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.
Members of the 3rd and 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry held a holiday steeplechase around an improvised three-quarter mile track with four obstacles. Captain Walter Newhall of the 3rd wrote that “about forty had promised to run, but the timid ones (all who had any sense you will say) began to fall out, and at the word ‘go’ only eight got away.” Regimental commander Colonel John B. McIntosh was hurt when his horse collided with others in a jump. McIntosh was later one of the heroes of the cavalry action on the third day at Gettysburg, and eventually became a U.S. brigadier general. His brother, Confederate Brigadier General James McQueen McIntosh, had been a killed nine months earlier at the Battle of Pea Ridge, Ark. Captain Newhall won the race.
Chaplain Francis Hall was with the 16th New York, encamped east of Fredericksburg. He mailed a 27-page letter to his “dear wify” Franny, and spent the day visiting several regiments, tending to the sick, and conducting Christmas services. For dinner he had “a fine roasted Turkey, potatoes, apple sauce, biscuits & apple pie.” Fanny Hall meanwhile was writing her own Christmas letter: “My own darling husband, I know you ‘have not much nervousness,’ and that coupled with your entire forgetfulness of self makes me fear you will outstep the bounds of that which you are called to do and needlessly place yourself in exposure. Do remember your duty in this respect even as you would have me at home remember my duty to take care here. One ought not from a desire to be enduring of hardships to expose oneself needlessly. Do you fully understand me, my own husband, tell me. Do not yourself impose burdens that you [k]no[w] I need not bear. Will you remember my Franky?” Franky did not take Fanny’s entreaties to heart. On May 3, 1863, at the Battle of Salem Heights, he repeatedly moved through the thickest of the fight to retrieve wounded soldiers and carry them to the rear for treatment. He survived the battle, and the war, and for his bravery was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Tally Simpson of the 3rd South Carolina was ordered into Fredericksburg and saw the effects of the battle. “I have often read of sacked and pillaged towns in ancient history, but never, till I saw Fredericksburg, did I fully realize what one was. The houses, especially those on the river, are riddled with shell and ball. The stores have been broken open and deprived of every thing that was worth a shilling. … Several houses were destroyed by fire. Such a wreck and ruin I never wish to see again.” Union Brigadier General Marsena Rudolph Patrick, Provost Marshal of the Army of the Potomac, came across the river under flag of truce to meet with Confederate officers to discuss matters related to the late battle. The mood was light despite the setting. “Papers were exchanged, and several of our men bought pipes, gloves, &c from the privates who rowed the boat across,” Simpson noted. “They had plenty of liquor and laughed, drank, and conversed with our men as if they had been friends from boyhood.”
A half mile below the town the mood was considerably less jovial. Eighteen year old Private John R. Paxton, 140th Pennsylvania, was rousted from sleep for picket duty. “No breakfast; chilled to the marrow; snow a foot deep,” he wrote. He moved towards the river through the wind-whipped snow, “God’s worst weather, in God’s forlornest, bleakest spot of ground.” As he paced along the riverbank he ruminated. “And so this is war…and I am out here to shoot that lean, lank, coughing, cadaverous looking butternut fellow over the river. … Pshaw, I wish I were home. Let me see. What are they doing at home? This is Christmas Day. Home? Well, stockings on the wall, candy, turkey, fun, merry Christmas and the face of the girl I left behind.” Struck by loneliness, or the absurdity of his situation, Paxton called out to the Rebel sentry on the other side of the river.
“Hello Johnny, what you coughing so for?”
“Yank, with no overcoat, shoes full of holes, nothing to eat but parched corn and tobacco, and with this darned Yankee snow a foot deep, there’s nothin’ left but to get up a cough by way of protestin’ against this infernal ill treatment,” the Rebel said. Others joined in. “Let’s laugh, boys.”
“Hello yourself, Yank.”
“Merry Christmas, Johnny.”
“Same to you, Yank.”
“Say Johnny, got anything to trade?”
“Parched corn and tobacco — the size of our Christmas, Yank.”
“All right; you shall have some of our coffee and sugar and pork. Boys, find the boats!” The Union pickets uncovered some miniature boats that had been secreted there for use by successive groups of sentries for just this illicit activity. They loaded them with cargo then set them adrift towards the opposite shore. The Rebels reached out to receive the shipment, brought the boats ashore and pulled out the contents.
“Hurrah for hog!” one exclaimed. “Say, that’s not roasted rye, but genuine coffee,” another commented. “Smell it, you’uns.” “And sugar too!” another said. “Reckon you’uns been good to we’uns this Christmas Day, Yanks.” The Rebels put what they could in the small boats for the return journey, parched corn, ripe persimmons, and some Virginia leaf, the latter of which was most welcome. For the rest of the morning the men chatted across the river, enjoyed their repast, and shared a smoke.
“And so the day passed,” Private Paxton wrote. “And we forgot the biting wind, the chilling cold; we forgot those men over there were our enemies, whom it might be our duty to shoot before evening. We had bridged the river, spanned the bloody chasm. We were brothers, not foes, waving salutations of good-will in the name of the Babe of Bethlehem, on Christmas Day in ‘62.”
– James S. Robbins is the director of the Intelligence Center at Trinity Washington University , senior fellow for national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, and author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point. Robbins is also an NRO contributor.