Today is the day that Lincoln died. It was on April 14, 1865—another Good Friday to be precise—that Abraham Lincoln, our sixteenth President, was murdered in cold blood.Young Mary Brennan, an Irish immigrant only recently arrived to our shores, remembered well that dreadful day for the rest of her life.A devout Catholic, she, like many a Protestant of the day, regarded Good Friday, the day Christ died, as a solemn holy day and one not to be commemorated by going out the theater.“He never would have died,” she would often say, ”had he not gone to see a play on Good Friday.”Great grandmother was a font of such sayings and superstitions, she was, and her many descendants can still recite one or another of her sayings at will.
But Abraham Lincoln, never a “technical Christian,” had ample reason to celebrate that Friday, April 14 so many years ago.Robert E. Lee and his army had surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant scarcely a week before and that very morning the general was delivering his report to the President and Cabinet in person.For the first time in four years, Lincoln, who frequently suffered from “melancholy” seemed uncommonly hopeful, now that the end of the Rebellion was in sight.Lincoln could at last look ahead to the future, to peace and to the task of rebuilding a nation torn apart by a fratricidal conflict.
As his Cabinet chatted before the official beginning of the meeting, Lincoln also told them that Friday about the “usual dream” he had had only the night before.He explained that before every major event of the war he had dreamed the same dream: of a ship sailing towards a distant shore.It always portended important war news.Lincoln, raised on presentments, omens and prophetic dreams, believed that this latest portent was a sign of something momentous about to happen.
Cabinet met, Lincoln was expecting news from Sherman in North Carolina, where “Uncle Billy” had run to ground the once proud Confederate Army of Tennessee, now commanded by “Uncle Joe” Johnston.Johnston’s force was but a hollow shell of what it had once been, but the proud Rebels, barefoot and in rags, could still fight like wildcats—albeit cornered wildcats.Lincoln hoped to hear that Johnston too had surrendered, marking the end of organized resistance.Surely the “usual dream” portended this, thought Lincoln.
Later that day, as Lincoln and his wife readied for the theater, the President was in an uncommonly optimistic mood, not realizing the prophetic dream portended not good news on Good Friday, but ill.For even as they dressed for the night, across town a band of conspirators were also preparing for the night—but their performance would end in death and mayhem.
Much has been written about that day and about the conspirators led by John Wilkes Booth; yet, to this day there is no certainty as to how deeply the Booth Conspiracy to do away with Lincoln and his Cabinet ran.To be sure, many were arrested and most of the leading conspirators executed.But Mary Lincoln, for one, had her suspicions that there were others involved who got away—including some high placed in the Lincoln administration.Mrs. Grant too, had had a terrifying incident that day that lead her to believe not all the culprits had been caught.But historians hate loose ends and the strands of evidence pointing to a broader conspiracy lie moldering in archives and museums little looked at or considered. Still, the truth may still be out there.
What is proven about the events of Good Friday, April 14, is tragic enough, however.Just as Lincoln’s ship of state was about to reach that far and distant shore of peace, the captain—Lincoln—was cut down.How different our history would have been had Lincoln survived to oversee the peace as he had the war!We can be sure that the “Better Angels of our Nature” would have thrived under his leadership and the postwar darkness and violence, and the enduring aftermath of meanness and divisiveness that still dogs our nation to this day would have been greatly diminished, if not prevented entirely.
Greatness is not to be measured in the number of bombs one drops or the number of innocents one kills; Lincoln did not rejoice in war and wished it brought to a speedy end.No, what was great about Lincoln and Lincoln’s America was its struggle for equality, for social justice, and for the betterment of the average worker, not some aristocratic elite. The President who created land-grant universities to provide free college education, who redistributed millions of acres of land to any who would settle and till it, who fought and died for racial equality, and who sought to unite the nation from seas to sea with modern transportation: these and other social and economic programs were what truly made Lincoln great—not his leadership of a war that was forced on him by the Cotton Slaveocracy and other elites who benefitted from human bondage.In the end, Lincoln paid for his achievements in human progress with his life.As we commemorate Good Friday this April 14, this too should be borne in mind.
On Good Friday, April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth; that much is not in dispute. Twelve days later, Booth was tracked down and fatally wounded in a burning barn on the Garrett farm in northern Virginia; that, at least, is the official version of this tragic finale to the Civil War.
Of all the conspiracy theories that continue to circulate, none is more fascinating—or more debated—than John Wilkes Booth’s successful plot to assassinate the President. Of course, the fact of the conspiracy itself has never been in debate: no one doubts that Booth conspired to murder Abraham Lincoln and some of his cabinet, and succeeded in that goal.
