Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Past: Another Civil War Sampler

By request, here is another collection of accounts from Christmas during the Civil War.  As with last year’s edition, the excerpts from diaries, letters and memoirs below are from both Union and Confederate sources and vary from privates to generals. Also included are a couple of civilian reminiscences, including a very unusual account from a newspapers involving lots and lots of liquor. In the accounts, you will find talk of Santa Claus, food and drink (mostly egg nog) and thoughts and prayers for home and family. Some are sad and others reflect the joy of the season even in the midst of difficult circumstances. Whether written from a Confederate perspective or a Union point of view, each are very similar, and that's no surprise, as they were all Americans. Enjoy, and best wishes for a happy and prosperous New Year!


Camp E.K. Smith near Manassas, December, 1861
Father, Dear Sir,
I take the opportunity of dropping you a few lines to let you know that I am well at present…Day before yesterday the box came to hand which my things were in. I got them all. The blankets will answer a very good purpose for camp…

It is a very dull Christmas up here. We cannot get any whiskey to make us any eggnog. Everything is very high up here. We have to pay three prices for anything we get…There is not a prospect for a fight here. The soldiers are all going into winter quarters. We are building our quarters…It will take us two weeks to finish, yet I would like to come home and spend the winter and come back in the spring so that I could get some potatoes and bacon. We have not had a pound of bacon in two months. We have eat beef so much that we have a disgust against ever seeing beef any more. I hardly ever eat it. I buy butter, and I generally have to give four bits a pound. I hope you all have a merry Christmas for we could not have any here…

Give my love to all relations and friends. Write soon. I remain your son until death.
J.J. Wilson, 16th Mississippi Infantry

Folly Island [South Carolina]                                                                                                         Sunday, Dec. 27th 1863

My Beloved Mother—

Some time has elapsed since the date of my last note to you, longer than I usually allow myself to be silent. But we have been extremely busy preparing for Christmas. Since we came back from Otter Island, we have had a great deal of hard work to do. The first thing on the docket was to build a house for the company to eat their meals in. The other companies in the regiment had built theirs for a similar purpose. D company, being the last on the list, we concluded we would have something that would take the starch out of the rest of them. For a long time we have borne the reputation of being the best company in the 40th, & we resolved that our reputation should not suffer for lack of a good “eating house.” Our principal trouble has been the lack of tools, but we put our wits at work and with the use of axes, hatchets & one saw, have got up quite a building, of the following dimension, 23 ft. long, 20 ft. broad, 10 ft. rafter, with a little portico in the front. The house is covered with palmetto leaves, windows are of the gothic style with lattice work, and a white curtain inside. We are to have five tables inside, capable of seating 12 men each and have got a fine building take it all the way round. By dint of hard exertion we completed it sufficiently to allow us to take our first meal Christmas noon. Well, we had a big dinner, I can tell you. The best I have seen since I entered the service of Uncle Sam.—We had roast beef, turnips, potatoes, tomatoes, and all the “fixin’s” such as horse radish, pepper sauce, &c. Then come on a great plum pudding, and mince pies, and a dessert of apples, raisins and nuts. Our officers were very kind, and tried their best to give us an opportunity to enjoy ourselves, and we did just that thing I can tell you. By orders from headquarters the day was set apart as a holiday (no duty to perform.)—The officers of the Reg’t. for the purpose of having some sport had contributed funds for prizes in several games and races, as follows.

We had an exquisite Christmas gift the night before, a magnificent serenade, a compliment from Colonel Breaux. It very singularly happened that Miriam, Anna, and Ned Badger were sitting up in the parlor, watching alone for Christmas, when the band burst forth at the steps, and startled them into a stampede upstairs. But Gibbes, who came with the serenaders, caught them and brought them back into the parlor, where there were only eight gentlemen; and in this novel, unheard-of style, only these two girls, with Gibbes to play propriety, entertained all these people at midnight while the band played without. . . .

