December 25, 1864: Christmas in the Trenches at the Siege of Petersburg
Christmas day 1864 occurred 150 years ago today. On both sides, soldiers hunkered down in the trenches surrounding Petersburg and attempted to celebrate as a horrific war and a horrific campaign ground relentlessly on. The Confederates in particular were hard pressed to find joy, or even a good meal, to commemorate the day. On Christmas Day 2014, I’m going to try something a little different. I’ve collected memories of the Christmas of 1864 at the Siege of Petersburg from various regimental histories, hopefully giving you a small sense of what Christmas on the front lines of a bloody war was like for the men who fought in it.
39th Illinois, 1st Brigade, 1st Division, 24th Corps, Army of the James
December 24th, the band of the Thirty-Ninth came to the hospital in the evening chaperoned by the hospital steward, Anthony De Normandie. After some music in front of our headquarters, we showed them the way to the quarters of Miss Barton, where several pieces were played, and at last we were invited in to take a little milk-punch, provided for us, together with a “Christmas eve” collation. After doing the “nice thing” by the band we returned to the writer’s quarters, where we found the band of the Eighth Connecticut, who had also come down for a little stimulation. In proceeding farther we met with General Osborn and his acting Assistant-Adjutant-General, Captain Nevins, and at once ordered in egg-nog, for this was possible, as we had a large number of hens connected with the hospital and belonging to Surgeon Richardson. The affair was enjoyed amazingly, and the “wee sma’ hours” approached before we were permitted to go to bed.
The Thirty-Ninth and the Eighth Connecticut bands took turns in giving us music, and when invited inside were as zealous in appropriating “something to wet their lips.'” The whisky was bought from the division commissary, and how they ever got home was a “nine days’ wonder” to us.
Before leaving, the bands got considerably mixed, and in playing their “finale” it was impossible to state whether it was “Schubert’s Serenade,” the “Mocking Bird,” or the “Volunteer’s Return.” However, they did their best, and we have never yet seen members of a band who could not keep their legs, and the necessary “pucker” of lip.1
21st Connecticut, 3rd Brigade, 3rd Division, 24th Corps, Army of the James
After a few weeks great preparations were made for the approaching Christmas and New Year. The camp was beautifully trimmed with evergreens, the entrance of each street being graced with green arches, the cedar boughs interspersed with red holly berries, arranged in fantastic forms, and each tent was adorned according to the taste of its occupant, some of them presenting a fit subject for the artist’s pencil.
I wish I might here record the arrival of the Christmas turkeys so liberally contributed by our friends at home, for the benefit of their soldier friends, fathers and brothers, in the field. We had been led to expect a perfect feast of good things; but to our great disappointment, and to the shame of whoever was the cause of it, they failed to reach us. We had received word that a large box had been forwarded expressly for the Twenty-first, from Norwich. And our mouths were all made up for a good taste of mince pies, roast turkeys, etc., etc., and as the day approached, frequent were the inquiries if the box had come. But no box came, and we were compelled to put up with our usual allowance of salt pork and hard tack. And I deem this a fitting occasion to state for the information of our friends, that not one fourth of the contributions for the regiment as a regiment have ever been received. I am unable to state at present upon whom the blame should fall.
But should the eye of any concerned chance to fall upon this account, it is hoped that they will be careful to conceal all evidence against them, for, should they ever be discovered, their reputation will most decidedly suffer in this regiment. But, notwithstanding the loss of our Christmas dinner, the day, though wet and muddy, was given up to festivity. And when the chance is given, one need not fear that ” the boys” will fail to make merry. The men were relieved from all duty not absolutely necessary, and “got upon their muscle,” and a vast amount of laughter by their sack and hurdle races, greased poles, greased pigs, pursuit of wealth under difficulties, wrestling matches, etc., ending up with a mock dress parade. And Jack Falstaff’s crew certainly never presented a more ludicrous appearance than these Christmas votaries in their improvised rags and costumes, and Christy himself could not surpass the paper collars here displayed.
