A Civil War Christmas

John T. Ford first opened a theatre at the current Ford’s Theatre site in 1861, around the beginning of the Civil War. What was Christmas like during the bloodiest war in American history?

The first Christmas of the Civil War was a sobering one for the American people. Both sides in the conflict had anticipated a short war, but the humiliating defeat of Union forces at Manassas brought the realization that it was going to be a long, bloody conflict. As winter set in, the country experienced a far different Christmas than it had just a year earlier.

President Lincoln spent much of his first Christmas in the White House at a heated Cabinet meeting dealing with the Trent Affair: Union forces had boarded a British ship in international waters and arrested two Confederate diplomats. Britain demanded the release of the Confederates, along with an apology. It was a delicate situation that could have resulted in Britain entering the war on the side of the Confederates. The Cabinet adjourned with no clear decision. That evening, the Lincolns hosted a large Christmas dinner gathering.

For the soldiers in the field, there were festivities and an abundance of food and drink that would become scarcer in Christmases to come. Charles N. Scott, a soldier in the fifth New Hampshire Regiment, described the events planned in a letter to his wife:

We are goin to keep Christmas and we are goin to have a little funn to morrow. We are goin to have some rassslin and running and jumping and then we are goin to have a greesed pig. There is 4 dollars for the best rassler and two dollars for the second best and fore dollars for the best jumper and two for the secon best.

Despite their efforts to keep some sense of celebration for the day, most soldiers’ thoughts turned toward home and to those who celebrated Christmas without them. For these soldiers, many of whom had never been away from home, the day filled their hearts with longing. James Holloway of the 18th Mississippi Regiment described his feelings:

You have no idea how lonesome I feel this day… I presume you are in New Orleans and in a few hours the house will be astir—the children crazy over their stockings. Were I there, I’d fill them up to the brim with bon-bons—I’d make them think for one day that plenty abounded, that no war existed, and that each was a King or Queen.

These illustrations by Thomas Nast depict a Union soldier and his wife and family. Each appeared in the Christmas issues of Harper’s Weekly. On the left, published in 1862, they are separated by the war; she is at home with the children while he is on the front, each is praying for the other. Pictured between them is a row of graves. On the right, published in 1863, the same couple is pictured joyously reunited for the holidays. While some soldiers were granted furlough (a temporary leave of absence) to go home for the holidays, the war was far from over in 1863. Nast’s illustration boosted the nation’s morale by reminding them of happier Christmases past, and giving them hope for the future.

Incidentally, Thomas Nast is largely responsible for our modern American depiction of Santa Claus: See him delivering gifts to the sleeping children in the 1863 image.

The main source for this article was We Were Marching on Christmas Day by Kevin Rawlings, Toomey Press (Baltimore, Maryland), 1996.

Nicole Bryner is former Education Programs Manager at Ford’s Theatre.