Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas in Washington, 1863: A Merry Time Was Had by All

As the end of the year 1863 fast approached, Washington City prepared to celebrate Christmas. Citizens in the nation's capital and elsewhere across the North had witnessed some important victories over the last twelve months, although at the cost of far too many dead and wounded. Perhaps the hope for an end to hostilities in the upcoming year took the sting off the awareness that the country was once again celebrating Christmas while divided and at war.

The weather in Washington leading up to the holiday was "quite cold," and "much ice was formed not only on the creeks and ponds, but in the river." (Alex. Gazette, Dec. 28, 1863.) The predicted snowfalls, however, never materialized. Residents woke up on Christmas morning to find "the river was nearly frozen across" to the point where "navigation became impeded." (Alex. Gazette, Dec. 28, 1863.)

"Christmas, 1863," Harper's Weekly, Dec. 26, 1863 (courtesy of sonofthesouth.net)

Despite the cold and frosty weather, the residents of the nation's capital got out and celebrated the holiday with cheer and "remarkable good order for so large and miscellaneous a population as Washington city now shelters." (Wash. Even. Star, Dec. 26, 1863.) As the Washington Evening Star reported:
Most of the business places were closed, and trade was for the time suspended, and all had the one end in view -- enjoyment. The restaurants and saloons were open and large bowls of the favorite Christmas drink, "egg-nogg," displayed upon innumerable sideboards, invited the attention of drinkers. The street cars ran all day, and many availed themselves of the opportunity to enjoy a ride and visit their friends about the city and Georgetown. But Washington never experienced a more quiet and orderly Christmas, and there was no evidence whatever of rowdyism. The day passed off admirably, and in many churches the people assembled in the morning to celebrate in a religious manner the natal day of the Saviour. . . . The theatres too were open, and attracted large audiences, both afternoon and evening. (Wash. Even. Star, Dec. 26, 1863.)
Curiously, the same edition of the Evening Star indicates a few episodes of "rowdyism" involving African-Americans in the northern part of the city. Either the editor missed the inconsistencies, or the paper drew a divide based on race when tallying incidents of rowdyism.

Campbell Army Hospital (courtesy of N.I.H.)
Patients at the U.S. military hospitals in Washington also marked the holiday, and several political dignitaries attended the festivities to offer their support. The Evening Star described the scene at Campbell Hospital, located at the northern boundary of 5th and 6th Street, N.W.:
Previously to partaking of the dinner the visitors were shown through the buildings and grounds, finding all the hospital department in admirable order -- the men in each ward having apparently tried to outdo those of the others in decorating their wards, and in some the decorations were very tasty, consisting of colored paper, cut into a variety of shapes, evergreens, etc. In all the wards were well arranged aquariums, containing a variety of beautiful fish. The company assembled in the reading-room while the tables in the dining-room were being prepared, where they were regaled with excellent music from the band of the 14th N.H. regiment. (Wash. Even. Star, Dec. 26, 1863.)
Dinner was served at 3 o'clock. Sen. Jacob Collamer of Vermont "urg[ed] the soldiers to remember that in this war, more than in any other, had they the sympathies of the people who rejoice with them that the beginning of the end is approaching." (Wash. Even. Star, Dec. 26, 1863.) The 200 patients and their guests partook in "an excellent dinner, consisting of turkeys, chickens, oysters, a variety of vegetables, pies, cakes, &c." (Wash. Even. Star, Dec. 26, 1863.) Afterwards, "a band of minstrels gave a concert, followed by a short play, and a promenade to the music of the band closed the festivities." (Wash. Even. Star, Dec. 26, 1863.)

Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts visited the patients at Emory Hospital, east of the Capitol. The Evening Star reported:
After a sumptuous dinner had been partaken of, the visitors were entertained with a concert of Ethiopian and other melodies by the soldiers. These entertainments have been found to have a good effect on the patients. (Wash. Even. Star, Dec. 26, 1863.)
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Senator Edwin Morgan of New York, and Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts all visited Stanton Hospital (along I Street, N.W. between 2nd and 3rd Streets, N.W.). The entire place "was dressed in evergreens with admirable taste." (Wash. Even. Star, Dec. 26, 1863.) The Secretary made a few patriotic remarks to the assembled patients:
Soldiers, I hope that when the next anniversary of the day you are now celebrating occurs, that this war will be ended, and you will have returned to your homes and your firesides. When you shall have so returned, you will be considered as honored guests of the nation. You have periled your lives upon the battle-field, or you have suffered in camps from the ravages of disease incidental to great armies. . . .
 . . . If we can end this rebellion with the extinction of Slavery, will it not be a great triumph? You will, at the end of this great rebellion, when making a review of it, have the satisfaction of knowing that you have aided the Government of the United States in discharging the duties incumbent on that Government when it was in peril. And, furthermore, you will experience the feeling that you have materially aided to make the country free. (N.Y. Times, Dec. 29, 1863.)
The men greeted Stanton's speech with applause, and Morgan then made a short speech, which was likewise "well received." (N.Y. Times, Dec. 29, 1863.) The soldiers at Stanton Hospital also enjoyed a full Christmas meal.

Similar celebrations occurred at other hospitals around town. Senator Morgan appeared at Douglas Hospital, where 300 patients ate Christmas dinner. Meanwhile, "[t]he patients at Lincoln Hospital. . .were gratified by a visit from Senator Sumner." (Wash. Even. Star, Dec. 26, 1863.) Armory Square Hospital "was decorated for the occasion, and was well supplied with tables loaded down with all the desirable delicacies and substantials." (Wash. Even. Star, Dec. 26, 1863.) Patients there presented the chaplain with a "handsome gold watch." (Wash. Even. Star, Dec. 26, 1863.)

By all accounts, Christmas 1863 in the nation's capital was celebrated with as much merriment as a people at war could muster. The sick and wounded at the Union military hospitals also enjoyed a welcome change from the everyday routine. As the skies turned rainy towards the end of December and 1864 began, civilians and soldiers alike faced a hard year ahead. And yet another Christmas would come and go before the nation would celebrate the holidays united once more.


Alexandria Gazette, Dec. 28, 1863; N.Y. Times, Dec. 29, 1863; Washington Evening Star, Dec. 26, 1863; R.D. Winthrop, "The War Hospitals, 1861-1865, Washington, DC," available at PA-Roots.

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