If you ever have occasion to get up a “rag-shag” procession in Connecticut, don’t fail to call on the Twenty-first. Their ingenuity in the line of costumes cannot be surpassed. The band, as it marched down the line, each member playing a different tune, and the bass drummer occasionally mistaking (accidentally of course), the unsuspecting pate of his file leader for the drum, and the huge appendage, like a fish’s tail protruding from under the coat tails of No. I, by his side, wagging in unmistakable approval, afforded infinite amusement to the crowd of spectators, although fearfully suggestive of a place called Bedlam.
Although it was a day of merriment long to be remembered; and if anyone retired that night without sore sides and an extra pound or two of flesh, it was not from lack of fun. New Year passed in a similar manner, and then followed another quiet spell.2
8th USCT, 2nd Brigade, 2nd Division, 25th Corps, Army of the James
Letter of Oliver W. Norton, December 26, 1864:
My Dear Sister L.:—
This will not reach you in time to present my respects in a “Merry Christmas,” so I will wish you a “Happy New Year” and many returns of the season, and tell you how I spent my Christmas. There are so few Sundays in the army that the occurrence of the holiday on that day was no drawback. The military part of the festivity was a Division Dress Parade and the social, or our social part was a dinner at “Ye Quartermaster’s.” Lieutenant Burrows is a capital hand at carrying out anything of that kind and he determined to do the thing up right.
We had two guests, Colonel Samuel C. Armstrong, of the Eighth [USCT], and Lieutenant Colonel Mayer of the Forty-fifth [USCT], two men who would be considered acquisitions in almost any social circle. Colonel A. was born in the Sandwich Islands and Colonel M. in Buenos Ayres, South America, and both are full of stories of adventure, travel and society. Mayer is the hero of half a dozen duels, which is not much of a recommendation, I know, but the custom of his country makes it a very different thing from dueling here.
I will not undertake to describe our dinner in detail, but we had oyster soup, fish boiled, roast fowl (chicken) and mutton, potatoes, peas and tomatoes, oysters, fried and raw, and for dessert mince pie, fruit cake, apples, peaches, grapes, figs, raisins, nuts, etc., and coffee, and for wassail a rousing bowl of punch. The band of the regiment played in front of the house during dinner, and the leader says he played three hours. The long and short of it is we had as elegant and recherche an affair as often comes off in the army, enjoyed ourselves thoroughly and nobody went home drunk.3
155th Pennsylvania, 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, 5th Corps, Army of the Potomac
December 25, 1864, Christmas Day, the United States Sanitary Commission, backed by the good people of the North, treated the Army of the Potomac to many delicacies. Many of the One Hundred and Fifty-fifth thought the distribution of the good things should have commenced with the enlisted men and ended with the officers, instead of vice versa, as was the fact. After the officers were supplied, each enlisted man of the One Hundred and Fifty-fifth received this day one large apple or two small ones. New Year’s, 1865, falling upon Sunday, January 2d was observed instead. A reception was tendered the commissioned and the non-commissioned officers of the Third Brigade by General Bartlett, Brigade commander, at his headquarters. The non-commissioned officers of the One hundred and Fifty-fifth and of other regiments proceeded in a body to pay their respects to General Warren, at his corps headquarters. General Warren cordially welcomed their friendly visit, and feasted them royally. In the afternoon the privates of the Regiment, after enjoying well their feast of hardtack and one apple apiece, indulged in games of ball, boxing, wrestling matches and other amusements. During this holiday period and resting in camp, many furloughs were granted to the Third Brigade, the One Hundred and Fifty-fifth receiving its due share. During the holidays and continuing the entire month of January, 1865, many Confederate deserters came into the Union line, an indication that the Confederates were rapidly losing hope of the success of their cause. These deserters, coming in often in squads of five or six, declared that Lee’s army was almost on the verge of demoralization from starvation and exposure, and the ragged clothing and half-famished condition of these specimens strongly corroborated their assertions.4
2nd New York Heavy Artillery, 1st Brigade, 1st Division, 2nd Corps, Army of the Potomac
A BOX FROM HOME.
