Christmas of 1862 was a bleak holiday for the men of the Union Army of the Potomac. Many, given the option, may have preferred to celebrate Festivus, the holiday created by Seinfeld character Frank Costanza. Festivus had no tree (as many of the camps did not in 1862); instead, an aluminum pole was erected. There were the feats of strength, which the Army of the Potomac had just participated in, in the form of the Battle of Fredericksburg. Of course, there too was the airing of the grievances, which many generals and soldiers alike had against their commander Major General Ambrose E. Burnside. “A Festivus for the rest of us” would have been a welcome break to the men of the Army of the Potomac. Instead, the men could look toward Christmas and a short break from the harrowing year that was 1862.
The Army of the Potomac went from the gates of Richmond to the doorstep of Washington in 1862. They had lost their beloved commander, George McClellan, and were brutally defeated on the outskirts of Fredericksburg. The Christmas of 1862 was, for much of the army, their second home-away-from-home and loved ones; as the war ground on, it would not be their last.
The observance of the Christmas holiday varied camp to camp, soldier to soldier. Some were stuck on picket duty along the banks of the Rappahannock River. The men of the 140th Pennsylvania Infantry had joined the army in the days following the Fredericksburg defeat. The unit was formed in August and September of 1862, and now these men would spend their first Christmas away from home and loved ones. The newbies were sent to the banks of the river.
While on the banks of the Rappahannock, the men started a conversation with the Mississippi troops across the cold black barrier. After a short while, small boats set sail across the river, and the green Pennsylvanians pulled cords of tobacco from their keep. The boats were refilled with cargo, this time with coffee and newspapers, and were sent back to the south bank of the river. The Christmas spirit was alive and well on the front lines.
In the camps, many of the veteran units suffered from low morale. Some men and units did not really observe the holiday. Others did what they could to make the best of tough situation. Charles Haydon of the 2nd Michigan wrote of his Christmas feast:
We made Christmas dinner on beef, hard tacks & coffee. I had fortunately completed my meal when Moore made a discovery which checked him midway in his, that the hard tacks were full of bugs and worms. This is no uncommon thing of late but his wry face was the most laughable thing of the day.
Soldiers in the 154th New York fared better in their Christmas dining. “…for breakfast we had fried pork & fried hard tacks (the hard tacks we have now are not like the ones that we used to get 3 months ago, they are now brittle sweet as any crackers & nearly as tender as soda crackers), Indiana pan cakes & molasses,” wrote Emory Sweetland. “For dinner hard tacks & coffee. For supper Indian pudding with sugar out & some tea.”
Men serving in the 1st and 6th Corps’ were spared from drilling on the holiday. In the camp of the 9th Corps, Major General Edwin Sumner held a grand review of the corps. The camps of the 2nd Corps busied themselves with constructing log huts for winter quarters. Others in the 2nd Corps cooked bean soup “…which was very good…” In the Signal Corps commissaries were issuing, “whiskey to all those applied for it.” The next day the Army of the Potomac “was as drunk as an owl….” David Beem of the 14th Indiana claimed that the army was on a “general Christmas drunk.”
Those soldiers not on a drunken bender wrote that the Christmas of 1862 was “dull.” Letter after letter, diary after diary recorded the word dull. The landscape of Stafford County, Virginia was quickly turning into a barren wasteland as nearly 135,000 Union soldiers spread out across the country side. Wood for fires and building cabins was harder and harder to come by, and soldiers had to travel farther to retrieve it. Prospects of the war ending by Christmas 1863 also looked hopeless. Yet many of the soldiers did what they could to cheer themselves. Letters from home “were welcome Christmas presents.”
Still, some of the men refused to allow the war to dampen their holiday cheer and turned to music to lift their spirits. On Christmas Eve, men of the 106th Pennsylvania “… got up a band; violin, tamporin, banjoe and bones. Also a glee club….
So we started out and serenaded several quartermasters, where whe was welcomed and treated with respect. I must say as whe done so well whe at last ventured to serenade our Col and the Col of the first Calafornia where whe was again welcomed and asked to come in and take some of that what makes people merry on such occasions.”
Those not in the singing and drinking mood adorned camps with boughs of evergreen. The evergreen brightened the bleak camps with color while helping to mask the awful smell of the vast campground.
In the days before and after Christmas, packages arrived from home. Newspapers, cakes, dried meats filled the packages. Many soldiers opened the packages with delight and shared the contents with their messmates.
In the end, it was up to each soldier and his pards as to how they would or would not recognize the Christmas holiday. Be it writing letters home, eating, drinking, or doing their best to forget the holiday all together, the men did what they could to cope. Unfortunately for this army, the “Valley Forge Winter” was just getting started. At least for some of the men, Christmas was a welcome break from war.