Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Christmas in Camp, Fairfax Station, December 1862

A few weeks ago I wrote about a new project that I am undertaking for the Fairfax Station Railroad Museum. As I researched tales of soldiers and civilians around the station during the Civil War, I began to think about turning my research into blog posts. The museum agreed that this would be a good idea. Writing posts will help to focus my research efforts and build content for the museum. Moreover, I hope that such posts will encourage my readers to come forward with additional information about wartime life along the Orange & Alexandria near Fairfax Station. With my annual Christmas post, I venture for the first time into this new territory for All Not So Quiet Along the Potomac, and I look forward to sharing more discoveries in the future.


As Christmas 1862 approached, soldiers of the Second Vermont Brigade were busy protecting positions along the strategic Orange & Alexandria R.R. around Fairfax Station. Two divisions of the Army of the Potomac's Twelfth Corps were also encamped in the neighborhood of the station. The corps had fought only a few months before in the bloody engagement at Antietam. Reentering Virginia in November, the men marched through Loudoun County and made their way to Fairfax Station.

Fairfax Station during the Civil War (courtesy of William Graham's War Between the States)
On December 24, Gen. Alpheus Williams held a grand review and inspection of his Twelfth Corps division. According to William Tuttle of the 107th New York, the activity was "very tiresome for the men, more than a day's march." (in Tappan 63) He returned to his campsite and "just laid down by the fire, looked into the flames and blazing coals, and thought of friends far away, of Christmas Eves and Christmas trees until I fell asleep." (in Tappan 63.)

That night, Gen. John Geary, commander of the corps' second division, sat down to write his little daughter Mary a rather sentimental letter:
On this Christmas eve I have no doubt you have been enjoying yourself, perhaps with the toys of the season, eaten your nuts and cakes, hung up your stockings in the chimney corner for old Krisk[r]inkle, when he comes along with his tiny horses "dunder and blixen" and his little wagon to fill in lots and gobs of sweet things....Well, when I was a little boy. . . I was very fond of such things myself. And when I look back, they were indeed the happiest days of my life. (in Blair & Wiley 74.)
On Christmas Day, the soldiers were blessed with mild and pleasant weather, not unlike predictions for this year's holiday. As Pvt. Henry Bayless of the 137th New York wrote to his parents, "today is clear and quite warm, so we can sit in the sun without our overcoats on with comfort." (in Creutz 73.) Capt. Robert Gould Shaw (future commander of the 54th Massachusetts) and fellow officers of the 2nd Massachusetts also sat "out of doors," eating a Christmas dinner of chicken, oysters, potatoes, and other culinary delights. (in Duncan 273).

"Christmas," L. Prang & Co., c. 1862 (courtesy of Digital Public Library of America).

Gen. Geary, like many of the Union commanders, "issued an order allowing the men of my command a recreation from all military duties, except such as could not be dispensed with." (in Blaid & Wiley 76.) He emerged from his quarters that morning to find that "the men had erected two triumphal arches of evergreens before my tent." (in Blaid & Wiley 76.) As he told his sons, "the Holly is beautiful & Green covered with berries. The whole thing was the most beautifully wreathed affair I ever saw." (in Blaid & Wiley 76.) Geary's thoughts turned to his family, and how much he wanted to be with them on this holiday. The "forsaken country" around Fairfax Station surely did little to diminish his homesickness. (in Blair & Wiley 75.)

Tuttle of the 107th New York found little to celebrate on Christmas. As he lamented in his diary:
It is not a happy Christmas day with us today. . . We have been moving our camp again. . . . This is the fourth camp we have occupied near Fairfax Station, and a great many are in the worst of humor over the perplexities and botherations which always attend a change of camp. We marched about two miles this morning, laid out our new camp ground, put up our tents and have just had our dinner, Christmas Dinner! which was no great affair today. (in Tappan 62-63.)
The men of 137th NY made do with rations of soft bread and beef. Charles Engle prepared a "hearty" Christmas breakfast of fried beef with a cup of coffee, but wished instead for "cakes and sausage and butter." (in Creutz 73.) Bayless and his messmate got more creative and fried the bread in a gravy made with bacon and beef grease. They sat on their blankets with plates on their laps and devoured the Christmas meal.

Over in the camp of the Second Vermont Brigade, the soldiers were excused from all but the most pressing duties. Pvt. Herzon Day went with a few friends to Fairfax Station "to see the country but got back in time for Christmas dinner, which consisted of beefsteak and potatoes, both excellent." (letter to parents on 16th Vermont blog.) Horace Barlow of the 12th Vermont enjoyed "[t]aking it easy in the A.M. & playing foot-ball &c in the P.M." (diary on 16th Vermont blog.)

Some officers had the privilege of leaving camp to celebrate Christmas elsewhere. In the 107th Pennsylvania, Tuttle's captain and first lieutenant headed to Alexandria to spend the holiday with friends. Tuttle was frustrated, writing in his diary: "Of course I could not go. I am not an officer." (in Tappan 63.) (He later would become a commissioned officer, so perhaps the holidays got better for him!)

Dr. James Dunn, surgeon of the 109th Pennsylvania, took four days' leave and traveled from Fairfax Station to Washington City. On Christmas morning he met a fellow physician at Willard's. The two at some point "visited around Washington where all is quiet." (in Kerr 60.) The doctor even "saw Old Abe":
He looks as if the load resting on him was too much. He is care worn and troubled. Political opposition is killing him. (in Kerr 60.)
After the holiday, Dunn returned to his regimental encampment and the drudgery of army life. For the surgeon and many others at Fairfax Station, Christmas 1862 was a day of rest and relaxation. Even if the holiday meal was a little less appetizing than many of the men would have preferred, the warm weather was certainly a welcome present from Mother Nature. The enlisted men and their commanders dreamed of Christmas among family and friends. Perhaps the new year would bring an end to war and fighting. But Christmas would come and go two more times before Christmas at home became a reality. President Lincoln had reason to feel "troubled."

On a personal note, I'd like to wish my readers Happy Holidays and a Very Merry Christmas! See you in 2016!

William L. Blair (ed.) & Bell Irvin Wiley, A Politician Goes to War: The Civil War Letters of John White Geary (1995); David Cleutz, Fields of Fame & Glory: Col. David Ireland and the 137th New York Volunteers (2010); Russell Duncan (ed.), Blue Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (1999); Letters from the 16th Vermont (blog); Lynne M. Kennedy, "GORDON'S REGULARS": The 2nd Massachusetts Infantry in the Civil War (1999); Paul B. Kerr, Civil War Surgeon -- Biography of James Langstaff Dunn, MD (2012); George Tappan (ed.), The Civil War Journal of Lt. Russell M. Tuttle, New York Volunteer Infantry (2006).


R.T. said...

I've just discovered your fine blog, and I look forward to your future postings/project. My knowledge of Civil War history is limited but growing, and I'm sure your blog will be a splendid addition to my learning project. Moreover, my own Civil War blog will be starting soon. Merry Christmas.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks, Tim. I am glad you like the blog. And good luck with your own as well. Let me know when it goes live.

Mike Musick said...

A very minor correction: the co-editor of "A Politician Goes to War" was Bell Irvin Wiley (died 1980), rather than just Bell Irvin. He was my mentor in grad school.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks, Mike. That was an accidental omission of the last name on my part -- I am very familiar with Wiley's work. Neat that he was your mentor. I will make the correction.