Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas in Washington 1862: A Dinner for the Sick and Wounded

As Christmas of 1862 approached, Elizabeth Smith, the wife of Interior Secretary Caleb B. Smith, was busy organizing a holiday dinner for patients of the military hospitals in and around Washington.  Following the carnage at Fredericksburg, many wounded soldiers were transported to the nation's capital for treatment.  Their presence added to the numbers of the Union Army's sick and wounded who were already recuperating in Washington.   Theses men faced the sad reality of Christmas away from loved ones back home, and Smith and others like her were determined to bring some holiday cheer to the hospital wards.

Smith and her fellow volunteers raised donations from across the Union to help defray the cost of the Christmas meal.  The New York Times noted that "a large outlay will of course be required," and informed readers that "[a]ny sums left with United States Marshal MURRAY, at his office in Chambers-street, will be duly acknowledged and forwarded to Washington."  (N.Y. Times, Dec. 10, 1862.)  The City of Philadelphia alone raised three thousands dollars, while the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad "volunteered to transport supplies over their road free of charge."  (Daily Morning Chronicle (Wash., D.C.), Dec. 25, 1862, in Hay & Hill at 294-95.) 

The editors of the Daily National Republican (Wash., D.C.) could barely contain their enthusiasm on Christmas morning:
To-day, this city is to witness a scene never witnessed  here before--the Christmas dinner to the sick and wounded soldiers in the hospitals, got up under the auspices of Mrs. Secretary Smith and the noble ladies associated with her in this grand Christian effort.  (Daily National Republican, Dec. 25, 1862.)
The Cleveland Morning Leader described the grand Christmas event for readers:
Accounts say that nowhere else in the world than in America could have been seen the sight which made this holiday remarkable and memorable--the banqueting of 35,000 wounded and sick soldiers upon a Christmas dinner, spread by the hands of individual benevolence.
Tables were set and abundantly and elegantly covered in the largest wards of the different hospitals.  The room were ornamented by volunteer hands with evergreens and flowers.  Volunteer waiters, gentlemen and ladies of the first families in the land, tenderly and devotedly served the wounded warriors in every hospital, waiting first on those too injured to be moved to the tables.  (Cleveland Morning Leader, Dec. 29, 1862.)
The dinner also provided the soldiers with entertainment and a chance to rub elbows with some of Washington's bigwigs:
To make the festive occasion more complete in most of the hospitals, hired or volunteer singers sang songs of home and country; in others, members of Congress and Cabinet officers made speeches happily fit to the occasion, and moved socially among the tables.  (Cleveland Morning Leader, Dec. 29, 1862.)
President Lincoln and the First Lady even visited the sick and wounded soldiers at several of the hospitals.  The couple "rejoiced the hearts of the brave volunteers . . . with their presence and soothing and consoling words."  (Daily National Republican, Dec. 27, 1862.)  The pro-Administration Daily National Republican noted:
Many were the exclamations heard of "Honest man, God bless you;" "Here is one volunteer who prays for your long life and happiness;" "May Heaven protect you;" "Providence must have selected you to rule us in such an hour" . . . . (Daily National Republican, Dec. 27, 1862.)
"Washington, D.C. Mess hall at Harewood Hospital heated by elaborate stoves" (courtesy of Library of Congress).

The Cleveland Morning Leader reported that "[o]ver seven thousand turkeys and chickens were consumed at this novel Christmas dinner."  (Cleveland Morning Leader, Dec. 29, 1862).  The paper explained that "this immense amount of poultry came mostly from Maryland and Pennsylvania, but four car loads of it came all the way from Chicago."  (Cleveland Morning Leader, Dec. 29, 1862.)  In addition, "[t]hree hundred turkeys, sent from ever-generous Albany, came cooked and ready for the table."  (Cleveland Morning Leader, Dec. 29, 1862.) 

Given the magnitude of the event and the number of actors, there were a few glitches.  The Daily National Republican stated that "[i]n some of the hospitals. . . through the non-arrival of a portion of the supplies. . . there was delay and annoyance."  (Daily National Republican, Dec. 27, 1862.)  Moreover, "in one or two cases the unaccommodating spirit and incompetency of the officers in charge, had a very unpleasant effect."  (Daily National Republican, Dec. 27, 1862.)  Overall, however, Mrs. Smith and her volunteers pulled off quite the organizational feat.  As the Daily National Republican exclaimed, "the ladies have every cause for gratulation and praise."  (Daily National Republican, Dec. 27, 1862.)

The Christmas dinner in Washington's military hospitals offered a grateful nation the opportunity to do something for the men who were fighting to put down the rebellion.  The year had proven a very difficult one, and there were two more wartime Christmases yet to come.  Violent and savage battles, as well as sickness and disease, had already extracted a heavy toll in suffering and death.  At least on this one day, the sick and wounded soldiers in and around Washington could try to enjoy a little holiday cheer and hope for the time when they would be reunited with loved ones.

"Santa Claus in Camp," Harper's Weekly, Jan. 3, 1863 (courtesy of
Finally, I'd like to wish all of my readers Happy Holidays!  As always, thanks for taking the time to visit and read the blog.  See you in 2013!


"Bridging the River," National Review, Dec. 24, 2007; Cleveland Morning Leader, Dec. 29, 1862; Daily National Republican, Dec. 25, 1862; Daily National Republican, Dec. 27, 1862; N.Y. Times, Dec. 10, 1862; John Hay & Douglas Hill, An Idler: John Hay's Social and Aesthetic Commentaries for the Press During the Civil War, 1861-1865 (2006);

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