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.
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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)

THE DAY THE RIVER TURNED RED: Christmas 1862, A Civil War Christmas Part 6

 

Christmas Eve, 1862. Both sides were filled with thoughts of home. Thomas Nast (color version)
Christmas Eve, 1862. Both sides were filled with thoughts of home. Thomas Nast (color version)

CHRISTMAS 1862. It had been a bloody year and December of 1862 proved to be a bloody month.

The confidence and initial optimism of the Rebels had been dashed by the series of defeats at Forts Donelson and Henry in January, the loss of Nashville and the mid-South in the February and March, and then the stalemate at “Bloody Shiloh” in April. There was also the futile Fall Kentucky Campaign, where the Confederate forces almost conquered the Bluegrass state—but not quite. Back east, Robert E. Lee inflicted defeat after defeat on the Yankees, but still the blue-backs kept coming on against him.

After the Battle of Fredericksburg in December, Spencer Welch of the 13th South Carolina, noted just days after Christmas that, “The Yankees are certainly very tired of this war. All the prisoners I have talked with express themselves as completely worn out and disgusted with it. ”

Spencer writes to his wife how the Yankees on the other side of the lines don’t even have their guns loaded and how both sides talk familiarly with each other, as if they were enjoying a time out in some sort of great game. For among all the death and dying, the Christmas spirit had still taken hold of both; North and South, all yearned for peace and home.

As far as Thomas Nast was concerned, Santa was definitely a Union man.
As far as Thomas Nast was concerned, Santa was definitely a Union man.

Out west, however, Christmas day was but a prelude to battle. No sooner was the holy holiday over than General Rosecrans, in charge of the newly renamed and reorganized Army of the Cumberland, marched out of Nashville to do battle with General Bragg’s Rebel Army of Tennessee, laying in wait for them in nearby Murfreesboro, encamped by the winding banks of Stone’s River.

In the West there was no rest from war at Christmas in 1862. Broken artillery from the Battle of Stones River.
In the West there was no rest from war at Christmas in 1862. Broken artillery from the Battle of Stones River.

On December 26, the two sides faced each other across the river, awaiting battle on the morrow. On one side a regimental band piped up; on the other side an enemy band replied in kind. One side played Dixie; the other Yankee Doodle; and so it went on the eve of battle, until the battle of bands ended with both sides playing Home, Sweet, Home in unison.

The thoughts and prayers of loved ones at home on Christmas Eve were for the safety of their soldiers at the front. While in camp, it seems, Santa had declared for the Union cause—at least insofar as Thomas Nast was concerned.

A field sketch of Fort Macon, Christmas Day, 1862.
A field sketch of Fort Macon, Christmas Day, 1862.

In camps North and South, Christmas was a more mellow holiday in ‘62 than it had been before; for many comrades who had shared their Christmas fare in ’61 were now dead and gone. All wished for peace; but none now dare hope for it anytime soon.

For more about the Civil War, read Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.  Out now is Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, which chronicles the wartime service of famous author Ambrose Bierce with the 9th Indiana and 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 of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer, 2012)
The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s An alternate version of “Dixie” on YouTube

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)

A Civil War Christmas, Part 1: An Introduction

It was President Grant who made Christmas a national holiday.
It was President Grant who made Christmas a national holiday.

Τhe Civil War fundamentally altered our nation in many, many ways. It is not surprising, therefore, that the manner in which we celebrate Christmas was also deeply affected by that great conflict.

It may seem odd to many today, but in early America there was a deep distrust of the holiday of Christmas by some of our ancestors.  The Puritans, in particular, did not like the merrymaking and raucous celebrations which accompanied Christmas in those days– a definite turnoff to the dour Puritans.  Christmas was also linked, in Puritan minds, with the elaborate religious ceremonies of Roman Catholicism–a religion which they harbored a passionate hatred for.  In England during the Puritan revolution, Catholic priests were hunted down like animals and tortured to death. Not surprisingly,  Santa Claus in the Puritan view of things was equated with the anti-Christ .  The Puritans believed people should work on Christmas Day and not engage in frivolity and intoxication.  The Puritans outlawed Christmas, Easter and–that ever popular holiday–Whitsuntide.

Although early the Puritan’s early theocratic Socialism gradually gave way to a form of smug, self-righteous Capitalism, New England continued to look down on the holiday until the eve of the Civil War.  Even after the war, in Boston public school children continued to be forced to go to school on Christmas .

Other groups, however, were not so sour about the holiday.  Not only Catholics, but Anglicans and Lutherans joyfully celebrated the Holy Day holiday and continued to do so when they emigrated to America.

In particular, German immigrants, be they Lutheran or Catholic, had many popular rituals associated with the holiday, rituals which today we take for granted.  The nineteenth century was also the age of romanticism and so, influence by the zeitgeist of the era, people became more and more sentimental.  The Christmas celebration of hearth, home and family was a perfect fit for the spirit of the age and the season evolved into from a religious celebration about the birth of the Christ child to a quite secular celebration .

It actually wasn’t until 1870 that Christmas became an official Federal holiday.  This was thanks to President Ulysses S. Grant, who had in mind creating a national holiday that he hoped would help unite a still divided nation and melt the strong bitterness that still dwelt in the land.

The poignancy of families separated by war gave Christmas even more importance than ever before. Thomas Nast,
The poignancy of families separated by war gave Christmas more importance than ever before. Thomas Nast, “Christmas Eve”

During the war, both sides had celebrated the holiday in their own ways.  The poignancy of families separated by war gave Christmas even more importance than ever before.  President Grant knew only too well what the holday had meant to the soldiers in the field and their families at home.  In trying to unite a nation still deeply divided by the tragedy of war and its often violent aftermath, Grant knew that Christmas was something everyone in all regions of the nation come together about.

So, while Abraham Lincoln was responsible for Thanksgiving as an official American holiday, (more of that next time) it is to Ulysses Grant that we owe Christmas as the quintessential American celebration.

Thomas Nast created our current image of how Santa looks during the Civil War.
Thomas Nast created our current image of how Santa looks during the Civil War.

For more true tales of the Late Unpleasantness, see Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.  Just released, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, is published by University of Tennessee Press and chronicling the famous authors wartime service with the Army of the Cumberland and the 9th Indiana.

ambrose-bierce-and-the-period-of-honorable-strife-cover
Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, available at better stores everywhere.

 

GHOSTS AND HAUNTS OF THE CIVIL WAR 3x5

Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, true tales of paranormal experiences and uncanny encounters relating to the Late Unpleasantness.

 

Paranormal Presidency cover   suitable for online use 96dpi
The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer) Documented, eyewitness accounts of Abraham Lincoln’s belief in, and experience of, the Paranormal. It also documents his and his wife’s experiences with Spiritualism and other contemporary beliefs.