Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas Past: A Civil War Sampler

Christmas is a special time for many. During the holiday season, much time is spent rushing to and fro to fill the shopping basket with gifts or to get the ingredients for the big family meal. For others, the season is a time for reflection on the events of the year past or on what may be in store for the future. Certainly, it is a time for celebration and anticipation (especially for Santa Claus!), but Christmas can also be a time of sadness for those separated from their loved ones through death or by distance. All of these emotions were felt during the Civil War as well, and through the letters and diaries of the men who served in that conflict, we have a window on what it was like in a Civil War army at Christmas. Several years ago, I published a monograph called “Christmas Past: A Civil War Sampler.” For those familiar with that little book, some of the accounts which follow will be familiar, but there are others here which do not appear in that work. The diary entries below are not arranged by year and vary between Union and Confederate soldiers. Some talk about Santa Claus; others about what they had to eat or drink (including “fully-loaded” egg-nog); many reminiscence about home and family; and some express bitterness or sadness at the condition of the country. There are also a couple of civilian accounts thrown in for good measure. While I hope you enjoy these voices from the past, I trust that you will find that Civil War soldiers – whichever uniform they wore – were basically the same. I also hope that as you read these accounts and experience just a taste of a Civil War Christmas, you will remember those men and women in our armed forces today who must spend their holiday in uniform around the world protecting our freedoms. –  Ed.


Christmas morning a fine one. The boys began to take their Christmas last night. A good deal of drunkenness in camp. In the morning the captain gave us a treat of egg nogg. One-half the boys very tight by nine o’clock…Never saw so many drunk men before. It might be said with propriety that the 7th  regiment was drunk on the 25th.   
-  David Phillips, 7th Tennessee Infantry

December 24th
…It is rumored that there are sundry boxes and mysterious parcels over at Stoneman’s Station directed to us. We retire to sleep with feelings akin to those of children expecting Santa Claus. We have become very childish in some manners – grub being one of them.

December 25th.
Went on a detail making corduroy roads. It was a dismal day but rendered quite endurable by the anticipation of what was in store in our boxes. On returning to camp, I was informed by my tentmate that there was no parcel at the station bearing my name. My mental thermometer not only plummeted to below zero, it got right down off the nail and lay on the floor. Seeing this, my tentmate made haste to dive under the bed and produce the box, which he had brought from the station during my absence, and in but a few minutes we were busy discussing the merits of its merits. Most of the men have been remembered, and any that have not received something from home are allowed to share with their more fortunate neighbors.
- John W. Haley, Co. I, 17th Maine Volunteers

Wednesday, Dec. 25, 1862. Camp near Manassas.
Pleasant weather. Since we do not have a chaplain, this morning we held a hymn-service instead. I enjoyed the music – reminded me of Papa’s and Edward’s singing at home. I enjoyed the hymns with the familiar tunes, as On Jordan’s Stormy Banks, When I Can Read My Title Clear, Rock of Ages, Silent Night. I don’t know why sermons at Christmas are necessary. Bible reading and hymn singing are sufficient – in time of war perhaps more meaning ful than sermons.        

- Franklin L. Riley, Co. B, 16th Mississippi Infantry

Christmas morning my thoughts naturally turned to the little old log cabin in the backwoods of western Illinois, and I couldn’t help thinking about the nice Christmas dinner that I knew the folks at home would sit down to on that day.

There would be a great chicken pot pie, with its savory crust and a superabundance of light, puffy dumplings; delicious light, hot biscuits; a big ball of our home-made butter, yellow as gold; broad slices of juicy ham, the product of hogs of our own fattening, and home cured with hickory-wood smoke; fresh eggs from the barn in reckless profusion, fried in the ham gravy; mealy Irish potatoes, baked in their jackets; coffee with cream about half an inch thick; apple butter and crab apple preserves; a big plate of wild honey in the comb; and winding up with a think wedge of mince pie that mother knew so well how to make – such mince pie, in fact, as was made only in those days, and is now as extinct as the dodo. And when I turned from these musings upon the bill of fare they would have at home to contemplate the dreary realities of my own possible dinner for the days – my oyester can full of coffee and a quarter ration of hardtack and sow-belly comprised the menu…   
- Leander Stillwell, 61st Illinois