Unlike presidential assassinations since, Booth has never been characterized as a “lone assassin.” We know he had a large group in on the plot. Where the various alternative theories conflict with the official version of the assassination is exactly how wide the Booth Conspiracy really was. In this regard, the debate about the Booth Conspiracy has raged long and hard and remains hotly debated to this day.
What sparked this latest entry in the debate by yours truly is the publication of a recent book on the assassination and the mysteries which surround it: John Wilkes Booth: Beyond the Grave, by W. C. Jameson (Rowan & Littlefield, 2014). A recent book review in Civil War News, gives it generally positive reviews. However, the book lacks footnotes documenting its assertions (a big no-no among both scholars and Civil War enthusiasts) and given that the book’s assertions are fairly radical, that seems a curious omission. The book does apparently contain a substantial bibliography, though.
Apparently Jameson—allegedly a Booth descendent—gives first the “official” version of the assassination, then dissects all the inconsistencies and contradictions inherent in government version. There is nothing new in that—researchers have long pointed out many holes in the accepted accounts of the assassination, Booth’s escape and his alleged death. Brad Meltzer produced an excellent television documentary delving into this issue on his History Channel’s History Decoded series and there are several other documentaries available which have also investigated this issue. But no matter how much the Federal government at the time, or modern historians today, assert the orthodox line about the limits of Booth’s conspiracy and of his death, there have always been dissenting voices that 1) the conspiracy was far wider and deeper than the succeeding administration was willing to concede, and 2) that, in fact, John Wilkes Booth did not die on the Garrett farm after being shot by Federal cavalry. I have gone into both these issues in previous articles on The Late Unpleasantness.
How soon after the murder of Lincoln did these alternate scenarios of his assassination take shape? Would you believe within days of Lincoln’s death? In Ghosts and Haunts of The Civil War, for example, in chronicling Mrs. Grant’s own premonitions about going to the theater that Good Friday, I cite her own words to the effect that she and her husband were being stalked by suspicious characters that afternoon and that the general’s wife always believed that a team of assassinations had been detailed to murder her husband who were never apprehended. You may read that chapter in GHCW for more details about the Grant’s very real dangers and premonitions; suffice it to say that, while I did not footnote it in that book, the chapter isbased on primary sources relating those events.
Even more telling than the facts surrounding the General and Mrs. Grant’s close brush with death on April 14, 1865, we have the testimony of the first person to make accusations of a wider conspiracy: Mrs. Lincoln herself. Bear in mind that the backstage personnel of Ford’s Theatre were all friends and close associates of John Wilkes Booth; while they all denied any complicity in the crime, it remains a moot point how involved they may have actually been in the plot, denials after the fact not withstanding.
More importantly, the body guard that had been detailed to stand watch just outside the door to the box seats where the Lincolns were watching the play that night was conveniently missing at the very moment when Booth entered the balcony box to murder Lincoln. Mary Todd Lincoln did not mince words and she directly accused the body-guard of being in on the plot. Mary went on to accuse Andrew Johnson of complicity in the plot to murder her husband. Much of this is detailed in the sections on the assassination in Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.
Of course, Mary Todd Lincoln has always been given a bad rap by historians: “crazy Mary” has always been the refrain when it comes to her actions and words. Yet Mary Todd Lincoln was a highly educated, cultured lady—far more so than many of her male contemporaries in Washington—a fact which only increased their resentment for the Kentucky blue blood who had relatives in the Confederate army and she neither crazy nor stupid and, moreover, well aware of the danger her husband was in. Granted, that after watching her husband being murdered before her very eyes, she was a mite upset and lashed out at all those she thought responsible; yet there is a strong ring of truth in her accusations.
Where was the body-guard that night and why was he not at his post? Certainly there were many others willing to die defending the President had they known he was not adequately protected.
Mary Todd Lincoln’s accusations aimed at Vice-President—now President—Johnson have a ring of truth about them.
Some seven hours before the murder, John Wilkes Booth paid a visit to the hotel where Johnson was staying and left a note for the President of Vice:
“Don’t wish to disturb you. Are you at home? J. Wilkes Booth” read the note.
What business did the leader of the plot have with the prospective new President? How deeply was Johnson involved in the plot?
