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Research Aids

References to Christmas in the Civil War

The most famous Christmas gift of the Civil War was sent by telegram from William Tecumseh Sherman to Abraham Lincoln on December 22, 1864: "I beg to present you as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 100 and 50 guns and plenty of ammunition, also about 25,000 bales of cotton." The gift, of course, was not the guns, the ammunition, or the cotton, but the beginning of the end of the Civil War." (Civil War
Christmas Tree

(National Park Service)
Mary Jane Safford, a nurse from Hyde Park, at Cairo, Illinois on Christmas Day, 1861.
"On Christmas day, 1861, there were some twenty-five regiments stationed at Cairo, and on that day she visited all the camps, and presented to every sick soldier some little useful present or token. The number of sad hearts that she made glad that day no one will ever know save He who knoweth all things." (L. P. Brockett and Mary C. Vaughan, Woman's Work in the Civil War: A RECORD OF HEROISM, PATRIOTISM AND PATIENCE, (Zeigler, McCurdy & Co., Philadelphia, 1867), pp. 357-361.)
George G. Benedict, 12th Vermont, in an 1862 letter to the Burlington Free Press, from "Army Life in Virginia."
We have had a very fair Christmas in camp. The day was as mild as May. By hard work the day before our mess had "stockaded" our tent and it is now a little log house with a canvas roof. We have it in a "California stove"--a sheet of iron over a square hole in the ground--and as we have been confined of late to rations of hard tack and salt pork, we decided to have a special Christmas dinner.

We got some excellent oysters of the sutler, also some potatoes. Two of the boys went off to a clean, free-negro family, about a mile off, and got two quarts of rich milk, some hickory nuts, and some dried peaches. I officiated as cook, and, as all agreed, got up a capital dinner. I made as good an oyster soup as one often gets, and fried some oysters with bread crumbs--for we are the fortunate owners of a frying-pan. The potatoes were boiled in an tin pan, and were as mealy as any I ever ate. We had, besides, good Vermont butter, boiled pork, good bread, and close a luxurious meal with nuts, raisins and apples, and coco-nut cakes just sent from home. For supper we had rice and milk and stewed plums. Now that is not such bad living for poor soldiers, is it? But we do not have it every day; though we have had many luxuries since our Thanksgiving boxes came.
Hezron G. Day, 16th Vermont, in a letter to his parents 27 December 1862
We had a holiday on Christmas, no drilling and no work, and moreover no marching or picket duty to do: something quite unusual for us. My humble self, Corp. Baldwin and John Knights, and Alfred went down to Fairfax Station to see the country but got back in time for Christmas dinner, which consisted of beefsteak and potatoes, both excellent. (Courtesy of Linda M. Welch)
Aldace F. Walker, Captain, Co. C, 11th Vermont Infantry, in a letter to his father, December 28, 1862:
"We had quite a time Christmas Day. A Holiday - and some twelve dollars in prizes were distributed for wrestling, running, jumping and climbing. We had a good deal of fun over a blindfold wheelbarrow race by the 1st Sergeants, and a greased pole. The officers ran a race - the one who touched a fence last, to treat - and the fast ones put in, and the slow ones did not touch the fence at all, so that the joke came on a 2nd Lt. who was not in the secret." (Aldace Freeman Walker, Quite Ready To Be Sent Somewhere: The Civil War Letters of Aldace Freeman Walker)
Ralph Sturtevant, 13th Infantry, December 25, 1862, Fairfax Court House, Va.:
"Our regiment spent Christmas in camp and no duty. We thought of home and knew that many a stocking would not be found in its accustomed place, and the usual Christmas dinners and parties likely in many homes would be omitted because of fathers and sons in the army. I recall our cooks made extra efforts to have something nice for dinner on this Christmas day. We had pork and beans that had been roasted and baked all night in a bed of coals hot for dinner, boiled rice with good sale molasses or muscavade sugar, old government Java coffee, nice hard tack, (worms all shook out), sweet potatoes and corned beef, and all this cooked in good shape. We thought it a dinner fit for a king and all were merry." (From Ralph Orson Sturtevant, Pictorial History: Thirteenth Vermont Volunteers, War of 1861-1865, Privately published, 1910).
Corporal J. C. Williams, Co. B, 14th Infantry, "Life in Camp," December 25, 1862:
"This is Christmas, and my mind wanders back to that home made lonesome by my absence, while far away from the peace and quietude of civil life to undergo the hardships of the camp, and may be the battle field. I think of the many lives that are endangered, and hope that the time will soon come when peace, with its innumerable blessings, shall once more restore our country to happiness and prosperity." (From John C. Williams', Life in Camp. (Claremont Mfg Co, Claremont, N.H.,1864).
Christmas Toys

(National Park Service)
Gilbert J. Barton, Company I, 14th Vermont, of Charlotte, recorded a some of the hardship of camp in his diary entry for that day:
Dec 25th Christmas. Had hard Tack soaked in cold water and then fried in pork Greece [sic]. Fried in a canteen, split into[sic] by putting into the fire & melting the sodder[sic] off. We pick them up on the field left by other soldiers, also had coffee & pork. Ordered up at 5 this morning with guns ready, as it is reported that there are 400 Rebel Cavalry not far off prowling around. Foggy morning. (This extract from Barton's diary is courtesy of the collection of Mike Hankins, as transcribed by Fred Salter)
From the diary of Oliver A. Browne, Co. K, 15th Vermont, in camp south of Washington:
Dec. 24. Very pleasant weather. The 14th (14th Reg VI) went out to Centerville this morning for picket duty. They are going to have a game of rest tomorrow it being Christmas. Most of the boys are out of money and they will be obliged to pass the day on hard tack and salt pork, which will be rather dry, I think.
Dec. 25. Christmas Day, and I am on a bunk getting my boots tapped, and so passed the day. (From Oliver Browne's diary, courtesy of Frank Brown, great-grandson of Oliver A. Browne)
Chaplain Edwin Haynes, 10th Vermont, December 1863:
"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." (From Edwin Mortimer Haynes' A history of the Tenth Regiment, Vermont Volunteers, with biographical sketches of the officers who fell in battle, (Tenth Vermont Regimental Association, Lewiston, Me., 1870)
Journal of Portus Baxter Smith, Corporal, Co. H, 11th Vermont Infantry, December 1864
Dec 24 - Today we have been to work on our chimley and have got it done. We made it out of wood and mud and it works nicely. Tonight is Christmas eve and there is a good deal of noise in the different regiments. Guess some of the boys have had something to take but I do not find much to busy myself about.
Dec 25 - Sunday and I have been writing home. We have had a Company Inspection at one o'clock. About 4 0'clock we had a Dress Parade. We formed a hollow square and the Chaplain Mr. Little preached a short sermon. Signed the papers for admittance today. (From Portus Smith's Journal courtesy of Caroleanne Smith Paulis/Photopoulos, great-granddaughter of Portus Baxter Smith)
George P. Risdon, Co. F, 20th Regiment, Veterans Reserve Corps, February 1865, to his sister:
"You wanted to know in your letter what I had for Christmas and New Years. Well we had a baked goose and whiskey plenty. We all got to feeling pretty good but that does not happen very often. We kept 12 days Christmas." (From George Risdon's letters, courtesy of Thomas R. Baine, great-grandnephew of George P. Risdon.
Off-site, check these out as well:

The Civil War Trust


Civi War Saga