On the 21st of December we were visited by a cold, freezing rainstorm, which at night changed into snow, and the next morning we arose to find the ground hidden ‘neath winter’s mantle, while the light feathery flakes were rapidly descending from the dark clouds o’erhead. The sun rose the next days on a wintry scene of dazzling beauty, such as the eye seldom gazes on…it was one of winter’s most magnificent pictures, calling forth unbounded expressions of admiration from those who had never witnessed such a spectacle. It was, indeed, something new to those who had been accustomed only to the softly-smiling skies and balmy atmosphere of a land filled with orange groves and budding blossoms. Thus gathering around him gorgeous wintry scenes of nature’s unrivaled paintings, the old year was rapidly passing away. Christmas was generally observed and celebrated by the detachment. Early in the morning the bell over quarters commenced a rapid tintinnabulation not customary to it, accompanied by the dread cry of “Fire! Fire!” There was rolling tumbling and jumping out of one, two and three-story berths; a general scramble for clothing, intermingled with all kinds of cries and exclamations. “Where are my shoes?” “Who has my pants?” “Where the devil is my coat?” etc. etc. We went out of the only door, from which a flight of steep steps led to the ground, at the imminent risk of broken necks and limbs, some clothed, others in dishabille, hatless and shoeless – a motley crowd, indeed – only to find a pleasant moonlit morn and nothing astir. We had been incontinently “sold” by some soldier who remembered it was Christmas morning and loved a practical joke. Many enjoyed the fun, while others commenced the day by using the King’s English in a manner not taught in the Bible.  

- Willie Tunnard, 3rd Louisiana Infantry
December 24, 1863
The night was very cold but the day beautiful. I sent out a foraging party which procured 30 bushels of corn & half a ton of hay. We had an Inspection. I corrected the rolls & examined the state of the rations. “Tis the night before Christmas” – not exactly of civilization yet I have seen many worse days & nights than this…Inasmuch as I shall have no time to morrow I drank to night the last of a bottle of wine I brought from home & wished Merry Christmas to everyone who deserves it.  

- Charles B. Haydon, Co. I, 2nd Michigan Infantry
Camp near Fred'burg
Dec 25th, 1862

My dear Sister
This is Christmas Day. The sun shines feebly through a thin cloud, the air is mild and pleasant, [and] a gentle breeze is making music through the leaves of the lofty pines that stand near our bivouac. All is quiet and still, and that very stillness recalls some sad and painful thoughts. This day, one year ago, how many thousand families, gay and joyous, celebrating Merry Christmas, drinking health to absent members of their family, and sending upon the wings of love and affection long, deep, and sincere wishes for their safe return to the loving ones at home, but today are clad in the deepest mourning in memory to some lost and loved member of their circle. If all the dead (those killed since the war began) could be heaped in one pile and all the wounded be gathered together in one group, the pale faces of the dead and the groans of the wounded would send such a thrill of horror through the hearts of the originators of this war that their very souls would rack with such pain that they would prefer being dead and in torment than to stand before God with such terrible crimes blackening their characters. Add to this the cries and wailings of the mourners - mothers and fathers weeping for their sons, sisters for their brothers, wives for their husbands, and daughters for their fathers - [and] how deep would be the convictions of their consciences. Yet they do not seem to think of the affliction and distress they are scattering broadcast over the land. When will this war end? Will another Christmas roll around and find us all wintering in camp? Oh! That peace may soon be restored to our young but dearly beloved country and that we may all meet again in happiness.  

- Tally Simpson, Co. A, 3rd South Carolina

When I look back over the last year and think of the danger I have passed through, the many hardships and privations I have endured, I wonder that I am living today, for I have seen so many good men shot down, so many die of sickness. I have seen so many, very many fresh covered graves, that I feel I have indeed been fortunate.   
- Albert J. Blackford, Co. F. 107th Illinois
I am truly sorry that I cannot spend Christmas in Yazoo…Perhaps I could get something more palatable to eat than corn bread, or pleasant to drink that muddy water. I am sure the visit would be a pleasant one if I could get neither. I would love the visit on account of the society. The presence of some of my friends would be both meat and drink to me. 

-  Robert James McCormack, 3rd Mississippi 
Infantry, from Canton, Mississippi

A Merry Christmas to you dear wife. Since I cannot wish it you by word of mouth, I will by word of pen and paper. No doubt you are enjoying yourself finely to day with the abundance of good things which are so plenty and so cheap in the peaceful north.

A few extras would not go badly in this region to day but as they are not comestible we content ourselves with what we have and by tomorrow no doubt we shall feel as well as though we had stuffed ourselves full of roast turkey and plum pudding.

