Christmas, 1861. Long Ago and Far Away: A Civil War Christmas, Part 5

Winslow Homer's depiction of the opening of a Christmas box from home shows the raucous celebration such holiday arrivals were greeted with by Union troops.
Winslow Homer’s depiction of the opening of a Christmas box from home shows the raucous celebration such holiday arrivals were greeted with by Union troops.

CHRISTMAS, 1861.  Although thousands of soldiers faced each other with bayonet and gun and cannon this winter, the attitudes among the combatants was far more merry than among Lincoln and his cabinet was that December 25. Men far from hearth and home longed to be with their loved ones, to be sure, but among their comrades in camp, soldiers on both sides tried to make merry in their own ways.  And if lacking all the niceties of home, still some found ways to make the holiday special.

On the Union side, at least, there was an abundance of Christmas packages, delivered by the United States Post Office. From home, families and friends sent “care” packages laden with preserves and hard candy, clothing (an abundance of woolen socks it seems) and even uplifting books—the latter duly ignored by the soldiers as they tore into the boxes. Winslow Homer, as special artist for Harper’s Weekly, was present to witness the boys turned soldiers as they frolicked on Christmas Day and document it with his sketch-pad.

On the other side of the lines in northern Virginia, the boys in gray were celebrating in their traditional way, insofar as the war allowed. Just outside of Manassas, where the Battle of Bull Run had been won that summer, a small group of officers and men from the 1st Virginia Cavalry were gathered in a Tavern to celebrate the birth of the Christ-child as befitted the bold Virginia cavaliers.

The 1st Virginia Cavalry were notable for their distinctive uniform and esprit de corps.
The 1st Virginia Cavalry were notable for their distinctive uniform and esprit de corps.
This is how Alfred Waud's field sketch appeared once the engravers at Harper's Weekly had done their work.
This is how Alfred Waud’s field sketch appeared once the engravers at Harper’s Weekly had done their work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The gentlemen soldiers of the 1st Virginia wore distinctive garb, which made them an excellent target for Yankee sharpshooters, but also set them apart from more plebian cavalry units. With their broad brimmed and beplumed black hats, jackets sporting a distinctive black decoration for the coat buttons–“Hussar Trim”–to decorate their shell jackets, and collars, cuffs and epaulets in black instead of the standard cavalry yellow, the men of the 1st Virginia had a general air of assurance that silently spoke of being scions of FFV’s; and in truth, they were fully as skilled an elite group of warriors as they fancied themselves.

They were gathered that Christmas day at Stuart’s Tavern, which lay along the Little River Turnpike, not far from Bull Run. While the tavern shared the name of their famed cavalry general, likely its title owed more to the Bonnie Prince than it did to J.E.B.  No matter, there was an abundance of punch and egg nogg, suitably fortified with spirits and, later in the day, a table laid to overflowing with victuals to fill the largest of cavalryman’s stomachs, which was, it was averred, of greater capacity than the ordinary soldier’s.

It was a “cold and dark and dreary” day without, but a roaring fire glowed from the hearth in the tavern, reflecting off the iron fittings and brass buttons, and the polished steel side-arms standing in the corner, and illuming the figures of the men gathered within. After a few toasts and quickly quaffed rounds, the faces around the table also glowed some, although less from the firelight than from their own warm glow within.

J.E.B. Stuart, an early commander of the 1st Virginia set the tone for the regiment's sense of elan.
J.E.B. Stuart, the dashing early commander of the 1st Virginia Cavalry, set the tone for the regiment’s sense of elan.

Outside, their horses were tied to the front fence, all saddled and ready to mount at a moment’s notice, less some rude and ungentlemanly Yankee foraging party disturb their celebration. Inside, Captains Drake and Irving, Lieutenants Larrick and two more of the Drake clan, plus horsemen of lesser rank but equal cheer, were all assembled round the large wooden table. The festivities proceeded with jest and song, punctuated by suitable libations at the “Shrine of Bacchus,” with the fragrance of roasting turkey coming from the well appointed kitchen.

In the midst of the festivities, a lone horseman appeared at the door to the tavern, apparently with similar motives as the cavalrymen for being there. His uniform was gray as well, but with the collars and cuffs of a captain of infantry. When he saw that there was a private party already going on in the tavern, however, he was about to beat a hasty retreat. The cavaliers of the 1st Virginia were in such good cheer, however, that they were even disposed to welcome a more pedestrian warrior to their midst.

When pressed, the captain of infantry accepted their hospitality and gave them his name and affiliation: Captain Atkins of Wheat’s Battalion. His unit was on picket duty that day and he had been making the rounds to be sure all his men were doing their duty. It being cold and blustery on horseback, he had stopped at Stuart’s to warm up a bit before returning to the cold comfort of his fly-tent. Learning that his commander, Major Wheat, was likewise quartered in a flimsy fly-tent, the horse-masters promptly sent an embassy to Wheat’s headquarters to invite him to share their repast. In due course the major arrived to reinforce their band and with them assailed the alcohol with equal abandon, accompanied by occasional toasts to “Our Dixie Land!”