I commenced writing to-day expressly to speak of our pleasant Christmas; yet it seems as though I would write about anything except that, since I have not come to it yet. Perhaps it is because I feel I could not do it justice. At least, I can say who was there. At sunset came Captain Bradford and Mr. Conn, the first stalking in with all the assurance which a handsome face and fine person can lend, the second following with all the timidity of a first appearance. . . . Again, after a long pause, the door swung open, and enter Mr. Halsey, who bows and takes the seat on the other side of me, and Mr. Bradford, of Colonel Allen memory, once more returned to his regiment, who laughs, shakes hands all around, and looks as happy as a schoolboy just come home for the holidays, who has never-ending visions of plumcakes, puddings, and other sweet things. While all goes on merrily, another rap comes, and enter Santa Claus, dressed in the old uniform of the Mexican War, with a tremendous cocked hat, and preposterous beard of false hair, which effectually conceal the face, and but for the mass of tangled short curls no one could guess that the individual was Bud. It was a device of the General's, which took us all by surprise. Santa Claus passes slowly around the circle, and pausing before each lady, draws from his basket a cake which he presents with a bow, while to each gentleman he presents a wineglass replenished from a most suspicious-looking black bottle which also reposes there. Leaving us all wonder and laughter, Santa Claus retires with a basket much lighter than it had been at his entrance. . . .Then follow refreshments, and more and more talk and laughter, until the clock strikes twelve, when all these ghosts bid a hearty good-night and retire.

Charles Macreading Vincent, 40th Massachusetts Infantry

December 25. [1862] - There is nothing new up to to-day, Christmas. We moved our camp a little piece. Eigenbrun came to see us to-day from home, and brought me a splendid cake from Miss Clara Phile. This is certainly a hard Christmas for us - bitter cold, raining and snowing all the time, and we have no tents. The only shelter we have is a blanket spread over a few poles, and gather leaves and put them in that shelter for a bed.

Louis Leon, 1st North Carolina Infantry

Dec. 25 [1864]: Christmas day among the troops. . . .Whiskey has been the program of Christmas Eve, and all this day some have their roasted turkey, while some have hard tac and coffee. I take my big dinner the day before. The troops are on a spree. The day has been quite lively with cannonading and music by the bands at headquarters. It remains so this evening. No news in camp this day. . .

Jacob Haas, 51st Pennsylvania

Thurs. Dec. 22. We went to get our Christmas tree this evening. It was very cold but we did not feel it we were so excited about it.

Fri. Dec. 23. I went down to Mrs. Lesters and Ella and me planted the tree and finished making the last presents. I came home and strained some pumpkins to make some pies for Christmas.

Sat. Dec. 24. I have been buisy to day making cakes to trim the tree and Ella and I have it all ready trimed and we are all going to night to see it. I think it looks very pretty. We will be sorry when it is all over.

Sun. Dec. 25, 1864. We all went down last night to see the tree and how pretty it looked. The room was full of ladies and children and Cap. gave us music on the pianno and tried to do all he could to make us enjoy our selves and we did have a merry time. All came home perfectly satisfied. This has ben a cold dark day but we all went down to see how the tree looked in the day time but it was not as pretty as at night.

Carrie Berry, a 10-year-old girl in Atlanta, Georgia

Camp Wycliff Ky.
December 25th 1861
Miss Orrilla Davis and Nan Davis

My dear little daughters,

This is Christmas night and no doubt while I am setting in my tent in a war camp, you are enjoying yourselves at the Christmas Supper which I understand you are having at the Court House. No doubt you are enjoying yourselves over your Christmas presents and I hope Santa Claus in his rambles last night did not miss the Stockings of my two little girls but put something nice in them to make them happy. I got a Christmas present this evening which was nothing more than a letter from my dear little girl, and I now hasten to answer it. I was very sorry to hear that our sweet little babe was so sick but I hope it is getting well before this time and no doubt but what I will next hear that you and Nan will both have the measels and if you do you must be patient and you will soon get well again. I was surprised that you could write so good a letter & I read it to some of the boys and they said it contained more news than one half of the letters that they got from Liberty.

