Bridging the River
Christmas 1862.


By 1862 the Civil War had set in with all its grimness. The year saw a series of major battles that would long be remembered; the Seven Days Battles, Shiloh, Second Manassas, and Antietam, the bloodiest single day of the war. And while thousands had died in combat, and many more of disease, the conflict was not measurably closer to its conclusion.

But as in 1861, the spirit of the season was evident that winter. The New York Times reported that Christmas 1862 was “the dampest, warmest, muggiest and most burdened with mingled feelings of joy and grief.” The unseasonably warm weather had made the Central Park Pond unsafe for skating, but had brought out crowds of Christmas shoppers. “The money expended this year in Christmas gifts exceeds by far, by very far, that which has gone that way in many years,” the Times noted. Furs were a popular gift that year, and the streets echoed with the blare of tin horns, the latest craze among young boys.

The 1862 season saw an important cultural milestone, the emergence of the modern image of Santa Claus. Famed illustrator FOC Darley published an edition of Clement Clark Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas (‘Twas the Night Before Christmas) featuring drawings of Santa as a plump man with a pipe, furry coat and pointed hat. Thomas Nast, who in the late 19th century produced what came to be regarded as the definitive representations of St. Nick, published his first Santa drawing in Harper’s Weekly, January 3, 1863. “Santa Claus in Camp“ showed a star-spangled Santa in his reindeer-drawn sleigh handing out presents to jubilant soldiers. In the background, troops engaged in various games, climbing a greased pole, chasing a greased boar, playing football. Sports were a part of the festivities at many encampments. A reported 40,000 soldiers watched a baseball game at Hilton Head, S.C., between the 165th New York Zouave regiment and a picked team from other units. One of the players was Abraham Gilbert Mills, later president of the National League.

The mood in Washington was gloomy. It had been ten days since the conclusion of the Battle of Fredericksburg, Ambrose Burnside’s futile assault against strongly emplaced Confederate defenders. There were 12,600 Union casualties, many of whom were transported to the 46 hospitals in the Washington area. President Lincoln was visibly shaken by the outcome of the battle, and looked more sad and careworn than usual. He remarked to his friend Governor Andrew G. Curtin of Pennsylvania, “If there is a worse place than Hell, I am in it.” Lincoln visited several of the local hospitals and spoke with many of the patients. 6,000 pounds of poultry and “large quantities of other delicacies” were distributed to the hospitals for the Christmas dinners of the wounded. “Fish, flesh and fowl, puddings and pies, and these of all sorts,” one report said, “with plenty of cider.”

Jefferson Davis celebrated Christmas in his home state of Mississippi, the first time he had been back since the war began. “After an absence of nearly two years,” he said, “I again find myself among those who…have ever been the trusted object of my affection.” But Confederate Christmas celebrations in the area were cut short by reports of Union troop movements on the Mississippi threatening Vicksburg. General Sherman had advanced from Memphis to Gaines Landing, Ark., 20 miles above the city. He had banned reporters from traveling with him, stating bluntly that “all newspapermen are spies.” But correspondents followed nevertheless, and filed reports calculated to raise Sherman’s ire. “Our line of march from Helena to this point can be traced easily by its charred ruins,” one reporter noted. Officially the burnings were reprisal for sniping and other attacks, but the reporter gave equal weight to the “exuberance” of soldiers. “They rob hen-houses, smash furniture, insult defenseless women, burn buildings, and reduce the country to a desert — all, of course, from love of the sublime cause for which this nation is now struggling. Ever remembered be such patriots — ever famous be their hen-roost and house-burning deeds of glory!”

Robert E. Lee, fresh from victory at Fredericksburg, wrote his wife, “What a cruel thing is war. To separate & destroy families & friends & mar the purest joy and happiness God has granted us in this world…. I pray that on this day when ‘peace & good will’ are preached to all mankind that better thoughts will fill the hearts of our enemies & turn them to peace.” That evening he attended a dinner hosted by Stonewall Jackson at his headquarters at the Moss Neck Plantation along the Rappahannock River. On Christmas Eve Jackson had received a letter with a lock of his one-month-old-daughter Julia’s hair. He had not yet seen his only child; he felt he had to stay with his command to set an example, with so many men going absent. “How I do want to see that precious baby!” Jackson wrote his wife Ellie, “and I do earnestly pray for peace.” He finally met baby Julia on April 20, 1863. Three weeks later he would be dead, the victim of friendly fire at the Battle of Chancellorsville.

The Rappahannock was the front line of the war in the east, and the armies watched each other from camps nestled in snow. Rebel cavalry commander JEB Stuart crossed the river and rode around Union lines towards Dumfries, Virginia, circling towards Alexandria and Fairfax, netting hundreds of prisoners and 25 wagons. But for most of the soldiers on both sides Christmas was a time of reflection and making the best of their situation. “Thoughts of the merry, festive season at home…ere yet war with its desolating hand had swept over our once happy and prosperous land, came unbidden on this day to every soldier’s heart beneath that Southern sky,” wrote Colonel Gilbert Adams Hays of the 63rd Pennsylvania. The regimental diarist of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry observed, “Many a fine fattened goose or turkey will deck the tables of those at home. While they are indulging in the luxuries of home, we can be thankful to have the opportunity of standing up to our salt bacon and Uncle Sam’s biscuits.” Troops from Major Thomas W. Osborn’s 1st New York Light Artillery decorated a Christmas tree with hard tack, and “no-one who saw the tree could suppress a hearty laugh.” Sergeant Cyrus B. Watson of the 45th North Carolina accepted an invitation from two young lieutenants to share a roast turkey that some of the men had found perched in an out-building. “It was argued that the old gobbler had no pass and was subject to arrest,” Watson noted.


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