If any of you ever have a father, son or brother in far distant parts, don’t forget to send him an occasional box of good things from the old home. He may have an abundance, but even then he will appreciate the loving remembrances; but if he is undergoing the hardships and privations of a soldier’s life it will touch his heart more than any other act of your life.
Two of our mess were remembered with a bounteous box of good things the Christmas we were in the trenches before Petersburg. Talk about your banquets! Your Delmonico spreads; your nine-course dinner! They cannot compare with that Christmas feast of home made mince pies, fruit cake, plum pudding, old fashioned twisted doughnuts, raspberry jam and other good things from home.
And even those who were without mother or sister at home received through the Sanitary or Christian commissions many evidences that their devotion to their country’s cause was lovingly remembered by the patriotic women of the North.
Those were stirring days, and even the little children worked for the soldiers. Their little hands were busy rolling bandages, knitting and helping the various “Aid societies.”
Among my wartime keepsakes is the photograph of a little Pennsylvania girl, 10 years old. It came to me in a “Soldier’s Companion” containing needles, thread, buttons and other articles useful to a soldier. The child had made it and tucked a dainty little note inside with her picture, requesting the recipient to write to her, which I did from the front of Petersburg and received a very beautiful letter in reply.5
17th Virginia, Corse’s Brigade, Pickett’s Division, First Corps, Army of Northern Virginia
Christmas day passed very quietly. There were neither fine dinners nor jovial parties to be found among the troops on the Howlett’s Line; some apple dumplings were enjoyed in camp, and several invitations were extended by the Yanks for our pickets “to step over and drink with them,” but these were declined.
An elegant dinner of the “good things of life” was received by our Regiment, on the 29th, from the citizens living in the vicinity of Flat Creek, in token of their appreciation of our successes in defending the bridges near that point in May, 1864. The substantial and delicacies were alike acceptable, and received unequivocal attention from each recipient, as the following announcement will show:
[From The Richmond Papers.]
“The following is nobly conceived and beautifully said; and it comes from a regiment that, from the 18th of July, 1861, to this day, has signalized its courage on as many battle-fields, and won as proud a name, as any that marches under the banners of our beloved Confederacy.’
“We take much pleasure in complying with the request to publish it:
“Camp Seventeenth Virginia Infantry,
“January 1, 1865.
“To the Citizens of Amelia county, Va.:
“With much gratitude and pleasure, we acknowledge the receipt of your liberal donation of a Christmas dinner, through the hands of Rev. Mr. Littleton—a donation all the more appreciated from its being unexpected.”
“We accept it as a spontaneous overflow of kind sympathy for soldiers unknown to you, and whose only claim upon your notice was a simple act of duty. As refugees, we appreciate the donation highly, and still more the motive that prompted it. It adds another incentive to nerve us for coming trials and dangers in a cause so sacred and dear to us all, and we will ever look back upon it as a pleasant episode in our history as a Regiment.”
“May a kind Providence ever protect the homes and hearthstones of such friendly and sympathetic hearts.”
“We send you our greetings for the New Year: May it be a happy and prosperous one, and may you ever have as willing hearts to defend you, in your need, as beat in the breasts of your friends,”
“The Officers And Soldiers Of The
“Seventeenth Virginia Infantry.”
The people of Richmond, and of other parts of the State, attempted to raise, by contribution, a grand New Year’s dinner for General Lee’s army, and after a great flourish of trumpets through the mouths of the daily papers, for at least some ten days previous to the time— it came.
It was certainly a large donation, and spoke well for the generosity of its donors, but there was bad management in its distribution; consequently, great waste. Our Regiment received 42 pounds of meat, 20 loaves of bread, and 1 peck of vegetables—a quantity insufficient for more than one company, hence, the different companies concluded to draw lots for it, and Co. B was the winner.