Although Andrew Johnson was considered a Loyalist Southerner, with political connections to Unionist East Tennessee, he was hardly a paragon of virtue and in fact had many suspicious connections. He was a man fond of strong drink and loose women—a fact not lost on the more straight-laced members of the Republican Party. When he was Military Governor of Tennessee, he was known to be a close associate of none other than John Wilkes Booth. In “Right or Wrong, God Judge Me” The Writings of John Wilkes Booth, edited by John Rhodehamel and Louise Taper (1997), evidence is presented that Booth knew Johnson dating back at least to February of 1864, when Booth performed at the newly opened Wood’s Theatre in Nashville.
According to Hamilton Howard in Civil War Echoes (1907), whenever Booth visited Nashville in his guise as actor (although he probably was already in the employ of the Confederate Secret Service) he and Governor Johnson went boozing and wenching together, sharing the sexual favors of two sisters on more than one occasion.
How deep Andrew Johnson was in the Booth Conspiracy shall never be known—but clearly Mary Lincoln was neither hysterical nor “crazy” when she lashed out against him after her husband’s death:
“..that, that miserable inebriate Johnson, had cognizance of my husband’s death – Why, was that card of Booth’s, found in his box, some acquaintance certainly existed – I have been deeply impressed, with the harrowing thought, that he, had an understanding with the conspirators & they knew their man… As sure, as you & I live, Johnson, had some hand, in all this…” Mary Todd Lincoln to her friend, Sally Orne, in a letter dated March 15, 1866
We come to the person of Booth himself: actor, lover, spy, assassin; as Shakespeare once observed, a man may play many roles in his life and we know that Booth played more than a few. It has never been proven, but many believe that Booth was not the mastermind behind the plot to kill Lincoln; certainly he had connections to the Confederate spy ring operating in Canada and residing in Washington, DC, just across the Potomac from Richmond, he could not help but have been in easy contact with the Rebel spy masters in that capital.
Unfortunately, when Richmond fell to Union troops in April of 1865, most of the Confederate Secret Service’s records disappeared—whether by accident or to purpose remains a moot point. We shall never know exactly what secrets of the Booth Conspiracy disappeared with the loss of those files, but the suspicion remains that the loss was great.
One thing we know for sure: John Wilkes Booth was not on a suicide mission. He had escape routes clearly planned out for himself and his co-conspirators. What remains under debate is how successful Booth really was in making good his escape. The accepted consensus is that he ultimately paid the price for his treachery and treason; but there are dissenters, his descendent Mr. Jameson among them.
In the years following the war, various researchers have followed the convoluted trail of evidence indicating that booth did indeed live a long life after the assassination. Newspaper reports days after the assassination had Booth in various cities around the country—none of them seemingly true. In the years following however, there were various accounts of Booth sightings in foreign lands in newspapers, some of which may have had some credence. The reports placed Booth in India and Ceylon, in China, in Mexico, and even in the South Seas. Common to these all these accounts was the figure of Booth as an honorable gentleman with no remorse for his deed. Interestingly enough, most of the locations where he was sighted also coincide with locations where émigré Confederates actually did establish colonies during Reconstruction.
Some serious researchers believe Booth did make good his escape and, like Jameson, have presented their evidence; but positive proof remains elusive 150 years later.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ever since President Lincoln’s murder–some would say martyrdom– there have been those who have wanted to re-cast Abraham Lincoln in their image, especially when it cam to his spiritual beliefs. No soon was the President’s body cold, than herds of fundamentalist bible-thumpers came out of the woodwork trying to make him into a devout Christian in their own likeness, applying thick layers of plaster to his alleged sainthood and disguising the real man beneath.
Conversely, post-war Spiritualists, who tried to turn the secular movement into a religion—and thereby drawing the animosity of mainstream Christianity—tried to claim the dead President as one of their own. These efforts continue even today, with modern Spiritualists not only certain that Lincoln was one of them, but that he continues to speak to them through one or another modern oracle.
Historians—especially that influential group who idealize the Sixteenth President—even if they haven’t always sided with the bible-thumpers, have generally denied any connection between Lincoln and the Spiritualists. Whenever the facts rear their ugly heads, these historians lay it all at the feet of Mary Todd Lincoln—an admittedly easy target. Generally they characterize Mary as neurotic, bitchy and vain—if not outright crazy—and the entire crowd of Washington Spiritualists as all “charlatans.”
That some mediums were indeed phonies and fakes is undeniable; but there were many involved in the movement, especially in wartime D.C., who were sincere in their beliefs. Whether they were actually in touch with the spirit world is a moot issue and clearly outside the realm of history.
