Christmas During the American Civil War
Spending time with our loved ones is a hallmark of the holidays, but in times of war, many families have gone without that joy. The strain of separation was extremely difficult to bear during the American Civil War. Across the divided nation, it was common for Christmas cheer to be overshadowed by the tremendous hardships brought on by the conflict.
On the Northern side, fighting men like Robert Gould Shaw felt compelled to write, “It is Christmas morning and I hope a happy and merry one for you all, though it looks so stormy for our poor country, one can hardly be in merry humor.” From the perspective of the Confederate home front, Sallie Brock Putnam of Richmond echoed similar words, “Never before had so sad a Christmas dawned upon us… We had neither the heart nor inclination to make the week merry with joyousness when such a sad calamity hovered over us.”
"Christmas in Camp," an illustration by Thomas Nast for Harper's Weekly. (Photo: Civil War Trust)
While some could not escape from the war’s challenges during the Christmas season, others used the holiday as an escape, celebrating the best way that they could. For soldiers like Alfred Bellard of the 5th New Jersey, that meant bringing Christmas to army camp life. Bellard noted, “In order to make it look much like Christmas as possible, a small tree was stuck up in front of our tent, decked off with hard tack and pork, in lieu of cakes and oranges, etc.” On Christmas Eve, John Haley of the 17th Maine was in high spirits. He recorded in his diary, “It is rumored that there are sundry boxes and mysterious parcels over at Stoneman’s Station directed to us. We retire to sleep with feelings akin to those of children expecting Santa Claus.”
For those who were engaged in the great struggle between the states, perhaps no gift could have been greater than the precious thought of peace on earth.