We did not have to drill today consequently I do not feel as tired as I do some nights. I will tell you what we had to eat today as you no doubt would like to know. Well we had roast chicken, oysters, peach pie, dried beef, molasses, brisket, butter, crackers, milk, sweet potatoes, rice, eggs &c. So you see we did not starve. It was not cooked as nice as your mother could cook it but it was very good. We bought most of it from country people and they sell them cheap enough if they were only cooked good but they are poor people who bring them and they have to cook them by the fire in skillets as they have no cook stoves. Stuffed chickens ready cooked are worth 20 & 25 cts, pies 10 cts, cabbage 5 cts apples 6 for 5 cts. milk 10 cts pr qt. roast turkies 75 and 80 cts. Sweet potatoes 75 cts per bushel, and many other things about the same. Jo Miller is in my tent while I am writing and almost cried when he read your letter…

The drums are now beating for us to put out the lights so I must stop for this time but will write to some of you again this week. You must write to me often as that is the way to learn, and you don’t know how glad it makes me to get a letter from my dear little girls.
No more this time from your affectionate father,

A.F. Davis
Andrew F. Davis, Co. I, 15th Indiana Infantry

There came a carload of boxes for the prisoners about Christmas which after reasonable inspection, they were allowed to receive. My box contained more cause for merriment and speculation as to its contents than satisfaction. It had received rough treatment on its way, and a bottle of catsup had broken and its contents very generally distributed through the box. Mince pie and fruit cake saturated with tomato catsup was about as palatable as "embalmed beef" of the Cuban memory; but there were other things. Then, too, a friend had sent me in a package a bottle of old brandy. On Christmas morning I quietly called several comrades up to my bunk to taste the precious fluid of... DISAPPOINTMENT! The bottle had been opened outside, the brandy taken and replaced with water, adroitly recorded, and sent in. I hope the Yankee who played that practical joke lived to repent it and was shot before the war ended.

Henry Kyd Douglas, written from Johnson’s Island Prison, Ohio


My Dear Little Pet, On this Christmas Eve I have no doubt you have been enjoying yourself, perhaps with the toys of the season, eaten your nuts and cakes, hung up your stockings in the chimney corner for old Kris Kinkle, when he comes along with his tiny horses, "Dunder and Blixen" and his little wagon to fill in Lots and Gobs of sweet things, sugar, candy sugar plums, and if you please, sugar every thing. Well, When I was a little boy, a good many years ago, I was fond of such things myself. And when I look back, they were indeed the happiest days of my life. Enjoy them my little "Pet"--they come but once. The boys, I mean the two Willies, are getting too old for the enjoyment you can have. When ignorance is bliss `tis folly to be wise. I wish you a Merry Christmas and many of them. I must close. There is a lot of soldiers at my door giving me a serenade and I must give it some attention.

Your affectionate Papa

Union Brig. Gen. John Geary, Fairfax Station, Virginia, December 24, 1862, to his daughter

My Dear Mattie:
Enclosed you will please find a piece of poetry that is well adapted to my present feelings, which you can keep for my sake:

Thy room is vacant; Thy smile is gone, and I am quite sad and lone
Oh! Naught is left my heart to cheer, But gloomy shades of black despair.
Oh! What deep grief it caused my heart that you and I did have to part
I weep for thee, my hearts best love, as doeth the lonely, mateless dove.
Where’er I go to find relief, I only find more bitter grief;
I often roam from place to place, In search of lines thy hand hath traced.
But they were burned in curling flame, And naught remains but thy loved name
Oh! that my heaving breast was stilled, My cup of grief hath been well filled.
Then “twilight” falls upon me now, Before me “God” I humbly bow,
and ask that He would soon return The one for whom my heart doth burn.
And then, Dear Mattie, I look away With hopes to see a brighter day
Oh! May that happy day soon dawn, When you, loved one, will be my own again.
Then my sad heart will bound in bliss, at the soft touch of thy warm kiss,
And I will prove my love sincere, For thee, my own beloved dear.
Therefore, I’ll try and not repine, I fondly know thy heart is mine,
Thy picture I behold in tears, But look for bliss in future years.
The ringlet of your golden hair, Is to my gaze supremely fair;
Those lines in verse you marked with grace, Have often been most fondly traced.
The ring which you have given me, Is token of your courtesy,
Is emblematic of my love , Without an end as time will prove.
All, all the token of thy love, Are dear to me as heaven above;
They are a treasure to my heart, Which never can from it depart.

And now, dearest one, I will keep this till after Christmas Day and then I will send it to you as I will have perhaps something new by that time to write. This is the 23rd day and Christmas is near by; how I am to spend it I cannot tell. I sent my name out to a private house today for dinner on the 25th. I am nearly starved for something good to eat--we get nothing here but mean water to drink and poor beef to eat, and good as no salt we don’t have any to put on our bread--one small tea cup of salt for 20 lbs. of beef, and that has to do eight men three days.