I’ll tell you what we – that is Capt. Gasternicht and myself, propose to have to day for dinner. First the universal ‘sowbelly’ (bacon) and coffee, then boiled beans with bread and butter. This last is an extra, the result of the captain’s foraging expedition outside of the picket lines yesterday. He succeeded in getting about 3/4ths of a pound of white stuff they called butter and a canteen of milk all for the small sum of 50 cents and had to go three miles for that….

- Hiram P. Roberts, Chaplain, Co. E, 84th Illinois

Sunday, December 25, 1864 We all went down last night to see the tree and how pretty it looked. The room was full of ladies and children and Cap. gave us music on the pianno and tried to do all he could to make us enjoy our selves and we did have a merry time. All came home perfectly satisfied. This has ben a cold dark day but we all went down to see how the tree looked in the day time but it was not as pretty as at night.    

- Carrie Berry, a 10-year-old living in Georgia

The north wind comes reeling in fitful gushes through the iron bars, and jingles a sleighbell in the prisoner's ear, and puffs in his pale face with a breath suggestively odorous of eggnog...Christmas Day! A day which was made for smiles, not sighs - for laughter, not tears - for the hearth, not prison.   

- Lt. Col. Frederick Cavada, 114th Pennsylvania, 
from Libby Prison in Richmond


Dec. 25th Christmas day, but “nary holiday for the soldier boy, far away from the sweet home where of the watched with intense eagerness for the coming of Christmas, expecting to see “Old Santa Claus.”
December 27th. Santa Claus got here at last. Several boxes for W.L.A. arrived today with eatables and other good things sent by those at home to let us know that though we are far from them they still remember us. Many blessings from Him be upon those loved ones at home.    

- George Albert Grammer, Warren (Miss.) Light Artillery


December 25, 1862
 This is Christmas, and my mind wanders back to that home made lonesome by my absence, while far away from the peace and quietude of civil life to undergo the hardships of the camp, and may be the battle field. I think of the many lives that are endangered, and hope that the time will soon come when peace, with its innumerable blessings, shall once more restore our country to happiness and prosperity.   

 - Corp. J.C. Williams, 14th Vermont

Fort Gaines, December 24th [Tuesday, 1861]
A Merry Christmas! I wish my darling! Oh! That I had a furlough to share it with you tomorrow  we would both get “tight” on egg-nogg wouldn’t we? You think you wouldn’t do you? but I say if I were home I’d make you take enough to exhillerate you for once in your life well! well! if I am not home with you I won’t make a funeral of my Christmas, but will be as merry as can be, we have a merry party in the “Bazaar” mess and if only receive a jug of good old rye whiskey by this boat, which we expect confidently, we will make a “welkin ring” tomorrow…

Fort Gaines, Christmas Evening
…I mustn’t close my letter without giving you a little description of our christmas dinner, Bob Wier who presides over the “last chance mess” invited us to dine; and a grand dinner it was I tell you!  -

Cold Turkey        Eggs       Sweet Potatoes
Roast Beef        Bread      Mince Pie     
Pigeon Pie        Rice     One Kind of Cake
Pepper       Vinegar           Pepper Sauce
Mustard        Jelly Cake       Sugar
Sherry Wine        Port Wine    Another Kind of Cake
Sugar Topped Cake       Salt       Turnips  

Every one of the above dishes was there and more than I can eat or remember…

May this be the last Christmas that I spend away from your side!       

- James M. Williams, Co. A, 21st Alabama Infantry

December 25th 1861
Miss Orrilla Davis and Nan Davis
My dear little daughters,
This is Christmas night and no doubt while I am setting in my tent in a war camp, you are enjoying yourselves at the Christmas Supper which I understand you are having at the Court House. No doubt you are enjoying yourselves over your Christmas presents and I hope Santa Claus in his rambles last night did not miss the Stockings of my two little girls but put something nice in them to make them happy. I got a Christmas present this evening which was nothing more than a letter from my dear little girl, and I now hasten to answer it. I was very sorry to hear that our sweet little babe was so sick but I hope it is getting well before this time and no doubt but what I will next hear that you and Nan will both have the measels and if you do you must be patient and you will soon get well again. I was surprised that you could write so good a letter & I read it to some of the boys and they said it contained more news than one half of the letters that they got from Liberty…

The drums are now beating for us to put out the lights so I must stop for this time but will write to some of you again this week. You must write to me often as that is the way to learn, and you don’t know how glad it makes me to get a letter from my dear little girls.
No more this time from your affectionate father,
A.F. Davis

- Andrew F. Davis, Co. I, 15th Indiana
December 25th [1864]

