Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas 1864 in Washington City

Just as with Thanksgiving, I have been covering Christmas for each year of the Sesquicentennial. Over the past week, I've re-posed to Facebook my previous entries covering the first three Christmases of the war. Now we've at long last come to the final holiday season celebrated by a divided nation.

During the first winter of the war, Washington was surrounded by the sprawling camps of the Army of the Potomac. Soldiers talked longingly of home at Christmas, and many anxiously awaited their first encounter with the enemy in battle. By the end of 1862, this same army had experienced much carnage and scored few successes. Military hospitals lined the streets of Washington, and caring citizens mobilized to feed the sick and wounded. The following year, the inhabitants of the nation's capital celebrated the major Union victories of the past summer and fall. The press coverage was enthusiastic and hopeful. However, by Christmas 1864, the war had taken a tremendous toll in death and suffering. The papers describe a somewhat subdued holiday observance. Perhaps people were just a tad more jaded this year, after the bloodshed at places like the Wilderness and Cold Harbor, and the continuing grind of siege warfare before Petersburg. The end was drawing near, but it hadn't come just yet, and it couldn't come fast enough.

"Christmas Morning," Harper's Weekly, Dec. 31, 1864 (courtesy of sonofthesouth.net).
A "drizzling rain" fell on Sunday, December 25, and Washington's streets "were merged in mud." (Wash. Even. Star, Dec. 27, 1864.)  Despite the dreary weather, congregants filled the churches in the nation's capital. As the Daily National Republican reported:
The Episcopal and Catholic churches (as is their custom) were appropriately and beautifully decorated with festoons, garlands, and wreaths of evergreen, and the anniversary exercises in commemoration of the natal day of the Saviour of the World were of the most impressive character. In all of the churches choirs, rich in melody, chanted the praises of him whom the wise men of the East came to worship over eighteen hundred years ago, and at the announcement of whose birth the shepherds of Judea were astounded. 
With the religious community the day was one, therefore, of peculiar pleasure and satisfaction, for the pulpits were all occupied by eloquent and feeling divines, who, for the time, dropping sectarian and doctrinal feelings, plead the merits of the Savior. . . .(Dec. 27, 1864.)
The paper also made a few other observations about the holiday among the non-churchgoing crowd:
With the irreligious portion of the community, or those who did not attend church, the day was also a comparatively quiet one. There was no rowdyism upon the streets, but all was quiet and peaceable. True, guns, pistols, and "villainous gunpowder" in the shape of squibs and firecrackers were let off to the annoyance of some, but this was confined to a few localities, and the police and other authorities were indefatigable in their efforts to prevent the breach of Sabbath day order and propriety. (Dec. 27, 1864.)
As in years past, the patients in the city's military hospitals also took part in the holiday celebrations. At Campbell Hospital, the men sat down to "a table laden with turkeys, vegetables, sauces, preserves, jellies and a multitude of other eatables to which they did ample justice." (Wash. Even. Star, Dec. 27, 1864.) That evening, a social ball was held in the "gaily decorated" reading-room hall, "where "patients, officers and visitors mingled, and all enjoyed themselves to the fullest extent; the excellent band of the hospital adding largely to the pleasures of the occasion." (Wash. Even. Star, Dec. 27, 1864.)

"The Union Christmas Dinner," Harper's Weekly, Dec. 31, 1864 (courtesy of sonofthesouth.net). As the newsweekly described the theme of the illustration: "Today, then, under the Christmas evergreen, the country asks only for peace, and breathes only good will to all men. Despite the sharp war, its bountiful feast is spread, It stands, as Mr. [Thomas] NAST represents in the large picture in today's Number, holding the door open to welcome the rebellious children back to the family banquet. It does not forget one of their crimes. It remembers the enormity of their attempt. It will take good care that the root of bitterness is destroyed forever, and that the peace of the household shall be henceforth secure. But it asks what it can command. It invites where it can enforce. It says now, as it has said from the beginning, 'Submit to the laws made by all for the common welfare, and there will be no more war.'"

At Stanton Hospital, the patients took dinner in the dining hall "beautifully decorated with evergreens, American flags and shields being displayed from prominent positions." (Wash. Even. Star, Dec. 27, 1864.) In the middle of the room "stood a large Christmas tree, tastefully trimmed, which attracted the attention of all present, and which many of the patients declared reminded them of Christmas times at home." (Wash. Even. Star, Dec. 27, 1864.)

At Lincoln Hospital, "an examination of the colored school (composed mostly of the children of the contraband laborers employed about the hospital. . .) took place in the presence of the parents and friends of the scholars, numbering about 100, and after its conclusion. . . each scholar received a Christmas gift of a cornucopia with candies. . . ." (Wash. Even. Star, Dec. 27, 1864.) Following a big Christmas dinner, an effigy of Jefferson Davis was lit on fire over the stove in plain view of the patients, "giving a vivid representation of the Union soldier's idea of the arch traitor's 'hereafter.'" (Wash. Even. Star, Dec. 27, 1864.) According to the Evening Star, "[t]his affair caused great excitement and Jeff was groaned lustily, while many exclaimed 'Amen' to the doom foreshadowed to him." (Dec. 27, 1864.)

Presumably because Christmas fell on the Sabbath, Monday "was observed as the grand festival-day." (Wash. Daily Natl. Rep., Dec. 27, 1864.) That morning the residents of Washington awoke to the boom of a tremendous 300-gun salute at Franklin Square in honor of Gen. William T. Sherman's recent capture of Savannah. The rest of the day was a bit more low-key:
The prominent business places of the city were closed, no papers were issued during the day, and all gave themselves up to enjoyment. There was more shooting and more noise than upon the Sabbath, but all must acknowledge that it was one of the most quiet Christmas celebrations known here for a long time. There was but little intoxication and no serious brawls, and it is safe to assert that no city the size of Washington, and its mixed population, passed a more orderly holiday. (Wash. Daily Natl. Rep., Dec. 27, 1864.)
That evening, "social parties were given, and the theatres and other places of amusement were open, and the citizens and strangers gave themselves up to enjoyment." (Wash. Daily Natl. Rep., Dec. 27, 1864.)

Overall, Christmas 1864, despite the two-day holiday, seemed a bit subdued in the streets of Washington. Inhabitants of the war-weary capital attended services and headed to various performances around town, but if press reports shed any light, intoxicating beverages played a less prominent role! The patients at the military hospitals also enjoyed bountiful dinners and in-house entertainment, although without many of the high-profile guests who had attended in previous years. President Lincoln, for his part, had received a rather satisfying "Christmas gift" from General Sherman, and the news of the latest victory surely helped to boost spirits and engender hope that the Confederacy's fate would soon be sealed.

Last, but not least, I'd like to wish my readers a Very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! Thanks for following the blog, and see you next year!


Washington Daily National Republican, Dec. 27, 1864; Washington Evening Star, Dec. 27, 1864).

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