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.
In Christmas, 1862, the men of the First Louisiana Infantry Regiment, celebrated Christmas with six Masses, celebrated by Fr. Hubert, formerly of the downtown Jesuit Church, and Fr. Sheeran, formerly of St. Alphonsus in the Irish part of the city. The two priests and the men then enjoyed a dinner of beer, pork, turkeys, geese, and spiked eggnog.
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.
Katherine B. Jeffrey, First Chaplain of the Confederacy (Baton Rouge: LSU Press 2020), p. 59