As 1862 faded into memory, Christmas approached for the horse soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia and Army of the Potomac. Camped in the Rappahannock River Valley following the Battle of Fredericksburg, their experiences that holiday varied from one man to the next. Away from their loved ones at home and caught in the midst of bloody conflict, many, in the words of Charles Dickens, simply hoped to turn their eyes “to the blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode.”
On Christmas Eve, Robert E. Lee dictated a letter of congratulations to his cavalry chief, Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart. Lee “took great pleasure in expressing…gratification” at the recent successful expeditions launched by one of Stuart’s brigade commanders, Brig. Gen. Wade Hampton. “Please express to General Hampton my high sense of his service, my just appreciation of the conduct of the officers and men of his command, and my congratulations on his complete success without the loss of a man” he directed.
Stuart was also busy that day. At his headquarters several miles south of Fredericksburg along the Telegraph Road, he hosted a Christmas dinner for his officers. Among the fare was turkey, chicken, ham and apple brandy. For Christmas, Stuart joined Lee and Second Corps commander Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in the manor house near Jackson’s headquarters, Moss Neck. Emboldened by Hampton’s recent success, Stuart launched a raid behind Union lines beginning on December 26.
Union cavalry also remained active in the days leading up to and on Christmas. Brigadier General William W. Averell, who had been embarrassed at the end of November when Wade Hampton swooped down and captured a contingent from the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry at Hartwood Church, kept scouts and patrols out in the direction of Warrenton, west of the Union lines.
On the eastern end of Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s army, the 8th Illinois Cavalry went out on picket to relieve the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry in King George County. “On reaching the place” wrote the Illinoisans’ historian, “the officers of the latter regiment were found keeping a Christmas holiday, and were intoxicated. Lieutenant-Colonel [David] Clendennin, in command, reported them to headquarters, which created quite a sensation among those interested. If more such reports had been made it would have been better for the army.”
For troopers in the 6th New York Cavalry, Christmas Eve was “devoted to hunting turkeys for Christmas dinner.” The next morning, the men enjoyed pancakes for breakfast.
On Christmas Eve, in their camp on Potomac Creek, a member of the 1st Rhode Island quoted Clement Clark Moore’s poem A Visit from St. Nicholas, in a letter to the Narragansett Weekly. “We hardly expect “Santa” Claus will find us away out here, this dark night, in the pines of old Virginia, where desolation has marked the course of the contending armies” he lamented. Another comrade, J.A. Babcock also quoted Moore on Christmas Day. “What a flood of recollections rush upon my mind, as I think of former- anniversaries of the much-looked-for day, from the time when nothing but “visions of sugar-plums danced through my head,” down to later years, when social gatherings and reunions were sure to celebrate it in perhaps a greater, but none the less happy manner. How different the surroundings here!…the merry jingle of Christmas bells is exchanged for the sounds of the bugle and drum.” That night, a concert was given by members of the regiment for the headquarters and staff. “We only missed the comforts, gifts, and “Merry Christmas” salutations of our New England homes” one soldier lamented.
On Christmas Eve, Pvt. Sidney Davis’ squadron from the 6th U.S. Cavalry left their camp and marched up the river from Fredericksburg and went on picket duty. Davis had been detached on other service and rode out on Christmas morning to join his comrades. Cresting the heights beyond Falmouth, a lone Confederate infantryman caught Davis’ eye. The Southerner shouted “Merry Christmas” and raised his canteen to Davis. The Regular saluted and continued his journey. A little farther on, Davis encountered a German from Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel’s XI Corps, who offered him a drink. Davis politely declined and wished him a “happy Christmas” before riding on.
And so Christmas came and went along the Rappahannock. Soon, the horse soldiers in blue and gray would meet in the new year on fields in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.