The soldiers in the trenches having heard of this prospective feast, as a natural consequence, had their mouths watering in anticipation; and had pictured for their own special enjoyment, smoking turkeys, with gravy sauce and stuffing, mince pies, and currant tarts, while some, no doubt, had visions of “plum-pudding;” but, alas! for such expectations! they toiled on, poor fellows! without realizing any nearer enjoyment of tempting viands than was afforded by their daily rations.6
15th Alabama, Law’s (Perry’s) Brigade, Field’s Division, First Corps, Army of Northern Virginia
In December orders came for us to build huts preparatory to spending the winter there. We were glad to hear that, and the boys went to work in earnest, and soon had comfortable huts to protect them from the sleet and snow. We were just in the rear of our breastworks and in plain view of the Yankee works of their outpost. It was an admirable position and I always wanted the Yankees to attack us there in heavy force, but they never came. We spent Christmas in quietude but our head commanders had not forgotten the old custom of having a dram on Christmas morning, consequently unexpected to us a small quantity (but enough) was issued to each man. There was some that refused, and his share was prorated, in order that all would share alike. Rations were scarce, and some days we would get real hungry. They had been reduced, and it caused hunger.7
2nd, 3rd, 7th, 8th, 15th and 20th South Carolina Regiments, 3rd South Carolina Battalion, (Kennedy’s) Brigade, Kershaw’s Division, First Corps, Army of Northern Virginia
When we had about finished our huts we were moved out of them and further to the right, in quarters that Hoke’s Division had built. These were the most comfortable quarters we occupied during the war. They consisted of log huts twelve by fourteen, thoroughly chinked with mud and straw, some covered with dirt, others with split boards. We had splendid breastworks in front of us, built up with logs on the inside and a bank of earth from six to eight feet in depth ou the outside, a ditch of three or four feet beyond and an escarpment inside. At salients along the line forts for the artillery were built, but not now manned, and in front of our lines and around our forts mines or torpedoes were sunk, which would explode by tramping on the earth above them.
At these mines were little sticks about three feet long stuck in the ground with a piece of blue flannel tied to the end to attract the attention of our pickets going out. But hundreds of white sticks, exactly like those above the mines, were stuck into the earth every three feet for a distance of forty feet all around, but these were marked red instead of blue. This was so that the enemy, in case of a charge, or spies coming in at night, could not distinguish harmless stakes from those of the torpedo. We picketed in front and had to pass through where these stakes were posted single file, along little paths winding in and out among them. The men were led out and in by guides and cautioned against touching any, for fear of mistake and being blown up. It is needless to say these instructions were carried out to the letter and no mistake ever made. On several occasions, even before we had our first quarters completed, a report would come occasionally that the enemy was approaching or quartered near our front, and out we would go to meet them, but invariably it proved to be a false alarm or the enemy had retired…
The ladies of Richmond had promised the soldiers a great Christmas dinner on Christinas day, but from some cause or other our dinner did not materialize. But the soldiers fared very well. Boxes from home were now in order, and almost every day a box or two from kind and loving friends would come in to cheer and comfort them.8
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all readers of The Siege of Petersburg Online. I wish you and yours the very best, and I hope you join me as I recount the last few months of the longest and bloodiest campaign of the entire Civil War.
- The History of the Thirty-Ninth Regiment Illinois Volunteer Veteran Infantry, (Yates Phalanx. ) in the War of the Rebellion. 1861-1865, page 242 ↩
- The story of the Twenty-first regiment, Connecticut volunteer infantry, during the Civil War. 1861-1865, pages 360–362 ↩
- Army Letters, 1861-1865: Being Extracts from Private Letters to Relatives and Friends from a Soldier in the Field During the Late Civil War…, pages 246–247 ↩
- Under the Maltese cross, Antietam to Appomattox, the loyal uprising in western Pennsylvania, 1861-1865, page 331 ↩
- Drum Taps in Dixie: Memories of a Drummer Boy, 1861-1865, pages 148–149 ↩
- History of the Seventeenth Virginia Infantry, C.S.A., pages 208–210 ↩
- Recollections of War Times: How I Got In, and How I Got Out By an Old Veteran, while under Stonewall Jackson and James Longstreet, Volume 2, pages 223–224 ↩
- History of Kershaw’s Brigade, page 472 ↩
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