24 Dec 2018

Christmas in the Civil War

Christmas in the Civil War

Many beloved holiday traditions have been celebrated since the Civil War. Often posted far from home, soldiers sought solace in customs like caroling, gift exchanges and decorating.

One soldier, Alfred Bellard of the 5th New Jersey Infantry Regiment, recalled a small tree, "decked off with hard tack and pork, in lieu of cakes and oranges," that added festivity to life in a winter camp. Another soldier, from the 17th Maine, recorded that he and his fellow troops eagerly awaited the "sundry boxes and mysterious parcels" directed to them "with feelings akin to those of children expecting Santa Claus."

Yet, despite troops' efforts to partake in holiday celebrations on the front, the season also served as a reminder that soldiers were separated from their loved ones and the comforts of home. Soldiers preparing for the bloody Battle of Stones River in late December 1862 or shivering in the trenches outside of Petersburg in 1864, found little respite on Christmas or New Year's Day.

At home, families did their best to celebrate the holiday, but wondered when the vacant chair would again be filled.

As we approach the end of 2018, please take a few moments to remember how soldiers in both blue and gray experienced the holiday season.

Christmas Bells

Did you know that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 1863 poem "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" had its origins in the American Civil War? Longfellow wrote the piece on Christmas Day in 1863. Nine months earlier his son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, snuck away from home and enlisted in the Federal army in Washington, D.C.

Christmas in the Confederate White House

Varina Davis, wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, describes how the Davis family spent Christmas 1864 in Richmond, in an article originally published in the New York World in 1896.

Christmas in Wartime

Learn more about how Americans experienced the Christmas holiday during the wars that defined the United States. Our collection includes a look at warfare in wintertime and the battles that were shaped by the season.

"Christmas Night of 62"

Confederate soldier William Gordon McCabe sat down on Christmas night 1862 to write his thoughts and remember his family far away. 155 years later, his words are still poignant.

Clara Barton

Clara Barton was born on December 25, 1821. She spent several years in Washington during Christmas, which happened to be her birthday. It has been said that although she did not  dislike the holiday, it was not very exciting to her in adulthood, particularly during the trying years during the Civil War. Learn more about the life and legacy of the "Angel of the Battlefield."

Christmas on the Rappahannock

This story was published in Harper's Weekly in 1886 by the Rev. John Paxton, a veteran from the 140th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Paxton's account takes place on Christmas Day, just weeks after the Battle of Fredericksburg, while performing often miserable picket duty.

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