Christmastime during the Civil War

By: J.A. Bolton - Storyteller

Christmas during the American Civil War (1861-1865) was celebrated by the North and the South. Officially it didn’t become a national holiday until June 1870 when President Grant made it so, an attempt to unite the North and the South after the war.

The War effort just didn’t take time off during Christmas season, not by a long shot. In fact, in 1862, Confederate General John Hunt Morgan and his men engaged in his famous Christmas Day raid in Kentucky. In a single day they destroyed all the improvements the Union had made on 35 miles of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. While on Christmas Day in 1863, Union forces destroyed Confederate salt works at Bear Creek Inlet, N.C. In 1864, the Rebels fiercely repelled a Union assault of 60 warships on Fort Fisher, while several skirmishes were being fought on the Western front.

As the Civil War dragged on, simply doing without replaced large Christmas meals and familiar faces sitting at the dinner tables. Soldiers used to “bringing in the tree” and caroling in church were instead scavenging for firewood and food.

The soldiers who could write sent letters home in hopes they would receive a reply. Some even received gifts of food — and in some cases a bottle of whiskey or homemade wine for Christmas. That reminds me of the story of a Confederate soldier in prison at Point Lookout, Maryland. The story goes that he received a bottle of whiskey and he invited all his fellow prisoners to have a drink, only to find out a Yankee guard had drank it down and refilled the bottle with urine.

Perhaps the best Christmas gift President Lincoln received during the war was the news he received on Dec. 22, 1864 — that General William Tecumseh Sherman had captured Savannah, Georgia the previous day.

Christmas trees had become popular in the decade before the Civil War. On the home front, the homes were mostly decorated with different kinds of pine, holly, ivy and mistletoe. Most Christmas trees were small and sat on a table. They were decorated with such things as strings of dried fruit, popcorn, pine cones and candles.

Sometimes, to make it seem more like Christmas at the Army camps, a small tree was stuck up in front of the tents and decorated with hardtack and strings of pork.

By 1863, the Union blockade of the Southern coast made it nearly impossible for Santa Claus to visit homes in the South. The scarcity of goods and resulting high prices made Santa’s job even harder. Quite a few mothers explained to their children that even Santa Claus would not be able to run the formidable blockade. Also, southerners told their children that “Santa was a Yankee and Confederate pickets would not let him through.”

Sometimes, however, Santa Claus worked behind the wartime scenes. Seems after General Sherman captured Savannah, about 90 Michigan soldiers and their captain loaded up several wagons full of food and supplies and distributed the items around the Georgia countryside. The destitute Southerners thanked the jolly Union “Santa Clauses” as the wagons pulled away under the power of mules that had tree branches as antlers strapped to their heads to turn them into makeshift reindeer.

Sometimes even Christmas carols were sung, both at home and in the camps, all with the hope of peace on earth and good will to mankind. An old story tells about how Union and Southerners sang to each other from behind their own earthworks. I’ll betcha a dollar that none of them stuck their heads up and sang a solo!

For most Southern slaves, the Christmas season had always meant a break from their duties for a day or two. They celebrated with singing, dancing and sometimes a brief reunion with separated family members from other plantations. Before the war, most received gifts from their masters and their semi-annual clothing allotment.

After the war on Dec. 18, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution became law, abolishing slavery in the U.S. forever. What better reason to celebrate the Christmas season except for the birth of our Lord Jesus.

As was true of soldiers serving during the Civil War, we presently have many soldiers — male and female — serving in war-like conditions all over the world. They will also be separated from their families and loved ones this Christmas season. The feeling of not being home for Christmas still hasn’t changed through the years, although we do have cell phones and the internet. Just think how difficult it must have been for solders in the past wars like the Civil War, who had no communication (sometimes for years) with their families.

I hope you have enjoyed reading about Christmases from the past. My hope is that you and your family will have a merry, blessed and safe Christmas. Also, if’en you still need to purchase a gift for someone for Christmas, a gift of my new book “Just Passing Time” would be a great stocking stuffer. Just give me a call at 910-997-4658 and Santa might even deliver.

J.A. Bolton is a member of the N.C. Storytelling Guild, Member of the Anson County Writers Club, and the historical societies of Richmond and Anson counties.

J.A. Bolton