A Step Back In Time: Christmas in the Civil War

Sunday, December 7, 2014
David Geiger For the News Virginian

Today is the third in a series of columns about the participants and events, leading up to the Battle of Waynesboro on March 2, 1865. Because of the Christmas season, which is upon us now, our column this month will focus on Christmas during the Civil War.

A Civil War Christmas

Christmas was celebrated in both the United States and the Confederate States of America, although it didn’t become an official holiday until 1870.  The war continued to rage with skirmishes on both sides. In 1861 during the Christmas season, the Union navy caught a blockade runner and there were skirmishes throughout Virginia and Maryland.  In 1864, Confederate forces repelled a federal assault of sixty warships on Fort Fisher, near Wilmington, North Carolina.

Although the war continued, soldiers on both sides celebrated Christmas in various ways.  Some used hardtack to decorate trees. Others were treated to special meals.  In Georgia, Union soldiers dispensed food to poor Georgians with mules pulling carts decorated to resemble reindeer by having tree branches tied to their heads.

For the children, Christmas was altered by the war.  Presents were fewer, especially in the South.  Some children wondered how Santa Claus would get around the Yankee blockade.  Excuses for the lack of Santa included Yankees having shot him.

The voices of those affected show the stark difference between the celebrations of both sides.  For example, in 1861, Sallie Brock Putnam of Richmond wrote:  “Never before had so sad a Christmas dawned upon us…we had neither the heart nor inclination to make the week merry with joyousness when such a sad calamity hovered over us.”

On the other side, Union Brigadier General John Geary wrote his daughter in 1862: “My Dear Little Pet, On this Christmas Eve I have no doubt you have been enjoying yourself, perhaps with toys of the season, eaten your nuts and cakes, hung up your stockings in the chimney corner for old Kris Kringle…. I wish you a Merry Christmas and many of them.”

Christmas in the Valley

It’s safe to say that in the Shenandoah Valley, Christmas in 1864 would have been a muted celebration.  During the previous months, Sheridan had waged his campaign, known as “The Burning”.  However, knowing the spirit of the people, they celebrated, using what they had or could find.  Natural greens, such as laurel and pine, decorated their homes. For the children, waiting for Santa had the same excitement it has to this date.  The parents made sure to minimize any disappointment for them.  In the words of a Ms. Cornelia McDonald from her journal written in 1862, “Christmas is but ten days off, the blessed time that used to be so joyous.  It shall have something bright and cheery in it for the children.  They shall hang up their stockings, poor little things, even if I have to manufacture the things to put in them.”  Although Sheridan had done much damage, the Christmas dinner could have included oysters, ham, turkey and wild game with side dishes made of vegetables and grain, hidden from the Yankee foragers.

Some things continue from Civil War Christmas traditions- toys, Santa Claus, good food, family, evergreen decorations.  Unfortunately, war and conflict continue to separate families at this time of year, as in that time long ago.

I hope that this Christmas is a great one for you.  I pray that someday we will have peace and fellowship for all.  To quote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his 1864 Christmas poem, “Christmas Bells”:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
God is not dead, nor doth he sleep
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men

Merry Christmas to you and yours.

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On The Web:   http://www.dailyprogress.com/newsvirginian/news/local/a-step-back-in-time-christmas-in-the-civil-war/article_977b0b9c-7db4-11e4-a965-d702a7af0c8a.html