Soldiers dying very fast; busy burying all of the time. No war news to write only they are fighting like rip in places--big battle at Fredericksburg, Va., a few days ago; our loss, about 18 hundred. The enemy’s is estimated from 8 to 15 thousand--shame to think how men are butchering up one another. No prospects of peace as we can hear.

I never hear from any of the boys: I don’t know where they are. I am going to write to mother in a few days. Our president, Jeff Davis, and Joseph E. Johnston were out here last Sunday to see our brigade, but I was sick and could not get out to see them. I have been quite sick for the past week- -bowel disease--but am nearly well again; will be able for duty in a day or two. I will have to pay 8 or 10 bits for my dinner if I succeed in getting Christmas. Bacon is worth from 50 cents to one dollar per pound here; eggs $1.25 per dozen, chickens, $1.50; butter, $1.25 per pound; everything else in proportion. I think if I live to see next spring that I will come home. It does seem to me that I can’t stay away any longer. I will send you a ring when I send this if I can get one.

After Christmas is over, I will write you a few more lines and send this, and tell all about my dinner.
Good-bye Babies,

E.H. Goodwin, Co. E, 31st Louisiana Infantry, December 23, 1861

Christmas and New Year's were very pleasantly remembered in this winter camp, though observed somewhat differently than they had been on former occasions and in other places. Still the American will ever remember his holidays, and, if possible, celebrate them with such ceremonies as his ingenuity may suggest or his means and condition enable him to improve. We had "select" dinner parties, with rare entertainment; music by our excellent band, speeches, and minor festivities of a more general character. One of the incidents of Christmas day was a procession formed by all who were permitted to be festive, headed by a donkey, the gravest ass of the company, mounted by an impersonation of Old Nicholas. This procession moved about the camp to the music of fife and drum, much to the amusement of both the participants and the lookers-on. Lieutenant-Colonel Chandler nominally commanded this merry expedition, but the donkey, being a little obstinate and difficult to ride in a straight line, really became the solemn chief of the occasion. There were other far more brilliant exhibitions with and around us, but probably none where the participants became more innocently jolly.

Edwin Mortimer Haynes, 10th Vermont Infantry


The local editor of the Vicksburg Sun relates the following as his Christmas experience:

Egg nog is a very difficult thing to compound to suit one’s palate. We tried the experiment yesterday and after drinking one glass we arrived at the conclusion there was too much egg. We diluted the mixture with Otard and tried again, but after two glasses of the new compound we discovered it was not sufficiently sweet. More sugar being added, we imbibed several glasses, but the result of the experiment was that excess of sugar we had added ‘gan to pall upon our wearied sense. So we again diluted the mixture and set to, but this time it involved the second bottle of brandy, which proved to be rather fiery after sipping three or four glasses, so we qualified the mixture with rum. Now rum per se is a very delectable beverage, and when mixed with brandy and converted into nog, it is for the gods. So we devoted our attention to the nog, and managed to put about a quart under our belt. We then smoked a cigar, and feeling dry, imbibed three or four glasses of nog, but it had a villainous twang. We added more rum and then we drank. We believe we drank several times more, when not liking the flavor of the sugar, we thought we would go out and buy a plantation and make sugar to our own liking. Took a turn around the room and took another drink. Somebody set two glasses and two bowls of nog on the table at least it seemed so to us; so we waited for our friends to come, but as they didn’t, we drank to their health out of both bowls and with two tumblers. Made more nog, cracked an egg containing a very juvenile chicken, popped him in and rather reckon that chicken got tight at a very early age. Drank more nog. Feeling very dry, we concluded to go out and get a glass of nog, but on looking up we saw two doors, and as we knew our room had but one, we thought we would wait until our friends with whom we were drinking should return and show us the way out. Tasted some more nog, and imagined that we had been converted into a big egg, and that our darling Mary Ann was about to break us in two preparatory to converting us into nog. Found we had been snoozing, and took more nog to keep us awake. We – here – began – to – think – that – then – nog – was - *  *  *  *

