The Christmas of 1861 arrived with the nation at war. This was unanticipated; it had been a year and five days since South Carolina had seceded, and ten months since the formation of the Confederate States of America. Many had known that these events would probably lead to war, but few on either side had expected the conflict to endure. It would end quickly, at the first clash of arms. Failing that, over by the end of summer. By the end of fall, surely. Then winter arrived and the war was ongoing, both sides anticipating spring and the renewal of the campaign season.
In general, the mood amongst the southerners was optimistic this Christmas. Their new country had survived the year. Northern armies had made some concerted attacks, but the Confederacy had successfully defended its sovereignty. The Charleston Mercury noted that this season “there is anything else than ‘peace on earth and good will to men,’ yet the present situation and the prospect before us afford ample cause for gratitude. We are not perhaps so well off as we might have been, but are intact as a nation, and after many months of war with a people much superior to ourselves in numbers and resources, have proved our ability to maintain our independence.”
In Richmond, President Jefferson Davis and his wife Varina tended to a new addition to their family, William Howell “Billy” Davis, born in the Confederate White House less than three weeks earlier. Christmas time was special to them, since they had met over the holidays in 1843 in Jefferson’s brother’s home. The Richmond Dispatch noted that the children were certain that Santa Claus would be able to run the Union blockade, “for he comes by a route over which no Lincolnites has dominion, and where no Yankee ship can sail.” Military gifts were very popular with the children that year, such as wooden swords, pop-guns, and drums. An Augusta, Georgia, paper noted “there were abundance of presents bestowed upon the little ones — and many a family has its pleasant episodes to talk of in after times. All our places of business where gifts could be obtained were crowded on the 24th…. The sales, despite the hard times, were very large.”
The Richmond Dispatch noted that some argued that because of the war there should be no celebration that year, but the editors disagreed. “We can pledge the cup of kindness to the boys far away,” they wrote, “who will be all the happier for the good wishes and tender thoughts around the family hearthstone…. It is pleasant, by some word or act, to remind our absent friends that they are not forgotten.” The Republican of Marshall, Texas, noted that people felt that “the hour of danger has passed; that there may be difficulties and sacrifices, but that their freedom is secure. And hence, when they survey this broad land, and contemplate its future opulence, have they not reason to rejoice, and look upon the past as a ‘happy Christmas?’”
In the north, the mood was less festive. Celebrations were held in cities and towns as they always had been, but there was an undercurrent of glumness. The early rallying cry of “On to Richmond,” popularized by Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, was now a subject of parody. Northern arms had not swiftly extinguished the rebellion, as they had expected. In fact, the Union Army could not count a single significant victory. A minor skirmish at Dranesville, Virginia, on December 20, which the Federals won, was much discussed, its significance exaggerated out of proportion. “The first Federal victory south of the Potomac,” the papers crowed, and Secretary of War Simon Cameron wrote that “its effects must be to inspire confidence in the belief that hereafter, as heretofore, the cause of our country will triumph.” Closer to the capital, General Heintzleman, perhaps seeking a similar encounter, took his troops on a Christmas excursion down the banks of the Potomac to find some rebels, but the main body of Confederate troops were wintering miles away around Centerville.
Newspapers north and south on December 25 carried front-page coverage of the developing crisis known as the Trent Affair. On November 8, Captain Charles Wilkes of the U. S. S. San Jacinto had intercepted the British ship Trent in international waters and removed two Confederate legates heading for Europe, James Mason and John Slidell. Public opinion in neutral Britain was outraged; an ultimatum soon arrived demanding an apology and the release of the imprisoned men. President Lincoln instructed Secretary of State William Seward to craft a measured response, with the admonition “one war at a time.” Lincoln’s cabinet debated the issue in a lengthy Christmas Day meeting, finally agreeing to release the Confederates and pay reparations. John Nicolay, one of Lincoln’s secretaries, objected that affairs of state were interfering with holiday plans. “John [Hay] and I are moping the day away here in our offices like a couple of great owls in their holes,” he wrote, “and expect in an hour or two to go down to Willards and get our ‘daily bread’ just as we do on each of the other three hundred and sixty four days of the year.” Later that evening the President hosted a dinner for two dozen guests, though Nicolay and Hay were not among them.
U.S. Patent Office clerk Horatio Nelson Taft had spent Christmas day at home, entertaining not only his own children, but also the president’s. “It has been quite a noisey day about the house,” he wrote in his diary. “Our three boys and the Two Lincoln boys have been very busy fireing off Crackers & Pistols. Willie & Thomas Lincoln staid to Dinner at 4 o’clock.” Days later young Willie Lincoln fell ill with typhus; he died in February. Confederate General James Longstreet spent the holiday in Richmond with his family, but soon his three youngest children, Mary Ann, James Jr. and Augustus Baldwin, fell ill with scarlet fever. The sickness stretched into January, and there were some signs of improvement. But on January 25, Mary Ann succumbed; within a week, all three would be dead. It is said that Longstreet never fully recovered from his grief.
Christmas reached the frontlines with a true sense of holiday on both sides. There was little fighting in the east, and most units organized various types of diversions and celebrations. “The officers decided to allow the men to have a grand celebration on Christmas day,” reads the journal of the 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery. “Some turkeys, geese, and a few Maryland rabbits (pigs) had been secured from the neighboring farmers. Quartermaster-sergeant Dyer, by the officers orders, procured a small barrel of beer. Just after retreat roll call the feast, which had been prepared by the cooks was served, after which the barrel of beer was tapped, and the celebration began. At dusk a large bon-fire was lighted to enliven the occasion.” A correspondent from the 18th Virginia regiment noted a similar scene among the southern troops: “Christmas Eve was welcomed with hearty demonstrations of joy and gladsome delight; indeed, each man looked upon the other with a manifest air of satisfaction. … Boxes from our good old homes far away came in the very nick of time, filled to overflowing with all imaginable niceties, thus reminding, us that, distant though we be from those who love us, yet we are subjects of thought and care. It is a most satisfying reflection. …Each box contained home of the good things we usually get at home at such times — turkey, ham, sausage, spare-rib, butter, eggs, pies, cakes, etc.”
In Fayetteville, Virginia, Major and future president Rutherford B. Hayes of the 23rdt Ohio regiment noted in his journal, “A beautiful Christmas morning, clear, cool and crisp, bright and lovely.” He wrote a letter to his wife, wishing “a merry Christmas to you and the little stranger,” his newborn son Joseph Thompson Hayes, then four days old. “At this home-happiness season, I think of you constantly.” The regimental band played a concert, and Hayes dined in a sergeant’s mess, with “turkey, chickens, pies, pudding, doughnuts, cake, cheese, butter, coffee and milk, all abundant and of good quality. Poor soldiers!” But there were ill feelings in the regiment that day — a sergeant named Haven was raised to Captain rank over the heads of many Lieutenants. Another promotion from the ranks was being considered for 18-year-old Sergeant McKinley. But the Haven promotion so soured the mood that the action was deferred. Only after his bravery at the Battle of Antietam nine months later was future president William McKinley given his commission, at Hayes’ recommendation.
The excitement of the war’s outbreak had brought thousands of volunteers, who enlisted for three to six months, a term which they may have presumed to be the duration. Many enlistments expired in December, and for these men the war was over, unless they chose to stay. Many did not. Confederate Captain and surgeon John Wyatt’s term ended the day after Christmas, which found him in Missouri. “Spent last night & today at my friend Layton’s near town,” he wrote in his diary. “Had a real old Virginia Egg Nogg & drumer, and had pounds and had a agreeable time. Our Regt. is disbanded today, consequently I am foot loose. I leave with the men in a day or two South East, but I cannot promise myself the pleasure of getting home this winter.” Brigadier General M. Jeff Thompson, the local commander in New Madrid, wrote that “Nearly all my men are disbanded and comparatively but few have re-enlisted. They seemed determined to take the Christmas holidays to themselves and are having a real noisy time of it.” As a stratagem to get men to re-enlist General Thompson moved each regiment as close to their homes as possible, in hopes they would take a short Christmas holiday and then return to the colors. “How many of these will volunteer it is impossible to tell,” he wrote, “but I am sure I will have but a skeleton force until February or March.”
However, others were eager to get into the fight. W.H. Flint, of the 2nd Vermont Light Artillery, left his home on Christmas Day to head for the front. “My father was in Brandon to see me off again for the War,” he wrote. “He said that he should never see me again. I was inclined to be light hearted about it but still I had some misgivings as three years is a long time and the war was growing fiercer than ever.” In fact, Flint served for four years and three months, but he made it back home. George E. MacDonald was four years old that same day when he watched his father Henry, of the 6th New Hampshire Volunteers, board a train in Keene. “In his blue overcoat with a cape to it, father looked the ideal soldier,” George later recalled. Henry MacDonald served honorably in the regiment, and in August 1862 fell in the Second Battle of Bull Run, shot through the head.
Elsewhere the war continued. In the Oklahoma Territory, Christmas found Confederate Colonel James M. McIntosh, last of his West Point class of 1849, leading elements of five Arkansas and Texas cavalry regiments towards a position occupied by a force of pro-Union Indians led by Creek Chief Opothleyahola. The Indians had dug in on a steep rocky hill covered with oak trees. The next day McIntosh advanced on the Indins, who shouted defiance at the men approaching them, and opened fire when they were within range. McIntosh threw out flanking forces, with orders to dismount when they were in position. His next move, with enemy fire still raking his command, was related by trooper A.W. Sparks: “The impetuous McIntosh, who cannot brook a tardy skirmish salutation, orders the charge.”
“It seemed a desperate undertaking to charge a position which appeared almost inaccessible,” McIntosh wrote later, “but the order to charge to the top of the hill met a responsive feeling from each gallant heart in the line, and at noon the charge was sounded, one wild yell from a thousand throats burst upon the air, and the living mass hurled itself upon the foe.” McIntosh led the assault as the hillside erupted with defensive fire. The engagement quickly turned into a series of small, hand to hand skirmishes. The Confederates pushed back the enemy before them, muscling their way upwards towards the summit, dispatching warriors as they went with shot, sword and bayonet. Opothleyahola’s men were routed, and fled towards Kansas into the teeth of an approaching blizzard, hunted by pro-southern Cherokee cavalry. For his victory, McIntosh was promoted to Brigadier General.
At Fort Pulaski, Georgia, Confederate defenders faced a developing Union siege. But the people of Savannah had sent many boxes of foods, and the troops wanted for nothing. “Fine day here,” wrote Private John Hart of the Irish Jasper Greens. “Plenty of fighting and whisky drinking.” Meanwhile the Union troops encamped on Hilton Head Island, spent most of their Christmas digging trenches, but were given some time off in honor of the day. Private Charles Lafferty, of the 48th New York, wrote his sister, “We had a merry Christmas down hear. We bought sassiges … and hoe cake and build a fir and cooked our sassiages. That is the way we spent our Christmas.” Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who had been sent to see to the coastal defenses, was inland at his headquarters at Coosawatchie, South Carolina. “I cannot let this day of graceful rejoicing pass without some communication with you,” he wrote his wife Mary. “I am thankful for the many among the past that I have passed with you, and the remembrance of them fills me with pleasure. For those on which we have been separated we must not repine. Now we must be content with the many blessings we receive.” He bemoaned the confiscation of their home in Arlington, and the relics it contained, many from George Washington’s family home at Mt. Vernon. But, he wrote, “they cannot take away the remembrance of the spot, and the memories of those that to us rendered it sacred. That will remain to us as long as life will last, and that we can preserve.”
General Lee warned Mary that they were in for a long war — that they should not hope for help from the British or anyone else. “We must make up our minds to fight our battles and win our independence alone,” he wrote. “No one will help us. We require no extraneous aid, if true to ourselves. But we must be patient. It is not a light achievement and cannot be accomplished at once.” The far-sighted Lee could not have known just how long the war would endure, or what sacrifices were yet to be made. Indeed the first year of war would look inconsequential compared to what was to come. Few wars end as they were intended at their start. By Christmas 1861, one could no longer accept the idea that the contest between north and south would be a brief, painless, and chivalrous struggle. The feasts, the merrymaking, at home and at the front, these were the final rites of innocence. In the new year there would be deadly work to be done.
– James S. Robbins is author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point.