harper’s it had the caption: “Merry Christmas. Ought it not be merry Christmas? Even with all the sorrow that hangs, and will forever hang, over so many households; even while the war still rages; even while there are serious questions yet to be settled — ought it not to be, and is it not, a merry Christmas?”

1863 was a pivotal year for all, even if many, 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, General Meade beat back Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg and Rosecrans had outfoxed and outmaneuvered General Bragg in the heartland of the nation, forcing the elite Army of Tennessee 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. In the Western Theater, Bragg had retreated from Chattanooga, only to turn and whup the Yankee army of Rosecrans at Chickamauga; and the Rebels at Vicksburg were 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, Stonewall Jackson's former staff officer, spent Christmas 1863 in the Yankee prison camp on Johnson Island.
Henry Kyd Douglas, Stonewall Jackson’s former staff officer, spent Christmas 1863 in the Yankee prison camp on Johnson Island.

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.

Frederick Cavada was Colonel of the 114th Pennsylvania Zouaves when captured at Gettysburg in 1863. After the war he returned to Cuba and led Cuban patriots fight Spanish occupation.
Frederick Cavada was Colonel of the 114th Pennsylvania Zouaves when captured at Gettysburg in 1863. After the war he returned to Cuba and led Cuban patriots fight Spanish occupation.

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.

Tad had been fond of dressing up like a soldier in the white house, having gotten Secretary of War Stanton's special permission to wear an officer's uniform.
Tad was fond of dressing like a soldier, having gotten Secretary of War Stanton’s special permission to wear an officer’s uniform.

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!”

Christmas Dinner on the Picket Line by Edwin Forbes. Many men on both sides had to endure Christmas in cold comfort.
Christmas Dinner on the Picket Line by Edwin Forbes. Many men on both sides had to endure Christmas in cold comfort.

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.  Now in print is Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, about the famous author and his service in the Civil War.

ambrose-bierce-and-the-period-of-honorable-strife-cover

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.

 

Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). 
The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer, 2012)
The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer)