The Arrival of a Christmas Box in Camp

The Knox boys in the 30th Virginia Regiment spent the final ten months of the Civil War in the trenches of the Howlett Line. This line of Confederate defenses spanned the Bermuda Hundred area, and the soldiers here spent days on-edge with enemy soldiers just a few hundred yards distant.

The young men from the Knox Family (originally from the Fredericksburg area) wrote rather frequently to their homefront family and fortunately many of the letters survived. Here are excerpt from one written in December 1864 with details about the arrival of a Christmas box.

Considering the high inflation, lack of supplies, and uncertainty of that year in Confederate Virginia, the package for the Knox boys is probably the exception to the norm in the saga of Civil War Christmases in the South.

Howletts House
Decr 24th 64

Dear Mother,
Yours of the 19th inst was received by me while on picket. Buck Berry having met his brother Robert in Richmond & he brought the letters straight to the regiment while Buck remained behind to take care of the boxes &c. I was on picket yesterday & had a terribly cold time of it. Our Brigade goes on picket every other night now….

Alick… will be down tomorrow again to join us in the attack upon “Turkey,” & the other edibles… The cakes fairly flew. They were excellent & much enjoyed. The apples and chestnuts will be duly disposed of. We gave Col. Chew and Lt. Col. Goulding some apples and will gave[sp] Charlie Carmichael some in your name….

Accept our thanks for your valuable Christmas gifts. Every thing will be duly appreciated. We shall fare very well indeed. My pants look nice indeed. I have put them on, my others having given out entirely. The books will be enjoyed if we stay here. I wish we had some thing which we could send you first a Christmas gift, but there is nothing except our warmest love and thanks. Alick says he has two baskets which he bought for Christmas gift for Sister & Mollie. Alick got his socks all safe tell Mary….

Every thing us quiet all around us. Rhodes Division is near us ready to support us in case of attack upon us. The Yanks know that Hunton has gone from deserters[.] Mr. Moncure has gone home go spend his Christmas. So we will have no preaching unless Rev Warren Owebs will preach & he is sick, taken sick since left home. His two sons are in my company. I hope you will have a merry Christmas[;] at least we wish you one.

It is now getting dark so I must close with any quantity of love to yourself & all & all friends.

Again thanking you for your kindness & Christmas gifts I must close.
Your affec[tionate] son

Source: The Circle Unbroken: Civil War Letters of the Knox Family of Fredericksburg, published by Central Rappahannock Heritage Center and Historic Fredericksburg Foundation, 2013.

3 Responses to The Arrival of a Christmas Box in Camp


    Dr. William Glenn Robertson, author of “The First Battle of Petersburg,” thought my new book, “The Petersburg Regiment in the Civil War: A History of the 12th Virginia Infantry from John Brown’s Hanging to Appomattox” (Savas Beatie, 2019) “especially useful in delineating the hometown support system that sustained the regiment throughout the war.” I thought that justified concentrating the material on the hometown support system into the form of an article.

    Soldiers began referring to the 12th Virginia Infantry as “the Petersburg Regiment” as early as May 1861 because most of the regiment’s companies haled from the Cockade City. The 12th belonged to Mahone’s (later Weisiger’s) brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia. The Petersburg Regiment was unusually literate and its soldiers left a small library of diaries, letters and memoirs which document many aspects of soldier life, including the system developed to supplement their rations.
    Living was easy for the 12th Virginia Infantry’s men during garrison duty in Norfolk from April 1861 until May 1862. They daily drew as much beef, coffee and sugar as they wanted. Once a week they received a day’s worth of bacon, rice and molasses. Boxes of delicacies from home such as eggs and pound cake supplemented their rations. “We have fried ham & eggs every day for dinner,” wrote First Sgt. James Edward “Eddie” Whitehorne of Greeneville County in the 12th’s Company F, the Huger Grays. Messes employed cooks and dining room servants. Most of the men could afford to purchase their own provisions and scorn government issue.

    Things changed after Norfolk’s evacuation in early May 1862. “We could not get any eatables and suffered more than we had done before,” recalled Sgt. James Eldred Phillips of the 12th’s Company G, the Richmond Grays. In July, after the fighting around Richmond, the men lacked cooking utensils and mixed their flour in wagon buckets, baking it on smooth rocks collected in the fields. They had a monotonous diet. “We do not get anything but salt bacon and flour,” Sergeant Whitehorne groused. “I would give anything on earth to get some vegetables.”

    Before July’s end, the situation improved for most of the regiment. Commissioned by the City of Petersburg, Capt. Nathaniel Harrison started making trips from Petersburg to Mahone’s brigade driving a wagon loaded with “good things for the boys,” recalled Sgt. George S. Bernard of the 12th’s second Company I, the Meherrin Grays or “Herrings,” which replaced the Hargrave Blues in the spring of 1862. The Commissioner was probably Nathaniel Cole Harrison, who had a son, Pvt. William Henry Harrison, in the 12th Virginia’s Company A, the Petersburg City Guard. Captain Harrison brought food and clothing from citizens of Petersburg to their friends and relatives in Mahone’s brigade, including soldiers who did not belong to Petersburg companies. The townspeople adopted the Norfolk Juniors, the Petersburg Regiment’s Company H. Besides any goods that Harrison might bring to individual Norfolk men from friends or relatives in Petersburg, the Cockade City sent shipments of food and clothing for the whole company. Petersburg’s commissioner also would have served any Petersburg soldiers in other regiments in the Army of Northern Virginia. The Richmond Grays fared at least as well as the Petersburg men. Less than 10 miles from their hometown, they could expect friends and relatives to deliver packages in person as well as through a commissioner.

    Commissioners from Brunswick and Greensville counties also began making trips to the 12th as well as other units that included their soldiers. Greensville bought an ambulance which shuttled back and forth between the county and Mahone’s brigade once a week, keeping the Huger Grays and the Herrings well supplied with vegetables and fresh meat. Greensville’s commissioner would have served other men from Greensville in the Army of Northern Virginia as well. First Lieutenant Joseph Richard Manson of the Herrings received more fresh vegetables than he could eat and distributed the surplus to his friends. Enough meat arrived to feed the Herrings for two or three days at a time. “This enables the men to sell their rations which helps out the poor soldier’s small pay and enables him to send some home to his family,” wrote Manson.

    The regiment’s conscripts from southwest Virginia fared poorly. Distance prevented the commissioners of their counties from frequently visiting these troops. “They look so dejected,” Lieutenant Manson wrote. “You can tell one as far as you can see him. They are so troubled that they become fit subjects for disease and so many of the poor fellows will die in camp….”
    After the privations of the Maryland Campaign, Captain Harrison arrived at the 12th’s camp near Fredericksburg on December 22. He drove in with a wagon piled high with boxes and bundles. “No children…ever examined their stockings in the morning with greater glee and frolic than did ‘the boys’ exhibit as they gathered around Mr. Harrison’s wagon, listening for their names to be called out,” Pvt. Westwood A. Todd of the Petersburg Riflemen, the 12th’s Company E, recalled. Each box made someone’s heart glad. The wagon carried shoes, shirts, drawers, socks and soap for the Petersburg men, the Norfolk troops and any soldiers of the regiment’s three other companies whose relatives in Petersburg remembered them. The extra clothing turned the tide in the struggle against lice. The wagon also brought a heavy load of liquor for the Petersburg men. They kept the alcohol to themselves, guzzling it next day.

    In the regiment’s camp near United States Mine Ford in March 1863, the men went on short rations—a quarter pound of bacon and a pound and a half of meal or flour. Boxes of food still arrived from friends and relatives. One came for Sergeant John F. Sale of the Norfolk Juniors in mid-March. Manson got something every time Harrison reached the 12th’s camp. Greensville’s commissioner, on the other hand, failed to satisfy at least one of his county’s soldiers. “I dont see why Col S[pratley] cant bring us boxes,” groused Sergeant Whitehorne. “Mr H[arrison] brought Billy Mitchell a bundle of nic nacs. I tell you we did certainly enjoy it….” Colonel Spratley may have been related to the first of the 12th’s soldiers to see combat while a member of the regiment, Pvt. William W. Spratley of the 12th’s first Company I, the Hargrave Blues. Private Spratley helped man one of CSS Patrick Henry guns in the battle of Hampton Roads in March 1862.

    After Chancellorsville, the miserable Confederate supply system would not permit Lee to subsist his army in northern Virginia much longer. Petersburg and its adjacent counties did their best to supplement the 12th’s short rations. Their commissioners visited the army monthly and brought their men “car loads of provisions &c,” wrote Whitehorne, who remained unhappy with Greensville’s commissioner. “I haven’t had enough to eat since the battle,” he complained on May 13. Six days had elapsed since his company’s last mouthful of meal.

    The countryside surrounding the regiment’s camp lay destitute in December. “Our prospects are very hard for a Christmas,” Sergeant Sale wrote on December 23. “We can procure nothing scarcely here and what we can the most enormous prices are charged for them.” But Captain Harrison was rolling up with 10 wagons from Petersburg. They arrived on a very cold Christmas Eve. Almost every soldier with relatives in Petersburg received a bundle. The townspeople forwarded parcels smuggled through enemy lines from Norfolk. Sale received a package containing boots, a suit of clothes, a hat, underclothes, socks, soap and thread, among other items. “Everything suited to a fraction fitting as if they were made for me, as well as could-have been done had I been where they were made,” he commented. The boxes for the Petersburg troops far outdid the bundles for the other men and contained “anything you might name not forgetting a liberal supply of Liquor,” wrote Sale. The Petersburg soldiers did not wait for Christmas but promptly got drunk.

    On June 18, 1864, the regiment returned to Petersburg and occupied its fortification two miles south of town. That night the soldiers enjoyed a barrel of coffee and copious crackers sent by the townspeople. Phillips, now a first lieutenant, recalled of June 19, “Eatibles was being brought out all day.”

    Captain Harrison paid the regiment his last recorded visit on June 24, riding out to Wilcox’s farm with what Sergeant Sale termed “little extras.” Local bakers occasionally came out to the lines to peddle their pies. Most of regiment’s men could go home for little extras. Men from other cities or counties had the option of visiting friends or relatives in the Cockade City. With the Petersburg Regiment so close to its hometown, it did not require a commissioner any longer. The regiment’s Richmond men had but a short train ride to their homes. Only the soldiers from Brunswick, Greensville and Patrick counties may have required the services of a commissioner.


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