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.”

Eggnog

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.

Sources:

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

The Montgomery Guards Go to War

The city of New Orleans had militia units, mandatory and volunteer since its founding in 1718. Several militia units helped defend the city against the British in 1815. The Irish immigrants formed their own militia units. The oldest Irish militia and the most prestigious was the Montgomery Guards. I previously spoke about the Montgomery Guards and Emmet Guards here. As the drum beats of war sounded in early 1861, the Montgomery Guards ramped up their activity, as did the other New Orleans militias. They elected as their commander, Michael Nolan, a grocer with a shop on Common street. This was the heart of the third and fourth wards, the working class areas of the Crescent City.

The Fenian

And, who was Mike Nolan? Unlike most of the newly arrived Irish, Mike owned real estate./ He claimed $30,000 in real estate and $10,000 in personal estate in the 1860 census. Small groceries were used frequently by the Irish as a means to a white collar life. And, it worked well for Mike Nolan. He was married to Ellen. They had no children, but had three persons, probably employees, at their home.

Michael was born in County Tipperary about 1819. In 1848, Michael Nolan heard news of the rebellion in Ireland. He left his shop in New Orleans, bought a rifle, and sailed to his homeland. But, he was arrested as soon as he landed. He spent nine months in jail. He was released only after he agreed to leave the country. He was said to be a leader of the Fenian Brotherhood in ante-bellum New Orleans.

Fr. Hubert

Mike Nolan was also a close friend of the esteemed Father Darius Hubert. Fr. Hubert would become the chaplain of the First Louisiana Regiment and Mike Nolan would become their commander. But, before the war, Fr. Hubert was serving in Baton Rouge. So, it is not clear how the two met.

Lt.-Col. Nolan achieved some fame at the Battle of Manassas for his quick thinking. At  particularly bitter fighting at the Deep Cut, his men ran out of ammunition. Nolan quickly rallied his men to hurl stones and rocks at the Yankees, then literally just a stone’s throw away. The Mostly Irish Confederates did indeed hurl the works over a railroad embankment, holding their position until reinforcements arrived. Fr. Sheeran, another chaplain from New Orleans, would record in his diary that after the battle, many Union soldiers were found with broken skulls.

Lt.-Col. Nolan was badly wounded at the Battle of Sharpsburg (Antietam). He was evacuated to a Richmond hospital and from there, he was sent on recruiting duty to Mobile. Many refugees from New Orleans and Baton Rouge had evacuated to Mobile at the time. His wife, Ellen, joined him in Mobile. He rejoined the First Louisiana Infantry Regiment just before the Battle of Gettysburg in July, 1863. Bravely, he lead his men in an attack on Culp’s Hill. Almost immediately, he was cut down by a 12 pound artillery shell. He was killed within 24 hours of his return to his unit. What was left of his body was buried in a nearby orchard in a shallow grave. Soon afterward, through the kindness of a local Catholic woman, Isabella “Belle” Gubernator, and aided by the estimable Regimental chaplain, Fr. Hubert, Lt.-Col. Nolan was re-buried in consecrated ground at the nearby Conewago Chapel of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. LTC Nolan received the a Catholic, marked burial, rare for a Confederate soldier or officer.

It was said that the death of Lt.-Col. Nolan was a blow to the kindly priest, Fr. Hubert. Another chaplain remarked upon hearing of Nolan’s death, “it was a great loss for Fr. Hubert!”

Later, , after Gen. Lee’s surrender, Fr. Hubert remained in Virginia long enough to coordinate with Federal authorities the future removal of Lt.-Col. Nolan’s body to New Orleans. See here for a picture of Micheal Nolan, but notice the web site states erroneously that Nolan was buried in Richmond.

Re-Burial

After the war, Michael Nolan’s body was indeed returned to New Orleans for re-burial. The logistics of removing a body in 1866 were enormous. He was accorded a large funeral. The funeral cortege was said to be more than two miles long. Fr. Hubert and Fr. Sheeran presided.

After his death, his widow, Ellen apparently sank into poverty. In the 1870 census she was living with the William and Kate Behan family. Ellen claims no property and is listed as “Domestic Servant.” Michael and Ellen did not have any children. Ellen was among hundreds of others who were cited for failure to pay taxes in 1870, 1872, 1874, 1876, and 1878. She sold her property at a sheriff’s sale in 1879.

And so passed a patriotic Fenian and his family.

Sources:

Kathrine B. Jeffrey, First Chaplain of the Confederacy (Baton Rouge: LSU Press 2020), p. 50, 53, 73.

Gardner’s 1861 New Orleans City Directory

Michael Dan Jones, The Fighting First Louisiana Infantry Regiment (Michael Dan Jones 2016), p. 15.

New Orleans Daily Crescent, Aug. 20, 1866, p. 1