What is the truth about Lincoln, Mary and the mediums? In my book, The Paranormal Presidency, I go into some depth on the subject, based on extensive research into the primary sources, and come up with a great deal new information. While there is no doubt much more yet to be uncovered, I have come up with contemporary evidence proving Lincoln’s active involvement with the movement and its individuals. For one thing, I did what previous historians apparently neglected to do—researched contemporary newspapers and the Library of Congress holdings to uncover corroborating evidence.
As a result of this original research, there is now substantial evidence that Lincoln frequented the company of mediums and psychics before Mary did. This is supported by newspaper accounts, documents in the Library of Congress and postwar testimony.
Abraham and Mary were by no means unique or peculiar in attending séances or seeking out the advice of mediums. Many parents lost young children to disease in the 1840’s and 1850’s and went to séances to get in contact with them; the war added to the number of grieving families who resorted to mediums for solace. Moreover, Washington D.C. was a very unhealthy place to be, having built over a malarial swamp and with a sewer system that was beyond abysmal. Willie was not the only child to die there due to Washington’s unhealthy environment
There is not sufficient space here to go into greater detail about the Lincoln’s involvement in séances; for more documentation, including the footnotes and bibliography, see chapters 14 and 15 of the Paranormal Presidency, which also goes into far greater depth regarding the political ramifications of Spiritualism and its relationship to various reform movements before the Civil War.
While we can document what Lincoln did with regard to séances and mediums, divining what he actually believed is much harder. Lincoln was a notoriously close-mouthed man and as one of the greatest politicians in American history, he had an extraordinary knack of making people think he believed as they did, without actually committing to anything.
What we can say for sure is that both Lincoln and Mary frequented séances and sought out the services of mediums—and that is fact. Moreover, many of Lincoln’s political associates and their wives also attended séances and while many of the mediums they went too may have been on the con, many were sincere believers in the movement, a movement which overlapped with Abolitionism, Feminism and other social and political reform movements of the era. So Mary, whatever her faults (and they were many) was neither crazy, not neurotic, nor the gullible shrew her political enemies, North and South, portrayed her to be.
Moreover, regarding the her well documented consorting with Spiritualists after the war, I think we may cut her some slack on this score too. If, after losing half your family and seeing your husband murdered before your very eyes, you resort to séances to assuage your grief, perhaps that is not such a bad thing. Mary Todd Lincoln had her flaws, but she had many virtues too. It is a pity she has never been given her due.
“In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays.
Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger,
to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls.” –Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, 20th Maine
For Civil War buffs in general, and those interested in the paranormal aspects of the Late Unpleasantness in particular, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania is something akin to Mecca. The site of the most famous battle of the Civil War. For generations it has attracted both Civil War enthusiasts and average tourists by the millions. Compounded by its fame as a battlefield is its connection with Abraham Lincoln and his most famous speech, the Gettysburg Address.
Certainly, just for the history alone, Gettysburg is worth visiting, especially in this sesquicentennial—and even more this year, the 150th anniversary of both the battle and Lincoln’s speech. Having written about both Gettysburg’s restless dead and Abraham Lincoln’s own fascination with the paranormal, I would be remiss if I did not devote at least one blog entry to this holy grail of re-enactors, ghost hunters, and mainstream Civil War historians alike.
In Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War I chronicled a few of Gettysburg’s haunted locations; one is connected with Colonel Chamberlain and his famous defense of Little Round Top and another section deals with the phantoms of Farnsworth House. Farnsworth House is on most top ten lists of haunted hotels and what it lacks in size it makes up for in sheer volume of paranormal activity. They offer ghost tours and have even added a re-enactment of a Civil War era séance–of the sort which both President and Mrs. Lincoln attended. For more on the Lincolns and Spiritualism, see Chapters 14 and 15 of The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.
I could easily have filled the whole book with other Gettysburg spirits and encounters, but to be honest that field has been amply plowed by Alan Nesbitt and his series of pamphlets covering them. Alan was a tour guide at Gettysburg for years and collected a number of first hand accounts, as well as being knowledgeable about the battle itself. Greystone Productions, with whom I collaborated on the production of their video Ghosts of Music City, has also produced some a nice series of documentary videos on the subject as well; in fact they too have a store in Gettysburg. So why add to the congestion?
Well, it just so happens my daughter visited there last summer, while en route to attend a friend’s wedding. Like many visitors, she snapped several photos of her visit. Surprisingly, (or perhaps not so surprisingly) when she viewed a few of them later she saw some weird things had appeared on the digital shots. In one photo, taken at night but without a flash, she caught what definitely appears to be a gray apparition looking out of an upstairs window in the town. Unfortunately, whenever we have tried to enlarge it to make it more distinct, the autocorrect function in the digital camera kept trying to erase the image: so much for the wonders of technology. The image remains on the original, however.
