Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas in the Camps Around Washington

As Christmas fast approaches, many of us Civil War enthusiasts may wonder what the holiday was like 150 years ago during the first winter of the conflict. The Washington area was home to thousands of young men who had never been away from home for Christmas.  The soldiers had to celebrate as best as they could, combating homesickness while trying to experience just a little holiday cheer.  Lucky for us, many accounts remain of what Christmas was like for the Union soldiers encamped across the Potomac from the nation's capital.

The Philadelphia Press reported that the weather in Washington that first December 25 was "very un-Christmas like."  During the early part of the week leading up to Christmas, the region "was threatened with a  heavy storm and fall of snow," but "the threat past away in bluster, and the morning came upon us with all the beauty and associations of a Pennsylvania May-day."   The correspondent had a "theory" that it was "impossible to enjoy this great holiday without a sheet of snow over the earth to beautify and brighten it -- and a hard frozen, ridgey road over the house-tops, for the easy-travelling of Kriss-Kringle. . . ."   He observed, "except that . . . the hills over in Virginia looked brown and dreary, it would have been accepted and recorded as a pleasant day in spring." 

Official Washington had closed down for the holiday, the hotels did a brisk business, and the streets were filled with sight-seers.  The correspondent was pleased to report that "[o]ur boys over the river had quite a jovial time, all things considered."  Perhaps with a bit of exaggeration, the Press noted that "[t]here was a relaxation of discipline, and none of the monotonous drilling and guard duty."  The soldiers also tried their hand at holiday decorating.  According to the Press, "[t]he cedars and pines were stripped of their branches, and the tents and camp-lanes were improvised into pretty pastoral retreats."  (Martha Stewart, eat your heart out!)

Most importantly, the Union troops took some time to celebrate on December 25.  Then, as today, eating played a central role in the festivities.  As war correspondent Charles Carleton Coffin recalled in his book Following the Flag, "Christmas came.  The men were in winter quarters, and merry times they had, — dinners of roast turkey, plum-pudding and mincepies, sent by their friends at home."  (Coffin 42.)

The men of the 3rd Pennsylvania Reserves at Camp Pierpont in Langley also partook in holiday meals with victuals from the home front:
And the boys were not forgotten by those they held dear, for many were the Christmas boxes received, filled with roast fowls, cake and sweetmeats, and many happy hearts there were in camp that day. Innumerable little dinners were given by comrades of boyhood days, and if the turkey or chicken was not so hot, the cakes and other delicacies not so fresh and nice as at home, the repast was sweetened by the thought they came from dear home. (Woodward 56.)
Surely the delivery companies did a brisk business in the days leading up to Christmas.  The Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph (Harrisburg, Pa.) reported that "[i]t is estimated that five thousand turkeys, already roasted, went down to the soldiers on the Potomac, by Adams' Express, about Christmas time, together with other etceteras necessary to make them go down appetizingly." 
The men rounded out their holiday with numerous activities:
After dinner [the soldiers] had games, sports, and dances, chasing a greased pig, climbing a greasy pole, running in a meal-bag, playing ball, pitching quoits, playing leap-frog, singing and dancing, around the camp-fires through the long Christmas evening. (Coffin 42.)
The 3rd Pennsylvania Reserves held the normal dress parade.  However, at the conclusion of the drill, a captain "stepped forward and presented their colonel with a pair of holsters containing a magnificent pair of naval revolvers, which, in a neat and appropriate speech, he presented to the colonel in behalf of his brother officers."   (Woodward 56.)  The colonel accepted the gift and "replied in a few neat and eloquent remarks, which were received with great enthusiasm by the officers and men."  (Woodward 56.)

