Christmas during the War Between the States.
In 1864, Abraham Lincoln received what must have been one of the most unique Christmas gifts in history. The sender was General William Tecumseh Sherman and the gift was, in Sherman’s own telegrammed words: “the city of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.”
Of course, Christmas presents weren’t anywhere near that grandiose for most Americans at the time. In fact, before the Civil War, Christmas was a rather somber and quiet holiday in many parts of the country, largely due to the influence of Puritan and Calvinist thought in the Northeast, where Christmas celebrations were even banned in the mid-17th century. In many ways, it was the Civil War that established the foundations of how we perceive and celebrate Christmas today.
Christmas trees, carol singing and decorations were already a staple of the Victorian era heartily embraced by Americans, even though Christmas cards weren’t quite in vogue yet. The practice of giving gifts, however, though not a new invention at the time, gained special significance during the war as a way for families to keep in touch with fathers, husbands and brothers fighting far away.
The day before the Christmas of 1862, John Haley of the 17th Maine Volunteer Regiment wrote a diary entry about the importance of gifts: “It is rumored that there are sundry boxes and mysterious parcels over at Stoneman’s Station directed to us. We retire to sleep with feelings akin to those of children expecting Santa Claus. We have become very childish in some matters–grub being one of them.”
On Christmas Day, Haley then fell victim to a comrade’s prank: “On returning to camp, I was informed by my tentmate that there was no parcel at the station bearing my name. My mental thermometer not only plummeted to below zero, it got right down off the nail and lay on the floor. Seeing this, my tentmate made haste to dive under the bed and produce the box, which he had brought from the station during my absence, and in a few minutes we were discussing the merits of its contents. Most of the men have been remembered, and any that have not received something from home are allowed to share with their more fortunate neighbors.”
In some units, officers gifted their men as much as they could. In the Confederate 20thTennessee Infantry Regiment, the present of a barrel of rum led to drunken fights. In a Massachusetts unit, soldiers were treated to turkey, oysters, pies and apples by their captain. In 1864, 90 Union soldiers from Michigan handed out food to poor Georgians, the mules drawing the cart decorated with tree branches to make them look like reindeer. Such celebrations, however, were far from universal. In 1862, a unit was punished for the celebratory firing of their guns, even though in actual fact the gunfire was a funeral salute. On the same day, another unit was forced to watch the execution of a deserter.
The war was also felt on the home front, especially in the South with its weaker economy. Leading up to one Christmas, the children of Confederate General Howell Cobb were told by a slave that Santa Claus wouldn’t come because he was shot by the Yankees. Many other children of the South were told that Santa couldn’t visit because he was stopped by the Union naval blockade. Or because Santa himself was a Yankee and was going to be stopped by Confederate pickets.
Christmas was still a festivity for slaves, often being the single occasion of merriment in a life of suffering. Slaves often received food, alcohol, gifts and a relaxation of their normal duties. This allowed them a day or two of singing, dancing, wrestling, boxing and the opportunity to hold weddings and marriage ceremonies or see family members thanks to limited permissions to travel.
Of all the hallmarks of a Civil War era Christmas, the one we most easily recognize today is the figure of Santa Claus. The modern Santa, a portly, jolly old man with a white beard and a sack full of gifts, was created by German-born cartoonist Thomas Nast, who put him to good use as a propaganda figure in Harper’s Weekly. In one cartoon, Santa Claus was wearing a star-spangled coat while distributing gifts to Union soldiers. In another, he entertained the soldiers with a puppet of Confederate President Jefferson Davies hanging by the neck from a string. The influence of Nast’s cartoons was so strong, Lincoln once called his Santa Claus figure “the best recruiting sergeant the North ever had.”Interestingly, even though Nast used the figure as a shameless propaganda tool, following the Civil War it was he who established the North Pole as Santa Claus’ home so that no nation may lay claim him.
You can learn more about the details of life back home or on the frontline during the War Between the States on our various American Civil War Tours.