She also took a series of shots looking out over the battlefield in the dark. Standing in one place, she took an overlapping sequence of them to form a panorama. To be honest, in nighttime there is little of the battlefield to see; what was interesting, however was that in several of the shots there appeared a cluster of white “orbs.” Now anyone familiar with both the paranormal and photography is familiar with this phenomena; orbs are thought to be a particular form of ghostly energy not normally visible to the naked eye; debunkers claim it is just dust reflecting back the light of a flash at night. Well, these photos were taken with low level light-sensitive camera; more importantly they were all taken from the same identical position, yet some photos had orbs, yet others didn’t. If it had simply been dust in front of the lens then all the photos should have come out exactly the same: they didn’t.
Many, many other visitors to Gettysburg report similar strange encounters, some far more dramatic than my daughter’s.
As Colonel Chamberlain said, “bodies disappear, but spirits linger.”
In my recent book, The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, (Schiffer Press) I document in depth Abraham Lincoln’s beliefs and practices regarding the supernatural. Although Lincoln’s fascination with the paranormal has been talked about by historians such as Carl Sandburg and others for generations, before this present book, no one had taken a serious or objective look at the evidence.
The Paranormal Presidency changes all that. In heavily footnoted chapter after chapter, we analyze various claims relating to Lincoln’s belief in the paranormal and certain practices which he actually participated in.
However, one issue which I did not tackle directly was the question of whether Lincoln actually was psychic or not. While I document what Lincoln and his contemporaries believed in, practiced and experienced, whether such phenomena really were supernatural or not–whether there is even really such a thing as the paranormal–all that is beyond the scope of historical enquiry.
Rather, I left it to the reader to weigh the evidence and decide for themselves.
Suffice it to say, however, that from early youth Lincoln had a firm belief in things we would call supernatural. Prophetic dreams, visions, omens and signs, and other uncanny events: all were part and parcel of Lincoln’s life, career and the world he lived in.
In future articles in this blog I will go into more specifics, providing details of Lincoln and his associates’ uncanny encounters and the nature of the evidence I evaluated in reaching my conclusions which I did not go into in the book. In many cases what they believed to be true directly affected their decision-making during the Civil War.
It’s interesting to observe how serious researchers will often ignore evidence right before their eyes–evidence they don’t wish to see, that is. In the case of Ulysses S. Grant and his wife Julia Dent Grant, both husband and wife mention incidents where they had paranormal encounters, yet until Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, no historian saw fit to mention that fact.
In Chapter 8 of Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, one incident in particular is described in detail. Based on Julia Grant’s own detailed description of the incident, it chronicles how she had a “presentiment” when her husband was far away and in mortal danger at the Battle of Belmont. This was not the only such presentiment she tells us about either.
Ulysses Grant, while he was still a cadet at West Point, had what he regarded as a premonition of his future destiny. He was on parade one day, being inspected by a befeathered General Winfield Scott, when the notion suddenly came over him that one day he too would be head of the army. At the time, he tells us, he had no such ambition; rather, his goal in life was to graduate and become a teacher of mathematics. Going to West Point was merely Grant’s way of obtaining a college education, which he was too poor to obtain any other way.
Now, one can easily make a case for dismissing such incidents as “coincidence.” Professional debunkers also like to use the term “delusions of the masses.” They are certainly entitled to their beliefs; but bear in mind they are just that: beliefs, not facts. Whether or not such uncanny encounters as the Grants and the Lincolns had were real is a moot point and must always remain so.
That the Grants–and other prominent people involved in the Civil War–believed such presentiments were real is, however, acultural fact and a historical truth–and insofar as the serious student of the Civil War is concerned, that is what really matters.
For the rationalist prone to dismiss such beliefs out of hand, bear in mind that today we live in an era when unverified claims by radical groups pursuing an agenda are promoted as fact by the American media, leading directly to America becoming embroiled in foreign civil wars. Propaganda thus becomes uncritically accepted as fact; one should therefore not be so smug in one’s assumptions about the beliefs of earlier generations.
Many times during the Civil War, belief in presentiments, dreams, visions or other paranormal phenomena affected the way people acted and the decisions they made. The truth is that human beings are both rational and irrational and can be so at the same time; to only look at the rational side of human behavior is to ignore more than half of all human motivation and actions.
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, 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!”
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.