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NP: December 28, 1964 Petersburg Progress-Index: Siege Centennial, Part 35: Christmas At Petersburg, 1864

Christmas At Petersburg, 1864

(The following is the thirty-fifth in a series of articles published in observance of the 1864-65 campaign for Petersburg. Some of these articles have been published on the anniversaries of events, while others deal with developments of importance. Christmas in Petersburg, 1864, is too grim a topic for anniversary treatment, but it is part of the Petersburg record, which, of course, is why these articles are presented here in the first place.)


A hundred years ago, at this time, Petersburg was suffering remorse over the hungry Christmas which its defenders had experienced and was trying to make an approaching occasion less austere.

Christmas, Petersburg, 1864, was unlike any Christmas which the already old city ever had experienced. Deprivation and shortages of all kinds had come in full force. Although records offer little such evidence—morale remained unrealistically high in the armed forces and in the civilian population—no great prescience was required to realize that the Confederate States of American had reached nadir.

In Petersburg and on the surrounding lines no additional cheer had been derived from reports of plans in the North to provide the Union forces before the city with a suitable Christmas dinner. “The Yankees,” observed the Petersburg Express, “are greater on eating than fighting at all times.”

Previously the same newspaper had complained that citizens all over Virginia were preparing to have Confederate soldiers to Christmas dinner—except in Petersburg. Because Petersburg was receiving more protection than any city in Virginia, this was very wrong, declared the Express, but it could not offer its readers any helpful hints on where and how to obtain food.

At one residence in Dinwiddie County several Confederate officers and a group of ladies and gentlemen were able to manage quite a respectable Christmas dinner and a bowl of eggnog, but it must have been exceptional. In Petersburg, Mrs. Roger A. Pryor prepared her Christmas dinner from a piece of corned beef which she had purchased for $50, boiled with peas. She made a pie of sorghum molasses, thickened with a little flour, mixed with walnut meats, and baked in a raised crust. She gave the dinner to soldiers passing her door.

As General John B. Gordon would recall it, Christmas on Hatcher’s Run in Dinwiddie was joyless enough for the most misanthropic. The railroads could not bring the necessary supplies, and the exhausted country had little to send, he explained. Modern research suggests that the supplies were more abundant than regarded and that the breakdown was in planning and transportation. There is no doubt that inefficiency or worse contributed greatly to the hunger of Petersburg and Richmond. Anyway, on Hatcher’s Run Confederate soldiers ate the wretched fare to which they were accustomed and facetiously wished each other “Merry Christmas.”

Disturbed by the Christmas showing, Petersburg directed its attention toward a New Year’s Day dinner. It came off better. Something like $35,000—in Confederate currency—was raised in the city for the purpose. If the dinner itself was not spectacular, it was good enough for one Confederate soldier to remember it as the final supreme demonstration of a people’s love and devotion. The general food situation improved slightly after the new year began.

Gloomy as the time was, it would be a mistake to judge it solely by such criteria as food and drink. Social activity was not in short supply, but usually it took the form of entertainments which were dubbed starvation balls and parties.

One of Petersburg’s defenders [William Russell of the 26th Virginia] wrote in his diary on December 26: “Last night I was on picket, Christmas night in a rifle pit, a very lonely one indeed. Only one man with me, and raining at that. . . . Would that I were a writer, I would write an essay on this subject. Christmas on the Picket Front.”1

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The Petersburg Progress-Index Siege of Petersburg Centennial Series, 1964-65:


  1. “Christmas At Petersburg, 1864.” Petersburg Progress-Index.  December 28, 1964, p. 4, col. 1-2
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