December 25, 1864 was greeted throughout the south without much of the joy and celebration that typically marks the Christmas season. Confederate armies were on the retreat from lost strongholds or huddled behind the cold, earthen walls that protected the remaining few. A handful of lucky officers in the Army of Northern Virginia managed to secure furloughs to return home or could afford to bring their families up to Petersburg and Richmond. Most spent a lonely holiday away from loved ones. Captain Benjamin Wesley Justice, commissary for MacRae’s Brigade, wrote a letter from “Santa” for his young children to read on Christmas morning and instructed his wife to place it in the stocking, hardly stuffed, which hung over the fire.
Dear Little Friends,
Again I greet you with a “Merry Christmas” & a “Happy New Year” – but oh how much merrier & happier it might be to us all if this cruel war was over. Then your father among other loved ones might return.
May the “God of battles” soon send us an honorable peace & may we love & serve Him better. I regret that I have no handsome presents for you this winter, but look your stockings are not empty.
I hope you will be better children when I make my next visit.
I remain yours &c
Dec. 24, 1864
Justice used the disappointing Christmas morning haul of presents as a teaching tool for his kids and made sure to slip a mention of himself into the letter. “Santa” penned another letter to his wife on Christmas day and emptied his heart with melancholy thoughts of his home along the Neuse River near Raleigh, North Carolina. “I love to remember the little Christmas tree & the innocent enjoyment of our sweet children,” he wrote. “I recall with pleasure our care & pains in preparing it. O my God, when shall I see those pleasant hours again! When shall I engage with those dear loved ones in such innocent amusement again! Shall I ever meet you all again in that quiet little cottage! Today I have longed for home & its sacred peace & quiet with more intense, aching yearnings than ever before.”
He continued: “I thought of my distant home; of the little socks hung by the chimney with care & the simple little presents left in them by Santa Claus for the interesting & interested little boys; of the delight with which they run from their beds to examine the little store & of the greetings of that dear group as they meet around the warm fireside.”
The commissary officer’s stomach growled as he wrote: “And to think of the morning meal, the nice butter, the rich milk, the hot coffee, the nice biscuit, the hot waffle or buttercakes…” The handwriting becomes sloppy as Justice continues. He apologizes and admits down the page that he fell asleep at his desk, alone on Christmas, and had to finish the letter the next day.
The Benjamin Wesley Justice letters are located in the Manuscript and Rare Book Library, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.