Christmas Remembrance, 1866

In the first year after the end of the war, most veterans still felt the wounds of war. It has been estimated that some 60,000 amputations were performed during the war. And, of course, apart from the physical scars, there were the unseen wounds. Many accounts and poems appeared in Southern newspapers remembering their days and hard times. The Charleston Daily News published one such poem on Dec. 25, 1866 remembering the fallen:

        Shall happy bells, from yonder ancient spires
	Send their glad greetings to each Christmas fire
	Round which the children play?
	Shall the day be celebrated
	With feast, and song, and dance, and antique sports
	And shout of happy children in the courts
	And tales of ghost and fay?
        How could we bear the mirth
	While some loved reveler of a year ago
	Keeps his mute Christmas now beneath the snow
	In cold Virginia earth?

The poem evokes a long-time nineteenth Christmas Eve tradition of simply sitting by the family hearth and telling stories, many of them ghost stories. Think A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. “Fay” refers to stories about elves and fairies.

Tracy L. Barnett, “Holiday Toasts and Homesick Rebels,” Civil War Monitor, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Winter 2019), p. 54.

A Rebel Christmas

How did the Rebels celebrate Christmas? They were far from home and were always under-resourced. Sixty years after the war, William A. Day recalled that he and his mates in the 49th North Carolina Infantry Regiment celebrated Christmas in 1862 by rolling dice for a watch. Each man would pay a dollar for a chance on the watch and then roll dice for it. They sat under a large canvas tent near a large camp fire. Two years later in 1864, they were in the trenches outside of Petersburg, Virginia. Normally, they endured a steady hail of bullets from the Yanks. But, on Dec. 25, the lines were quiet. But, food was scarce. Each man received just a small piece of corn bread, a slice of bacon, a spoonful of peas, and the occasional bit of coffee.

Compare that Christmas with the one experienced by this author in the Iraq war: we enjoyed a hearty meal of ham, turkey and all the trimmings. And, we managed to take off one-half day from the war.

In more peaceful times, Southerners in general would celebrate Christmas by attending church services in the morning, with a nice meal later, perhaps some homemade wine, sweet treats and sitting around the hearth telling ghost stories.

Most Rebel soldiers recorded that they spent Christmas Day drinking homemade, pitiful liquor and trying to stay warm. In 1862, the men of the 16th Mississippi Infantry Regiment were searching for liquor on Christmas Eve. They were paying $50 to $100 for liquor described as “bad or worse.”

In the early years of the war, liquor was available. In 1861, the first year of the war, the men of the 4th Alabama Infantry Regiment shared eggnog en masse. The boys recalled filling their cups, and singing Christmas songs until sunrise. In 1864, Pvt John W. Joyce of the 21st North Carolina Infantry had just a little coffee and sugar for breakfast on Dec. 25, 1864. For him, in that time, that was a treat.

On Christmas Day, 1864, James Evans, of the 13th Battalion North Carolina Light Artillery, just got a sip of eggnog. He said it was the only thing to remind him of “gone by days.” Samuel A. Burney, a Georgia in Cobb’s Legion, missed his wife and children. He begged his family in a letter home for a small box of “good things,” including brandy or whiskey. He said he would miss the annual hog killing. But, a package from home would help remind him of better days. By Christmas Day, he had been unable to buy a turkey or improve his mess. He celebrated Christmas with eggnog and whiskey mailed to him by his father. He said the whiskey reminded him “very forcibly” of better Christmases of days past.

The Rebels saw much privation, even more so at Christmas time. Yet, universally, the contemporary muster reports show a soldiery well-motivated and still full of fight.

Tracy L. Barnett, “Holiday Toasts and Homesick Rebels,” Civil War Monitor, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Winter 2019), p. 54.