The war was over, and peace had come at last. But Christmas that year was marred by a tremendous gale which swept along the Atlantic coast on December 20, wrecking many ships and drowning some of the people who had ventured out to sea on them.
In New York, the weather was still bad on Christmas Eve. Rain, slush, and snow kept many at home who would otherwise have gone to church or visited relatives. The weather spoiled the skating too, which had been good early in the month. Fortunately, the weather cleared on Christmas Day, although the rain had melted all the snow.
Turkeys sold at 23¢ a pound; prime beef brought 35¢. These were high prices for the time, inflated as a result of the war. But there was plenty of food. The markets were filled with heaps of venison, suckling pigs, canvasback ducks, geese, chickens, quail, prairie hens, partridges, and the now-extinct wild pigeons. The demand was good–much better than it had been the year before.
Just a week before Christmas, on Monday, December 18, Secretary of State Seward had made an official announcement of major importance. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was a war measure that declared the slaves to be free only in the seceded states. There was some doubt about the legal validity of this in peacetime, and to settle such doubt Congress had passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution on February 1 1865.
The wording of the 13th Amendment was couched in language that was older than the Constitution itself, for it was based on phrases used in the ordinance of July 13, 1787, which had created the Northwest Territory where slavery was specifically forbidden. The new Amendment stated that, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
With the ratification of the 13th Amendment, the war that had just been fought took on new meaning. It had not only preserved the Union but had abolished slavery as well. The promises made in the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, had at last been made good. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
On Christmas 1865, the nation no longer divided, celebrated for the first time a new birth of freedom in the land.
reprinted from The Civil War Christmas Album, by Philip Van Doren Stern