"The bright side of the war - holiday festivities of the 44th New York Volunteers at their camp, Hall's Hill, Virginia," Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Jan. 18, 1862 (courtesy of George Mason University)
The 44th New York was encamped around Hall's Hill in present-day Arlington.  The men found an interesting way to celebrate the holiday by organizing "a burlesque parade" (pictured above):
All of the officers gave over their commands to the men.  Bob Hitchcock, a member of the band, whose avoirdupois was about 300 pounds, was duly promoted and mustered as Colonel of the parade. He was dressed in a manner becoming his high rank. He was mounted upon a horse that surpassed in inferiority the famous Rozinante [Don Quixote's horse]. He rode with his face turned toward the horse's tail so that he might at all times watch his command. The horse was embellished with a pair of trousers on his fore legs, and a pair of drawers on his hind legs. . . .  The men were uniformed in most dissimilar and fantastic garbs. As a whole the rank and file easily surpassed Falstaff and his famous command. The commands given and the manner of their execution were unprecedented and quaint. The tactics of Scott, Hardee and Casey would be searched in vain to find precedent for those impromptu evolutions. The dress parade which followed was unique in its dissimilarity from anything promulgated in army regulations. No words can describe it. Frank Leslie's Illustrated paper only faintly depicted a short section of it but it lingers in the memory like a bright spot in that winter's experience of army life.  (Nash 56.)
Some civilians in Washington wanted to visit the soldiers in camp on Christmas day, perhaps to see relatives and friends, or simply to show appreciation and offer gifts.  The Press reported that "[t]here was a very general desire to cross over into Virginia, but the provost marshal was stringent in his regulations, and comparatively few were gratified."  Soldiers, on the other hand, seemed a bit luckier.  According to the Press correspondent, "[a] great many soldiers were in town, the Avenue and diverging streets presenting a soldierly appearance."  Some of these men even had the opportunity to visit the "halls, corridors, chambers and rotunda" of the Capitol.

As the men reflected on the holiday, they may have shared the sentiment expressed in an editorial appearing in the Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph on December 24:
The Christmas of 1861 sees the world full of strife and our own land full of rebellious contentions and traitorous designs. . . .  If man has failed in the performance of his duty to man. . . . Christmas comes to us shorn of none of its holy glory or diminished in no degree in any of its sublime promises.  It is still the anniversary of the Savior's birth, an epoch in the world's history unequalled by any other for glory, grandness, and Heavenly love. . . . It must be the Christmas of the soul, though our hearts are sorrowful.  It must be a Christmas for those at home, though many homes are now made desolate by the absence of their ornaments; and we trust, too, that while men are arrayed in battle, the Christmas of the year will be made glad for the children of the land.
As the soldiers around the nation's capital looked to the year ahead, they could only guess as to where they would be next Christmas.  Camp was no substitute for home, but at least the soldiers had made the most of the holiday.  Now the men would return to army life, hoping that next year, they would be gathered around the fire with loved ones.


Charles Carleton Coffin, Following the Flag (1886); Eugene Arus Nash, A History of the Forty-Fourth Regiment, New York Volunteer Infantry (1911); Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph (Harrisburg, Pa.), Dec. 24, 1861; Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph (Harrisburg, Pa.), Jan. 7, 1862; Philadelphia Press, Dec. 27, 1861; Evan Morrison Woodward, History of the Third Pennsylvania Reserve (1883).

For a look at the Pennsylvania Reserves at Christmas, check out this post from last year.


Bernie said...

Nice post. I am wondering how one shipped a roasted fowl in 1861?

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks. I was wondering the same thing. I don't think dry ice was around yet, and refrigerated transportation as we know it today was also a later development. Perhaps if the temps were cold enough in the boxcars or in ships' holds due to winter weather outside, the food maintained a safe temperature. Smoking the meat could also have preserved it. Either that, or a lot of men got sick!

Anonymous said...

Another interesting post. Read your March post regarding a tour of D.C. forts with interest, but was diappointed that Ft. Lyon was not included (I doubt that much of anything remains to be seen.). My grandson will be taking a trip to Dr.C. in March with a school group from Stillwater, MN. His great great grandfather served at Ft. Lyon in '64 and '65 and he participated in the Grand Review before being discharged. I am collecting all I can about the fort in hopes of whetting his appetite before the trip. Thanks for what you do to bring the events of that war to life.

Meg said...

I have read a lot about what was packed in those boxes, and my guess is that a lot of men got sick!

Ron Baumgarten said...

@Meg--I have a feeling you are right, particularly when it came to meat and fish!

Ron Baumgarten said...

@Anon.--Thanks. I am glad you liked the post. I hope to cover more forts in the upcoming year, including those around Alexandria. The tour, as you saw, only visited a few of the many sites in the DC area. You have a very interesting personal family connection to the forts. I am sure you have seen "Mr. Lincoln's Forts," but it is an excellent source of all things on this topic. In addition, you may want to check out Barnard's report on the defenses of DC that was published a few years after the war.