Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas at Camp Pierpont, December 1861

Readers by now are quite familiar with Camp Pierpont, the quarters of the Pennsylvania Reserves in Langley, Virginia during the winter of 1861-62.  The Pennsylvania boys, many away from their families for the first time, marked the Christmas holiday that December in a variety of ways.  Some soldiers received packages from home and shared the bounty with their comrades-in-arms. According to Private Adam Bright of Co. C, 9th Pennsylvania Reserves:
I had a very nice dinner on Christmas day. One of my friends had a box sent to him by express containing 4 large Shanghi [sic] roosters stuffed, a number of pound cakes, and pies, pickles and apples. You may be sure I did them all justice.
Soldiers also received clothing like "socks and comforters," as well as "a little Old Rye." (Letter from Newsboy, Philadelphia Sunday Transcript, Dec. 24, 1861.)  The whiskey sometimes led to mischief.  The History of Company H, 4th Pennsylvania Reserves recalls:
Christmas being at hand, the boys solicited boxes from home to somewhat alleviate the rugged realities of camp life. In many of these bottles of whiskey figured cheerfully amidst other luxuries for their holiday festivities. The provost-Marshal, learning of this new feature of Northern liberality, by order of the General, opened the boxes on their arrival, confiscated all contraband goods and removed them to headquarters, to be "used by the mess," so the soldier lads said. They becoming enraged by this unwarrantable intrusion upon their rights, confiscated a quantity of poultry received by General [George A.] McCall from a friend by way of retaliation for their wrongs.
Soldiers also had other distractions during the holiday season.  The 11th Pennsylvania Reserves, for instance, took part in an amusing "friendly fire" episode:
Some of the boys . . . had Santa Claus, with a full-rigged suit of Secesh [sic]Clothes, stuck up in a tree. One of the guards, being put on post, and not knowing of the aforesaid gentleman being in the neighborhood, while walking his lonely beat, cast his eye that way, and, seeing Mr. Man, came to the conclusion that it was one of the men of J. Davis & Co. . . . .  He determined to make a hero of himself and fired, putting a ball through our Christmas friend, when the rest of the boys jumped up, exclaiming "Guard house, Guard House." (Letter from Newsboy, Philadelphia Sunday Transcript, Dec. 24, 1861.)
"Christmas Boxes in Camp, Christmas, 1861," Harper's Weekly, Jan. 4, 1862  (courtesy of

All lightheartedness aside, the Pennsylvanians showed that the spirit of Christmas was alive and well at Camp Pierpont.  Private William H. Jayne of  Co. C, 6th Pennsylvania Reserves was wounded at the Battle of Dranesville on December 20 and spent the holiday recovering at a field hospital.  In a December 26, 1861 letter to the Honesdale Democrat he expressed his appreciation for the generosity of his fellow soldiers:
Our boys received some luxuries from Wayne county for Christmas, which they sent to the Hospital for the wounded and we had as merry a Christmas as ever such a lot of cripples enjoyed.
Other soldiers could not help but notice that the war left little reason to celebrate.  William R. Brown of Easton's Battery, which has seen action at Dranesville, wrote to the Raftsman's Journal on Christmas Day, lamenting that "there are none of those scenes of frivolity and good cheer with which Pennsylvanians are wont to regard this annual holiday to divert the mind from the daily routine of camp life."

Brigadier General George G. Meade, commander of the Second Brigade of the Pennsylvania Reserves, offered a glimmer of hope amidst the conflict that had torn the country apart.  In a December 25, 1861 letter to his wife, he expressed the sentiments likely shared by many that holiday season:
I write a few lines on this day of rejoicing and festivity, to let you know I am well, and though absent from you in the body, that I am with you and my dear children in spirit and thought. As this day is the anniversary commemorating the great promise held out to all mankind, let us hope it may promise speedy peace and happiness to us in this world as well as the one to come. God grant it may be so!
As I drive down Georgetown Pike and through Langley from the comfort of my own heated car, I can't help but think about the homesick men in blue who tried to celebrate Christmas as best as they could under the hardships of winter camp.

On a personal note, I would like to wish you and your family a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! 

Note on Sources:

I am eternally indebted to the Pennsylvanian Reserve Volunteer Corps Historical Society, whose website makes available a multitude of soldiers' letters, including those cited above. 

Meade's entire letter can be found in The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Volume I, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1913, p. 239 (available on Google Books).

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