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Civil War Christmastime – more or less

Written By | Dec 11, 2013

VIENNA, VA. December 11, 2013 — It would be difficult to really tell the story of Christmas during the Civil War, since one would have to vacillate between the areas of the North untouched by any belligerents, its people basically living their regular, pre-war lives, and the beleaguered South with little food and definitely no extras for presents, and not knowing where the next meal would come from.

Even President Lincoln’s son, Tad, entered into the spirit of the holiday. In 1862, President Lincoln visited injured Union soldiers at various hospitals, and many would find a gift bearing a card that said “From Tad Lincoln.” As a young child,  he had been very moved at seeing the wounded soldiers when the President took him to a hospital. This scene, with a little artistic license, appears in the movie, “Lincoln.”  Most of these gifts were books and items of clothing.

One significant event during the wartime Christmas was the art of Thomas Nast, a newspaper cartoonist, and a rabid Northerner. It was Nast to whom we owe the word picture and the actual drawing of Santa Claus, which flowed from his prolific pen. He published his first Christmas-related cartoon in Harper’s Weekly at Christmas of 1863, which showed a bewhiskered gent passing out gifts to Union soldiers. A couple of fairly young looking boys are pictured on the floor, opening boxes. This was the first known Santa Claus, the successor to Father Christmas, Pere Noel, and Sinter Klaas well as others around the globe.

The mystery of the missing toys

One poignant story, apparently quite true, is of the three little girls a year or so after the War who wrote a letter to the esteemed general, Robert E. Lee, asking him why Santa brought no toys to the children of the South during the War. Their aunt had told the girls to pose that query to the one person in the world they could truly respect and trust, General Lee, and they did.

“Auntie thinks you would not let him [Santa} cross the lines, “ they wrote, “and we don’t know how to find out unless we write to you and ask,” adding that that “we know that you always speak the truth.”  The children also said they wanted to send him a gift but did not know what he would want, and had settled on “one of our white kittens – the one with black ears; but auntie thinks you don’t like kittens.”

Lee did answer the question, according to writing by his daughter Mildred, and explained the omission to the little interrogators. He took the blame for being the soldier who stopped Santa’s sleigh and told him he could go no further South and cross the line. His suggestion to Santa was that he knew all the Southern children would prefer that he do his duty, so “take every one of the toys you have back as far as Baltimore, sell them, and with the money you get buy medicines, bandages, ointments, and delicacies for our sick and wounded men; do it and do it quickly – it will be all right with the children.” Then, according to Lee, Santa “sprang into his sleigh, and putting his hand to his hat in true military style, said: ‘I obey orders, General,’ and away he went.”

Original Santa Claus

According to Lee’s response, before the next morning had broken, Old Saint Nick again appeared in camp, bringing “not only everything I had ordered, but with many other things our poor soldiers needed.”

Apparently Santa Claus followed this same procedure for each succeeding Christmas, hence no children’s toys for the four-year period. This priceless letter and story first appeared in an article by a Louise Clack in 1867, but it is as good today as it ever was.

Lincoln’s “perfect gift” from Sherman

Though many in the South would argue this, it has been said historically that the best gift Lincoln ever received was on December 22, 1862, when General William Tecumseh Sherman announced the capture of Savannah, Ga. The vitriolic and aggressive Sherman doubtless felt he had found the perfect gift.

On the Rebel side, the Christmas week of 1862 saw Confederate General John Hunt Morgan on his famous “Christmas Raid” through Kentucky, as he spent the entire day destroying every bit of the improvements and track of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad which ran from Bacon Creek (now known as Bonnieville, KY and a well known speed trap for years) to Lebanon Junction! “Union neckties” were made of twisted rails, and by the time the troops known as Morgan’s Men were finished, a train could not get through Kentucky, which was his goal  — and 35 miles of track lay in ruins.

Makeshift Christmas trees in camp

Even the now perennial “Charlie Brown Christmas Tree” has its genesis during this period of time. Many of the men in camp had such a tree, tangible by decorating a little evergreen with pieces of hardtack and salt pork tied to its branches. One has to imagine that the birds and other varmints probably enjoyed it more than did the men.

Obviously the Northern troops fared better on the food than those in the South. One captain from Massachusetts was said to have supplied his men with turkey, oysters, various pies, and apples.

The story is told of 90 some Union soldiers from Michigan who decorated pull carts, and even simulated reindeer horns by tying tree branches together for the mules, and filled them with various items of food and other supplies which they gave out to poor Georgia civilians who were in need of sustenance.

Good will to men did extend to a small extent.

Nast’s cartoon drawings

One of Nast’s most poignant drawings showed two circles — in one a woman is shown praying for her husband on the battlefield. Its twin has a picture of a soldier on the battlefield, as he similarly prays for her. This drawing appeared in 1862; the next year, Nast’s Christmas cartoon showed the couple back together again.

The sweet and soulfully sad pictures from 1862 from Nast were nothing like the drawing he did for Christmas 1865. The one he did for Harper’s Weekly had a picture of Santa Claus; however the drawing also included General Ulysses S. Grant, standing with the severed heads of several Confederate generals around his feet, about as gruesome a representation as one could imagine.

Interestingly enough, before the War, Christmas was a happy time for the slaves on the normal Southern farm or plantation. Masters and mistresses saw to it that each man or woman had a new suit of clothes or dress, suitable for work of course, and all day the workers would stop by the house to greet the owners with “Christmas gift, Massa” and receive their gift. Work stopped, and casual play and entertainment took over.

As the day comes closer, whether or not our shopping is completed, the best greeting remains, as Tiny Tim would say, “God bless us, everyone!”


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Martha Boltz

Martha Boltz was a frequent contributor to the long-running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War section in both print and online editions. A regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page dating back to 1994, she is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history." She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."