To those present at Stuart’s Tavern that winter of ’61 it was a particularly memorable Christmas repast; all the more so as for several there it would be their last. By the next year the war had taken its toll and following Christmases saw their numbers further reduced, with Colonel Drake falling in the retreat from Gettysburg and Major Wheat meeting his end at Cold Harbor. In the winter of 1861, the Southern soldier had not yet met defeat and so the boys of ’61 enjoyed that Christmas with “the halo that invested all things with a beautiful romance.”

Farther afield from Stuart’s Tavern, other Southerners had more mixed sentiments that season; Robert E. Lee, for one, was on duty in South Carolina, far from home. He wrote to his wife on Christmas Day, trying to console her. Mrs. Lee and the family had been forced to flee Arlington, their home, which had been seized by the Yankees. She was now a refugee, residing in exile on The Peninsula, south of Richmond.

Stonewall Jackson was in the field as well, in the Shenandoah Valley, bedeviling the Yankees as well as that devout Christian could. But Jackson took time out to celebrate Christmas with his wife in Winchester, Virginia; a brief respite from war which, one surmises, was how his wife became pregnant with child.

Grant early in the War. several of his early victories were achieved while still stationed at Cairo, Illinois.
Grant early in the War. several of his early victories were achieved while still stationed at Cairo, Illinois.

In Cairo, Illinois, Ulysses S. Grant was also able to share the holiday with his family and celebrate, as well, his promotion to brigadier and as commandant of that border post. After the holiday he would undertake a winter campaign that would soon catapult him to fame and start him on the road to greatness.

In England, Queen Victoria most certainly had a cheerless Christmas, with her beloved husband, Prince Albert dying just a short time before the holiday.

It doubtless gave Queen Victoria little solace to know that her husband, as one of his final acts–one might call it a heroic act–had helped prevent a needless war with the United States, a war which would surely have benefited no one—save perhaps “The Mongoose” (Prime Minister Palmerston) and his minions.

Lord Palmerston, Prime Minister, was known as "The Mongoose," used the Trent Affair as a pretext to intervene on behalf of the Confederacy.
Lord Palmerston, Prime Minister, known as “The Mongoose,” used the Trent Affair as a pretext to intervene on behalf of the Confederacy.

Christmas of 1861 was for many still a joyous holiday; for some a season tinged with sadness, while for a few it was a dark and joyless time. For most, however, that darkness lay still in the future.

For more true stories of the Late Unpleasantness, see: Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.  My latest nonfiction book on the Civil War, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, is now in print and available at better bookstores everywhere.

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)
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins) 
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Christmas 1861: Crisis in the White House. A Civil War Christmas, Part 4

Brother Jonathan (Uncle Sam) takes a defiant attitude towards John Bull--like Lincoln and much of the country. Ultimately cool heads--and perhaps Mary's soothing words to her husband--prevailed.
Brother Jonathan (Uncle Sam) takes a defiant attitude towards John Bull–like Lincoln and much of the country. Ultimately cool heads–and perhaps Mary’s soothing words to her husband–prevailed.

Christmas, 1861, was a hectic day in the White House. All three Lincoln sons were home for the holiday.  Robert, the eldest, was home from Harvard. Willie and Tad were up to their usual antics, in contrast to their sedate older brother. Willie and Tad were a handful on normal days and with Mary in a tizzy preparing for the big Christmas dinner that night, the two boys were more underfoot than normal.

So, after opening presents, the two younger boys were scooted off to the Taft household where they could play with boys their own age. In this case play consisted of setting off fireworks and firing real guns with live rounds. This left Mary free to make busy for the grand dinner she had planned for that evening.

All the Lincoln family were home for Christmas in the White House in 1861
All the Lincoln family were home for Christmas in the White House in 1861

With Mary absorbed in preparations for the banquet, it was just as well that Abraham was deeply involved with work that morning. In fact, Lincoln convened an emergency Cabinet meeting on Christmas morning to discuss the crisis with Great Britain.

The USS San Jacinto seized two Confederate officials aboard the British packet the RMS Trent, leading to a crisis in relations between Britain and the US.
The USS San Jacinto seized two Confederate officials aboard the British packet the RMS Trent, leading to a crisis in relations between Britain and the US.

On November 8, the USS San Jacinto had stopped an English mail packet, the Trent, traveling between Havana and British St. Thomas. On board were two Rebel officials, Messrs. Mason and Slidell, bearing dispatches for Britain. The two officers of the Rebel government were fair game as far as the United States was concerned and by international law the San Jacinto should have hauled the Trent into port where a prize court would have not only remanded the two Rebel officials into US hands, but have the ship and its cargo seized as well. However, instead the captain just removed the two traitors and their dispatches and let the Trent continue on its journey.

