Santa, as we know him, is a creation of artist Thomas Nast who created the bearded old elf for the 1862-63 Christmas edition of Harper’s Weekly. In his famous drawing, he showed Union soldiers opening their Christmas boxes from home. One soldier gets a stuffed stocking (hopefully the other one was in there somewhere!), and another got a fancy new pipe. Santa is handing out toys, including a Jeff Davis puppet, and many soldiers hold their gift boxes close to their hearts. Winslow Homer showed soldiers on Christmas Day in 1861, and everywhere are boxes from home. They were packed with more love than sense if letters home are any indication. Spoiled food or broken glass was a common complaint, and once in a while, the bottle holding the traditional Christmas cordial arrived empty. For the most part, soldiers loved getting a box from home, no matter what the season.
John West Haley of Company 1, 17th Maine Volunteers, kept a journal from June 1862 to June 1865. In 1862 in the vicinity of Fredericksburg, John was working with a road crew the day before Christmas. He expected a Christmas box from home, which lightened his duties somewhat. “It is rumored that there are sundry boxes and mysterious parcels over at Stoneman’s Station directed to us,” Haley wrote in his diary. “We retire to sleep with feelings akin to those of children expecting Santa Claus. We have become very childish in some matters–grub being one of them.”
On Christmas Day, John ended his work detail and returned to his tent. He wrote that he had endured the day’s work only by focusing on the “anticipation of what was in store in our boxes.” Then he unknowingly became the butt of a practical joke by his tentmate:
Went on a detail making corduroy roads. It was a dismal day but rendered quite endurable by the anticipation of what was 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 had brought from the station during my absence, and in a few minutes, we were discussing the merits of its contents. 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.
More of John Haley’s writings can be found in The Rebel Yell and the Yankee Hurrah, a collection of Haley’s work edited by Ruth L. Silliker.
One of the dreariest accounts of Christmas during the Civil War came from Lt. Col. Frederic Cavada. Federico Fernandez-Cavada was born in Cuba but came to Philadelphia with his mother after his father died. When the war broke out, he and his younger brother joined Philadelphia’s 23rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. A talented engineer and topographer, he was a lieutenant colonel when he was captured at Gettysburg. He wrote about Christmas 1863 in Richmond’s Libby Prison:
The north wind comes reeling in fitful gushes through the iron bars, and jingles a sleighbell in the prisoner’s ear, and puffs in his pale face with a breath suggestively odorous of eggnog… Christmas Day! A day which was made for smiles, not sighs – for laughter, not tears – for the hearth, not prison.
Just about the most-quoted Yankee soldiers, thanks to Ken Burns and The Civil War, is
Elijah Hunt Rhodes. He wondered about his future on December 25, 1864:
This is the birthday of our Saviour, but we have paid very little attention to it in a religious way. Last night a party of officers from the 49th Penn. Vols. came to my quarters with the band and gave me some fine music. Just as they left a party of officers from the 37th Mass. Vols. came and gave me a serenade. I invited them in and entertained them the best that I could. About midnight Company “F” (a new company) arrived in command of Capt. John A. Jeffreys. This gives me six full companies, and I now have one of the largest regiments in the Brigade. About two o’clock this morning, I turned in for a sleep. This morning it being Sunday as well as Christmas, we held our usual inspection, and then I took a ride and dined with some friends… This is my fourth Christmas in the Army. I wonder if it will be my last.
All three soldiers made it through the war. Christmas 1864 was, indeed, their last one in the Union Army. Merry Christmas to our ECW readers. I will let Colonel Rhodes have the last words, as they are as timely now as they were in 1864-65:
May God grant us success in the year about to open.