Christmas Day, and very very cold. Have been moving about some of late, but are again in our old quarters, We have had very unpleasant weather for several weeks, The rain had almost washed us away. The whole country around about here appears to be under water it is almost impossible to get about at all. All military movements will have to stop until the roads improve, It is said that Ladies of Richmond intend giving us a New Years dinner hope it may prove true would like right will to get something good to eat. The health of the Regt continues good. There is no news of any importance

January 1st [1865]
The long talked of Christmas dinner has come at last. Three turkeys, two ducks, one chicken and about ninety loves, for three hundred and fifty soldiers. Not a mouth full apiece where has it all gone too, where [did] it go The commisser or quarter masters no doubt got . May the Lord have mercy on the poor soldiers
  - John Kennedy Coleman, Co. F, 6th South Carolina
December 25, 1862
Upon this "merry christmas" morn deep fog enshrouds the camp. Thick vapor doth the soldier's vision limit and dim the luster of the rising sun. If once assured this fog would always shroud the hills & valleys with its pale mantle, and shut forever from our view the radiance of yon sun, "how drear & desolate the earth." But no; the fog must "lift," the vapory curtain rise, revealing Natures face more beautiful by contrast with the mist that marked its loveliness. Would 'twere as certain that the hellish fog of treason and the ghastly pall of war, red with burning cities and the crimson field, might vanish. May the peerless ray of Freedom's sun dispel the thickning gloom & bring us peace & unity   
- Isaac L. Taylor, Co. E, 
1st Minnesota Volunteers
It is a sad Christmas; cold, and threatening snow. My two youngest children, however, have decked the parlor with evergreens, crosses, stars, etc. They have a cedar Christmas-tree, but it is not burdened. Candy is held at $8 per pound. My two sons rose at 5 A.M. and repaired to the canal to meet their sister Anne, who has been teaching Latin and French in the country; but she was not among the passengers, and this has cast a shade of disappointment over the family. A few pistols and crackers are fired by the boys in the streets—and only a few. I am alone; all the rest being at church. It would not be safe to leave the house unoccupied. Robberies and murders are daily perpetrated. I shall have no turkey to-day, and do not covet one. It is no time for feasting.     
- John Beauchamp Jones, 
Richmond, Virginia
December 25th.
Christmas Day.  What a contrast in surroundings to the Christmas days of the past.  No rations until near night, so no dinner.  But still it has been in many ways a Merry Christmas.  Wrote to Nellie.  Mind busy of how the dear ones at home were enjoying the day.  Trust that I am learning that it is not the position of material blessings and surroundings that are necessary to give a contented and peaceful spirit.  Feel that the blessings of memory, the sense of the love of the dear ones at home, of the privilege of correspondence with them, the sense of God’s love and care, the precious teaching and promise of his holy word, and privilege of prayer and communication with him have in them rich sources of comfort and content.     

- Sgt. Henry W. Tisdale, 35th Massachusetts

While on the subject of Christmas cheer I will mention a toothsome delicacy which had a ready sale. It was ginger bread, or ginger cakes. An enterprising squad had gone into the business of baking. They had built an oven on a hill over against our camp and secured some baking pans about three feet square. They bought flour and bacon from the commissary, bought a lot of sorghum molasses in the country, and got the grease they needed by frying it out of the bacon. They had numerous customers, who bought and criticized freely; but as I had been paid $840, seven months wages, all the Confederacy ever paid me, I concluded to invest some of my wealth in ginger cakes. I had a good many one-dollar Confederate bills. They were red-backed and about six inches by three in length and breadth. I remembered boyhood days when the old cake man came to town on court days with his basket of cakes and five cents would buy a square eight or nine inches by six inches, and I supposed that one of my dollars, or at most two, would buy half of what the big baking pan contained. But when I handed him my dollar, saying “Give the worth of that,” he just laid the bill on the big square of cake and cut out the size of it and gave it to me for my money. I was so surprised that I did not object, but took my little piece of cake and went away sorrowing that our currency had sunk so low as to be measured in terms of gingerbread.   

- James H. McNeilly, Chaplain, 
Quarles’ Tennessee Brigade

Photo and Image Sources:
(1) Harper’s Weekly:
(2) Christmas boxes: 
(3) Civil War tent: 
(4) Snow scene:
(5) Haydon: 
(6) Welcome home: 
(7) Christmas tree:
(8) Cavada:
(9) Williams:
(10) Soldier:
(11) McNeilly:

1 comment:

  1. This was quite an interesting read. I'll put a link to it from my blog.