Christmas at WarChristmas History

Christmas During the Civil War

By Mary Hansel

Christmas is a joyous time. People spend the occasion with family and friends and their celebrations are full of rejoicing, love and jollity. It is hard for us to imagine what it would be like to have Christmas during war time, especially a war where countrymen fight each other. During the years of 1861-65, America was fighting just such a war, the Civil War. The country was torn apart by conflict and the lives of the participants and those on the home front were forever changed.

One person whose life was forever changed was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the most popular poet of his time. His son, Charles Appleton, was severely wounded in the Battle of New Hope Church. Longfellow was already reeling from the loss of his second wife, Francis Appleton, in a tragic accident in which he was injured trying to save her. With this latest blow, Longfellow was inspired on Christmas day of 1864 to write the poem Christmas Bells.

One of our most popular carols of today is based on Wadsworth’s poem. In 1872, John Baptiste Calkin set the poem to music, and we know it today as the carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”. The following stanzas, which directly pertain to the Civil War, were left out of the carol:

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned
Of peace on earth good will to men.

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn, the households born
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

For the men fighting the war, there weren’t too many breaks as Christmas was not yet a federal holiday. Most of the men didn’t get the day off to celebrate or sit in quiet contemplation. Several fights, both major and minor occurred as well as one notable diplomatic event, the Trent Affair.

The Trent Affair is known to some as the Mason-Slidell Affair. It started early in November of 1861, when the U.S.S. Jacinto intercepted the British Mail Packet, the Trent. On board were two Confederate diplomats, James Mason and Charles Slidell. Mason and Slidell were on their way to Great Britain and France to try to get those countries to give the Confederacy diplomatic recognition. With the capture of Mason and Slidell, President Lincoln found himself embroiled in an international incident that had the potential to lead to war with Great Britain. Lincoln and his cabinet worked tirelessly toward a diplomatic resolution, even having a cabinet meeting on Christmas day. In the end, Mason and Slidell were released and they were allowed to go to Great Britain, where their mission failed.

One of the major fights, the Christmas Raid of General John Hunt Morgan, occurred December 23, 1862 and continued through December 28, 1862. General Morgan and his men severely damaged the Union supply line that ran from Kentucky to Nashville. The Louisville & Nashville railroad bridge, which crossed Bacon Creek at Bonnieville, was burned down as were two trestles on Muldraugh Hill. Morgan and his men’s efforts effectively closed the railroad down for more than a month.

During the Christmas season of 1864, President Lincoln received a gift that would be a contributing factor in his re-election. On December 22, General William Tecumseh Sherman sent the following dispatch:

“To His Excellency, President Lincoln: I beg to present you as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty heavy guns and plenty of ammunition and also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.”

The fall of Savannah was a major blow to the Confederacy from which they could not recover.

The majority of the men fighting the war were despondent because the reality of war was what they were living. For them, Christmas was a reminder of the families they had left behind and the way of life they were trying to save. For these men Christmas had to have been a bittersweet experience.

The men sang carols, Jingle Bells and Silent Night among them. Some of the men even had eggnog to drink and better food to eat. A few soldiers put up decorations to make it seem more like Christmas. Private Alfred Bellard mentioned that a small tree was put in their tent and that it was “decked out with hard tack and pork, in lieu of cakes and orange, etc.” Hard tack is a cracker that is made from flour, water, and at times, salt. The pork used was salt pork, which resembles bacon, but is not cured. Hard tack and salt pork were the basic rations of the Civil War.

With the men off fighting the war, those left behind did the best they could to lighten the mood. It was very hard to be bright and joyous when there was no news as to how their loved ones were faring in the war. Money was tight and food was scarce. Prices had gone way up due to the war effort. Material for handmade gifts cost too much. Scrappy individuals made do with what they had and came up with several ways to celebrate.

One of the common decorations we enjoy today, the decorated Christmas tree, surged in popularity due to war. Decorated Christmas trees were not the norm at the time. The idea of having one came from Europe and it was just starting to catch on in America in the decade before the war began. Christmas trees were beginning to become popular due to weeklies featuring them in their pictures. The trees were small enough to fit on tabletops, and were decorated with homemade decorations which included strings of popcorn, dried fruit, natural materials such as pinecones, and paper decorations. Candles were used to light the tree.

Toys were homemade, such as dolls and carved wooden figures. To help lessen the disappointment of a meager Christmas, children were warned that Santa Claus would in all likelihood not make it to their homes. For example, in the south, he wouldn’t be able to get around the Union blockade of the southern coasts. Children had faith in Santa Claus, though, and stockings were still hung in hopes of having presents delivered. For the most part, the children were happy to get a little something. They just didn’t want to be forgotten.

Surprisingly, one of our most beloved legends, Santa Claus, played a major role in the war due to the drawings of cartoonist, Thomas Nast. Nast was an immigrant who was a Union propagandist as he used his drawings to help the Union cause. His drawings of Santa Claus showed him for the first time as a rotund, jolly figure, but he wasn’t as big as the Santa Claus we know of today.

Other propagandists used Santa Claus to further their causes, too. A cartoon in the New York Herald showed Santa upset that he couldn’t get around the Union blockade to deliver to the children in the south. The Richmond Examiner, a Confederate supporter, portrayed Santa Claus as having nothing to do with the celebrations the state of Virginia traditionally enjoyed.

When the war was over, Nast decided that he didn’t want anyone else to use Santa Claus as a political tool of propaganda. In order to ensure that wouldn’t happen, Nast gave Santa Claus a home. In one of his December 1866 cartoons there is a caption stating “Santa Claussville, N.P.”

In 1869, poet George P. Webster stated the N.P. as being “near the North Pole”.

For most, Christmas during the American Civil War was a bleak and bittersweet time spent away from loved ones who were either fighting the war on the fronts or in the diplomatic ranks, or enduring the separation at home. It is hard to imagine that some of our every day Christmas traditions gained in popularity due to such an awful time in history. In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant made Christmas a federal holiday in the United States when he signed it into law in an attempt to unite the North and South.

Father of 7, Grandfather of 7, husband of 1. Freelance writer, Major League baseball geek, aspiring Family Historian.

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