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.
December 1860. The United States was, to surface appearance, still a nation at peace, but beneath all the festivities of the season festered a fatal political disease: Secessionism. Nevertheless, North and South, East and West, folk went about their daily chores, their seasonal routines, as before. Most Americans still held out hope that somehow, someway, the Nation would not fall into the abyss and that the crisis of disunion would be averted.
One new element to the rituals of the season was the Christmas Tree. The Christmas Tree had long been a popular element of Christmas in Germany, but it was not until Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s German consort, introduced it into Britain that it became a regular feature of Yuletide in the English-speaking world. In America, the influx of German émigrés following the Revolutions of 1848, also brought this Christmas ritual with them. The Germans generally put a miniature tree on a table, decorated with home-made ornaments, candy and candles. As Americans adopted the tree for their holiday, they put a full-size tree in their living rooms.
The German immigrants also brought with them a strong antipathy toward tyranny in whatever form it might take. In Europe, the ’48ers had fought against the kings, despots and oligarchs who lorded over the common folk and treated them like chattel; America, they thought, they would have no such tyrants to deal with. But in the 1850’s, the growing militancy of Southern slave owners made these newly minted Americans realize that in the Land of the Free there were many who were enslaved. The German-Americans who introduced the Tannenbaum soon found common cause with Abolitionists and Free Soil Democrats and found in the new Republican Party a congenial political home more in line with their political beliefs.
Introducing new cultural rituals to Christmas and adding their own radical twist to American politics, the German-Americans also formed social clubs, called Turners, dedicated to athletics and manly pursuits. Such activities often took the form of military style drilling and practicing marksmanship. Militia companies were a popular civilian pursuit before the Civil War.
In the South, however, men were doing far more than just playing soldier. Well before the election of 1860, militant Secessionists were organizing militia regiments for war, as well as stockpiling weapons and openly plotting insurrection. When Lincoln and the Republicans won the election fair and square, South Carolina in particular pushed for the Secession. The election results were scarcely in when South Carolina announced a convention to debate Secession and the state’s two senators, James Chestnut and James Hammond, abruptly resigned from Congress.
Not everyone in the South was so eager for disunion. In the Mid and Upper South in particular, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri and Virginia, all contained large numbers of people whose sentiments were for remaining in the Union. Many were the households in the Upper South who still cherished the seasonal sentiment of “peace on earth, goodwill to men.”
In Springfield, Illinois, the Lincoln household tried to observe the season, although for the President Elect it was anything but a time of goodwill and joy. Mary Lincoln tried hard to play her role of Queen of Domesticity, but her husband was deeply absorbed with political responsibilities and cares. Lincoln had to stand by, powerlessly, and watch as the Union disintegrated under the dubious rule of the sitting President, James Buchanan.
James Buchanan, probably more than any single person, was responsible for the deteriorating situation in the nation in the fall and winter of 1860. Although a northerner by birth, he adopted an official policy of “neutrality” in the face of growing treason by the slave states. He officially condemned Secession but claimed he was powerless to stop it; apparently he was unaware of the section of the Constitution which made him Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.
When the commander of Federal forces at Charleston, Major Robert Anderson, requested men and supplies, the 300 men detailed to be sent to him were instead shipped to Texas by Buchanan, to guard a border where they were not needed. However, 17,000 stand of arms were sent to South Carolina by President Buchanan; not to the under-strength Federal garrison, but to the rebellious state government!
Buchanan’s “passivity” in Washington was rewarded in Charleston with an early Christmas present: on December 20, 1860, South Carolina approved an Ordinance of Secession and then on Christmas Eve the rest of the South Carolina delegation in Congress abruptly resigned.
In Springfield, Illinois, in the week leading up to Christmas, Abraham Lincoln was busy selecting cabinet members, meeting with important politicians and dignitaries and keeping a wary eye on the Buchanan administration. There was more than a suspicion that Buchanan was aiding and abetting the Secessionists, but until he was inaugurated, all Lincoln could do was stand idly by and watch it happen.
On December 13th Lincoln celebrated Mary’s birthday and on the 21st his son Willie’s birthday. On Christmas Eve, Lincoln purchased eleven handkerchiefs as Christmas presents.
In Galena, Illinois, that same Christmas Eve, a harried middle-aged store clerk—Ulysses S. Grant—was attending to last-minute shoppers.
In the South, many plantation slaves were looking forward towards a day of leisure and feasting the next day, while in Maryland on Christmas Eve, two young black men were uneasily anticipating their forthcoming sale the next day. Yuletide was also a popular time in the South to close one’s plantation books and sell off slaves.
Far off in Texas, Colonel Robert E. Lee wrote to his wife apologizing that he could not be home with her and the children that Christmas and expressed his concerns over the growing crisis, hoping that he would not have to choose between his loyalty to his country and his loyalty to his state.
Major Robert Anderson at Fort Moultrie in Charleston wrote to his wife on Christmas Day, apologizing that he did not send her a Christmas present. What he could not disclose to her was that he was too busy making preparations for his garrison to move to Fort Sumter that very night.
On December 25, 1860, while many in the country celebrated the birthday of the Prince of Peace, some men were also busy preparing for war.
Ambrose Bierce is well know 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.