It should be remembered that during the Napoleonic Wars,  Britain had arbitrarily stopped US ships on the high seas and kidnapped American seaman to fill their warship’s crews and thought nothing of it. However, when the roles were reversed, Her Majesty’s Government feigned outrage at the incident.

The British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, (aka "The Mongoose") used the Trent Affair as a pretext to intervene on behalf of the Confederacy.
The British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, (aka “The Mongoose”) used the Trent Affair as a pretext to intervene on behalf of the Confederacy.

Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister (called by those who knew him The Mongoose), whose party and friends controlled most of the British press, whipped up public sentiment condemning this supposed violation of neutral rights. In truth, although officially neutral, Palmerston and his minions were eager for any excuse to intervene on the side of the Confederacy. Although Great Britain had long outlawed slavery and the slave trade, the American blockade of the Southern ports was driving up the cost of cotton and British Capitalists cared more for their purses than they did for Negro freedom.

Palmerston penned an ultimatum that, unchanged, would surely have been rejected and led to war between the United States and Britain. However, such an ultimatum had first to be approved by Her Majesty, Queen Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert. Neither the queen nor her consort were of like mind with their prime minister.

Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's Consort, although gravely ill, stirred himself out of bed and rewrote Palmerston's inflammatory ultimatum to Lincoln to make it more conciliatory, thereby preventing war between the US and Britain.
Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s Consort, although gravely ill, stirred himself out of bed and rewrote Palmerston’s inflammatory ultimatum to Lincoln to make it more conciliatory, thereby preventing war between the US and Britain.

At that time, Prince Albert was on his deathbed; yet Albert, summing all his remaining energy, worked on the note to the US, softening its tone and making it as conciliatory as possible. It was this note that was delivered to Abraham Lincoln by the British minister to Washington.

Nonetheless, if the United States did not hand over Mason and Slidell and render a formal apology, there was little doubt it would mean war between the two countries. It was not the sort of Christmas greeting Lincoln had been expecting.

Beginning at ten a.m. on Christmas Day, Lincoln and his Cabinet heatedly debated the British demand and their response to it. Some were for war—a war which the US could not hope to win—others were for submission the terms. Secretary of State Seward, a realist, knew the government had little choice in the matter; others, Lincoln included, felt the US being in the right, should not submit. The debate was at times heated and went on for four hours. The contentious Christmas meeting adjourned without a decision being made. They would meet again on the morrow.

Brother Jonathan (Uncle Sam) takes a defiant attitude towards John Bull--like Lincoln and much of the country. Ultimately cool heads--and perhaps Mary's soothing words to her husband--prevailed.
Brother Jonathan (Uncle Sam) takes a defiant attitude towards John Bull–like Lincoln and much of the country. Ultimately cool heads–and perhaps Mary’s soothing words to her husband–prevailed.

Perhaps it was Mary’s “mid-winter soiree” that evening that mellowed the President; the newly redecorated White House, with a bounty of food, music and an abundance of good cheer that night could not help but have put one in a good mood.

Mary Todd Lincoln in ball gown. Mary had the ability to charm anyone, especially her husband. It may be the Christmas Party she held softened her husband's attitude towards the Trent Affair and prevented a war with Britain.
Mary Todd Lincoln in ball gown. Mary had the ability to charm anyone, especially her husband. It may be the Christmas Party she held softened her husband’s attitude towards the Trent Affair and prevented a war with Britain.

Mary Todd Lincoln may have had her foibles, but when she turned on the charm no one—especially not Abraham—could resist her, and Mary pulled out all the stops for this party. Not even the most snobby of the Virginia Swans that dominated Washington society could have criticized the elegance and vivacity of the banquet that evening. So perhaps indirectly we may credit the First Lady for preventing a war.

What we do know is that the next morning, after feasting on far richer fare the night before, President Lincoln decided to “eat humble pie” and give the British what they wanted. The Cabinet meeting on the 26th was brief; Mason and Slidell would be released into British custody and Secretary Seward would draft an appropriate written reply. That Christmas, if not goodwill to men, at least peace on earth prevailed between the two nations.

For other aspects Abraham Lincoln and the Lincoln presidency, see The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, and my book on esoteric aspects of the War, Ghost and Haunts of the Civil War.  My latest book, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, is now out and available at all better bookstores.

Queen Victoria ca 1861
Queen Victoria, 1861. Like her husband, she actively sought to avoid war with the United States over the Trent Affair.

P. S. Even Her Majesty had subscribed to the notion that British shipping should not carry foreign agents and their dispatches while the United States had a blockade in place:
Victoria Regina, May 13, 1861: “we do hereby strictly charge … all our loving subjects … to abstain from contravening … our Royal Proclamation … by breaking … any blockade lawfully … established … or by carrying officers … dispatches … or any article or articles considered contraband of war.” (cf. “The Trent Affair” article discussing Lord Palmerston and his machinations: “Controversy Over the Trent Case”, December, 1861.

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, 2012)