- reprinted in the Daily Constitutionalist, Augusta , Georgia, January 26, 1862


Steamer John J. Roe
December 25, 1862

Dear Wife,

Well, dear, it is Christmas and I am on board this old boat. Landed at Milliken’s Bend in Louisiana 22 miles above Vicksburg by land, and have just been on shore taking a walk and saw rebel pickets. Now where are you and what are you doing? I would like so well to know. Where were we last Christmas and what did we do? I have been trying to think, but can’t make it out. I know we were together someplace and I hope we will be again next Christmas. It seems so strange that I should be away down here 1,300 miles from you. What did the children find in their stockings? I lay awake two or three hours this morning thinking of them and wishing I could see them…

Your own, Jake

Captain Jacob Ritner, 25th Iowa Infantry


Camp Fisher [Virginia] Decr. 31st 1861

Dear Sister

We have built our winter quarters and are living as comfortably as rats. Plenty to eat and nothing to do. Our mess chest abounds with meal, flour, rice, bacon, beef, sugar, coffee, and sometimes with vegetables. Sometimes we draw fresh pork. Our Christmas was dull. No eggnogs, apple toddies, candy, stews, nor Christmas parties cheered our lonely Christmas day. All we could do was sit around our fires and discuss the good old days of yore, the beauty of our sweethearts and our gloomy Christmas.

Richard C. Bridges, 11th Mississippi Infantry


December 25th

We spent this our third Christmas in the army in moving our camp from the Picayune Press to Woods Press on Cannall Street. Here we had rather better quarters and pleasant surroundings. We were on the principle streets of the city, something like a mile back from the river…The good folks at home sent us a box of good things and among other things there was a four gallon jar of gilt edged butter and as we had hardly tasted butter for something over two years. I think that butter never tasted quite so good to mortal man before or since. It helped out our sad bread and hardtack wonderfully.

William Wiley, 77th Illinois Infantry, in New Orleans, Louisiana


About twenty young men and girls gathered around small tables in one of the drawing rooms of the mansion and the cornucopias were begun. The men wrapped the squares of candy, first reading the “sentiments” printed upon them, such as “Roses are red, violets blue, sugar’s sweet and so are you,” “If you love me as I love you no knife can cut our love in two.” The fresh young faces, wreathed in smiles, nodded attention to the reading, while with their small deft hands they [glued] the cornucopias and pasted on the pictures…. Then the coveted eggnog was passed around in tiny glass cups and pronounced good. Crisp home-made ginger snaps and snowy lady cake completed the refreshments of Christmas Eve….In most of the houses in Richmond these same scenes were enacted, certainly in every one of the homes of the managers of the Episcopalian Orphanage. A bowl of eggnog was sent to the servants, and a part of everything they coveted of the dainties.

Varina Howell Davis, on Christmas in the Confederate White House, 1864


The north wind comes reeling in fitful gushes through the iron bars, and jingles a sleighbell in the
prisoner's ear, and puffs in his pale face with a breath suggestively odorous of eggnog."

Christmas Day! A day which was made for smiles, not sighs - for laughter, not tears - for the hearth, not prison."

Federico Cavada, 114th Pennsylvania


December 25th [1864]
Christmas Day, and very very cold. Have been moving about some of late, but
are again in our old quarters, We have had very unpleasant weather for several
weeks, The rain had almost washed us away. The whole country around about
here appears to be under water it is almost impossible to get about at all. All
military movements will have to stop until the roads improve, It is said that
Ladies of Richmond intend giving us a New Years dinner hope it may prove true
would like right will to get something good to eat. The health of the Regt
continues good. There is no news of any importance

January 1st [1865]
The long talked of Christmas dinner has come at last. Three turkeys, two ducks,
one chicken and about ninety loves, for three hundred and fifty soldiers. Not a
mouth full apiece where has it all gone too, where [did] it go The commisser or
quarter masters no doubt got . May the Lord have mercy on the poor soldiers

John Kennedy Coleman, 6th South Carolina Infantry

Photo and Image Sources:
(1) Winter Quarters:
(2) Camp Scene:
(3) Vincent:
(4) Hass:
(5) Santa Claus:
(6) Douglas:
(7) Geary:
(8) Soldier in Camp:
(9) Winter Hut:
(10) Egg Nog:
(10) John J. Roe:
(11) Confederate White House:
(12) Cavada:

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