Christmas during the nineteenth century was much different from what it is now. It was not even the main holiday of the season until late in the century. Originally, Christmas was a religious holiday, and the first day of a celebration which lasted until January 6, or Twelfth Night. The actual day of December 25 was spent at home and, if possible, at church services. It was a quiet day of family activity, including a memorable family dinner–the last “quiet” day until after January 6, for many.
After Christmas, the next big event was New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. It was a week after the twenty-fifth, giving time for traveling, visiting friends and relatives, and enjoying long bouts of hospitality. It was also the time when the Old Year was thought about, judged, and then discarded. All hopes were pinned upon the New Year, full of delight and promise!
During the Civil War, holidays were kept, as much as possible, by soldiers lonely for home and the traditions with which they had grown up. Christmas in the Army camps was often cold, cheerless and achingly difficult for the young men who were marching, in bivouac, or otherwise occupied. Chaplains did their best to remind the men of Jesus’ promise of hope at a variety of religious services. Boxes from home, lovingly prepared, were shared with friends and messmates, but there was nothing even near what many soldiers had been used to.
This contrasted greatly with the New Year celebrations, which were about partying, good cheer, and hope for the morrow. Almost every Civil War diary tells about the New Year in camp, and how it was celebrated.
New Year’s Day, January the 1st, 1863. Last night the soldiers bade the old year good by in a very soldier like manner. Wishing, I suppose, to pay the old year a proper tribute as he, like an old soldier, was about to take his departance from “time to eternity,” and having no better way, they resorted to the following manner of paying their respects. Though it seemed that no prearranged plan had been adopted, and everyone seemed to act upon his own responsibility, about eight o’clock a gun was fired, then another and another, until one would have supposed that quite a battle was in progress. Every man that had a gun or could borrow one was out and popping away as fast as he could load and fire. The firing increased until there was one continual rattle of musketry.
Orders were sent to the street sergeants to put a stop to the firing, but blaze–blaze–pop–pop–went the guns. “Cease firing,” screamed the sergeant but bang-bang went the guns. Bullets whistles and the men shouted until the whole encampment was in a perfect uproar. But at last the firing died away, and the old year was allowed to depart in peace. Van R. Willard, 3rd Wisconsin Badgers.
Willard’s camp was not the only one in which firing guns was the main way of “ringing” in the New Year. Sherman’s Army, in Savannah, did the same thing.
January 1, 1865. To day we are on picket and camp guard. To day is newyears. The boys fired lots of shot . . . and musketz last night. One more year past and gone and a new year come and a cold morning. Today the lady of the Christian Sanitary Commission gave us a lot of pies. I can tell you they were very good. They were mince pies. Private Jefferson Moses, Company G, 93rd Illinois Volunteers.
Eugene Goodwin, who wrote January of 1861: I have never before been so unsettled about the future as I am at the commencement of this New Year, when he was teaching school in Pond Run, Ohio, also wrote January, 1862: At daylight the band serenaded the Colonel playing Home Sweet Home, etc. Last year at this time I was in Ohio teaching school. Now I am in the U. S. Army . . . at Camp Hamilton near Fort Monroe, Va. I hope I shall be able to do something for my country this year. Eugene Goodwin, 99th New York Infantry Regiment.
By the beginning of 1864, the Civil War had dragged on and on. Even with significant victories for the Union, no real end was in sight. Eugene Goodwin was hopeful, however. His diary entry shows not only his optimism, but his deep faith, both of which would be sorely tried in the last full year of the War.
January, 1864. A pleasant day. I hope that if I live to see the close of this war, that I can look back upon it with greater satisfaction than the last year. If I live to return to New Jersey, I hope that I shall appreciate Sabbath privileges more highly than I ever did before in my life. I am determined to try and do more good, by example and precept, than I ever did before. I think when I review my past life that I might have done much more for the cause of God. I am sorry that I have neglected so many precious opportunities. May God, for Christ’s sake, help me to do my duty. Amen! I am very thankful, indeed, that God in great mercy has spared my unprofitable life thus far through this war. Eugene Goodwin, 99th New York Infantry Regiment.
Probably the most famous diarist of the Civil War–on the Union side, at least–is Elisha Hunt Rhodes. His New Year’s entries span four years, and several theaters of war.
Washington Jany 1st 1862, Headquarters Keyes’ Division–At 12 o’clock noon General Keyes, accompanied by Generals Couch, Peck and Graham with their respective staffs, called upon President Lincoln. General Keyes was dressed in his ordinary uniform with shoulder straps, trousers tucked into his boot tops and with cover on his forage cap. The other generals wore full dress uniforms, chapeaux, and presented a marked contrast to General Keyes. This amused General Keyes very much, and he commented on it upon his return, and ended with his usual threat to send us back to our Regiments if we ever repeated anything that he had said.
Washington has been very gay today and the streets full of people out for a holiday. Officers in showy uniforms and ladies elegantly dressed are making New Year calls.
Near Falmouth, Va., Dec. 31/62–Well, the year 1862 is drawing to a close. As I look back I am bewildered when I think of the hundreds of miles I have tramped, the thousands of dead and wounded that I have seen, and the many strange sights that I have witnessed. I can truly thank god for his preserving care over me and the many blessings I have received. One year ago tonight I was an enlisted man and stood cap in hand asking for a furlough. Tonight I am an officer and men ask the same favor of me. It seems to me right that officers should rise from the ranks, for only such can sympathize with the private soldiers. The year has not amounted to much as far as the War is concerned, but we hope for the best and feel sure that in the end the Union will be restored. Good bye, 1862.
Camp Sedgewick, Brandy Station, Va., Jany 1st 1864–The new year opens without any important events. The troops are in comfortable quarters, built of logs and covered with canvas. Drill takes place daily and an occasional review breaks up the monotony of our camp life. The men are still re-enlisting for the remainder of the war and I hope to be sent home soon on my leave of absence.
Trenches Before Petersburg, Va., Sunday Jany 1st 1865–New Years Day again and this is the fourth that I have passed in the U. S. Army. The war drags on, but we feel that we are gaining all the time, and when Petersburg and Richmond fall, as they must soon, the war will end. I am grateful to God for all his mercies toward me and that I am spared in health and strength to do my share towards restoring the Union. . .
Elisha Hunt Rhodes, 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers.
Most Civil War letters and diaries end in April of 1865. For the soldiers who got this far, the New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day of 1865-66 must have been among the most heartfelt ones in the lives of these men and their families. There was much to remember, much to be grateful for, and much change ahead.
Many men were ill, maimed in body and soul. Many did not easily “fit in” to their old lives, and had little in common with former friends who had not served. Life would never be the same. War service, then as now, changes one’s world.
Let us remember that as our Iraq veterans return home this winter.
With the 3rd Wisconsin Badgers / Van R. Willard
All For the Union / Elisha Hunt Rhodes