Sundry Boxes and Mysterious Parcels
Today, the holidays bring lots of food, presents, and time spent with family and loved ones. Between 1861 and 1864, families were often separated, and the overall tone of the holidays was one of solemn reflection. Ann Godwin Figgat (Nannie), of Fincastle, Virginia, spent Christmas in 1862 with her young son while her husband was with the 1st Virginia Cavalry. She reflected on the holidays in her diary: “Christmas Day! when we sh’d all feel joyful, because of the birth of a Saviour on this benighted & ruined world. Oh! may I always feel that holy joy, & a thankful heart… I felt sad, very sad, for others hearts are this day bleeding because of the absence of dead ones never again to be assembled around the family fireside. “[i]
Those families, like Nannie, who had husbands, brothers, or sons off at war, compiled Christmas boxes filled with food, supplies, and small luxuries. These boxes provided the much needed respite from the loneliness and separation from their families. John Haley, of the 17th Maine, declared in his diary the anticipation of the possibility of a box one Christmas Eve. He wrote: “It is rumored that there are sundry boxes and mysterious parcels over at Stoneman’s Station directed to us. We retire to sleep with feelings akin to those of children expecting Santa Claus.”[ii] He continues on Christmas Day:
It was a dismal day but rendered quite endurable by the anticipation of what was in store in our boxes. On returning to camp, I was informed by my tentmate that there was no parcel at the station bearing my name. My mental thermometer not only plummeted to below zero, it got right down off the nail and lay on the floor. Seeing this, my tentmate made haste to dive under the bed and produce the box, which he brought from the station during my absence, and in but a few minutes we were busy discussing the merits of its merits. Most of the men have been remembered, and any that have not received something from home are allowed to share with their more fortunate neighbors.[iii]
Nannie wrote to her husband Charlie on December 28th, 1863, describing in detail the contents of his Christmas box. She, her extended family, and several friends all joined together to find bits and pieces to remind him of home to place in his box. It is unclear when Charlie received his box or what he thought of it; however, the effort that went into creating such a small piece of home is apparent as Nannie documents every last detail:
The sausage, pudding, butter, potatoes, beans, dried apples (in the paper bag), apple-butter, [and] apples…were sent by your dear parents. My Ma sent the rest of the dried apples, the small jar of pickle, cakes & bottle of molasses….She bids me tell you that if she had known, you w’d get the box as soon as no doubt you will, she w’d have contributed some chickens & eggs also, & Godwin had a “creepy rooster” w’h he was going to send you, too, but we feared you might be too long getting it, & thus all be spoiled. Godwin sent you a pony w’h “Christmas Hinkle” put in his haversack, up at Grandma Figgats. Mary says its for you to come home on, but he says no, its for you to eat….
Your Pa made [the box] so nicely, & your “little darling wife,” only put in the jars of peach pickle w’h I made for you last summer, & sealed , & and have not looked at since, but hope you will find them good. The dried damsons I also put up for you. In the pocket of your coat, you will find a pr of socks, two collars, & pr of gloves, w’h last I hope fit you, & are what you desired as I had only to guess that your hand was probably about the size of Pa’s. I have the vanity to think they are right nice for the first trial, & hope my dear Charlie will wear them….The ½ cheese was sent you by Mrs. Rebecca Gray…Ella told me to tell you she put a bundle of love in one corner of the box…[iv]
I was worried about not being able to get more to put in your box. You haven’t got such a wife as Jim McD[owell] has, Nan runs round, & gathers up this & that & sends him [a] box anytime, but poor me, I sit & expect things to come to me I reckon. But it seems to me I don’t have the opportunities, or know so many people to get things from as she does, & then she has plenty of money that one thing needful. It makes me feel a little envious, not my dear Charlie for my own self, except the pleasure it gives me, to contribute to the comfort, & pleasure of my darling husband….Oh how I do wish on Xmas morning that I had about $100 just to distribute good things to those who had so much less of the good things of life than I have, for I do not wish for more…[v]
All throughout camp, soldiers hoped and waited for their Christmas boxes to arrive. Sometimes the excitement was a bit of a letdown, especially in the case of Confederate prisoner Henry Kyd Douglas:
My box contained more cause for merriment and speculation as to its contents than satisfaction. It had received rough treatment on its way, and a bottle of catsup had broken and its contents very generally distributed through the box. Mince pie and fruit cake saturated with tomato catsup was about as palatable as “embalmed beef” of the Cuban memory; but there were other things. Then, too, a friend had sent me in a package a bottle of old brandy. On Christmas morning I quietly called several comrades up to my bunk to taste the precious fluid of…DISAPPOINTMENT! The bottle had been opened outside, the brandy taken and replaced with water, adroitly recorded, and sent in. I hope the Yankee who played that practical joke lived to repent it and was shot before the war ended.[vi]
So, in this holiday season, enjoy the food, friends, and family surrounding you, and think of all the Federal and Confederate soldiers, each anxiously waiting for the little reminders of home, stuffed in a wooden box.
[i] Nannie Figgat, Dear Nannie…yours devotedly, Charlie: Nannie Figgat Chronicles Mid-19th Century Southwest Virginia through the Diary, Recipes and Correspondence, ed. Gail McMillan and Jean C. Robbins (Botetourt: Botetourt County Historical Society, 2013), 92.
[ii] John Haley, The Rebel Yell and the Yankee Hurrah: The Civil War Journal of a Maine Volunteer, (Camden: Down East Books, 2014) 64.
[iii] Ibid., 64.
[iv] Nannie Figgat, 118.
[v] Ibid, 117.
[vi] Henry Kyd Douglas, I Rode with Stonewall, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).
Figgat, Ann Godwin. Dear Nannie…yours devotedly, Charlie: Nannie Figgat Chronicles Mid-19th Century Southwest Virginia through the Diary, Recipes and Correspondence, edited by Gail McMillan and Jean C. Robbins. Botetourt: Botetourt County Historical Society, 2013.
Haley, John. The Rebel Yell and Yankee Hurrah: The Civil War Journal of a Maine Volunteer. Camden: Down East Books, 2014.
Douglas, Henry Kyd. I Rode with Stonewall. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.
4 Responses to Sundry Boxes and Mysterious Parcels
Always a pleasure to read Ashley Webb’s posts about the “other side” of the war…entertaining & thought provoking!
Thank you, Tommy, for such a kind comment! I’m so glad you enjoy them!
Enjoyable Christmas reading !
I’m so glad you enjoyed it, David! Thanks for stopping by!