Christmas In Winchester, Part 2

Continued from Part 1, which details the Civil War Christmas Winchester civilians always seemed to look back on with fond memories…

By Christmas 1862, “Stonewall” Jackson had left the Shenandoah Valley for the final time. The general that Winchester adopted for its own local fame wintered east of the Blue Ridge in Caroline County after the Battle of Fredericksburg. In part due to their location and in part due to Jackson, Winchester had experienced war on the doorstep and invaded the homes and civic buildings that year, and Christmas 1862 offered no exception to the city’s new saga of occupation and daily wranglings between the civilians and military.

On December 23, the leading elements of Union General Robert Milroy’s command entered Winchester. Though another “Yankee invasion” in the list of many in Winchester’s history, Milroy’s occupation went down in local history and Southern women’s diaries as six months of bitter conflict as the Union officer tried to “make war” on the civilians through series of orders and restrictions to make life so uncomfortable that they would happily take the oath of allegiance and return to the Union. Ultimately, Milory’s plan backfired and simply raised determinations and resistance.


Mary Greenhow Lee

Christmas came just as this occupation tale unfolded. According to diarist Mary Greenhow Lee, Winchester civilians seemed to look forward to the advent season and made plans to celebrate, though their festivities would be significantly different than previous years. In addition to planning a Christmas feast for the Confederate soldiers at a nearby hospital, Mrs. Lee wrote on the 24th: “I went to the Hospital, on my way home & found the men very bright & cheerful & anticipating their Christmas, with more pleasure than usual, considering the circumstances. How different is this Christmas Eve from the last, when our friend Col. Baylor’s joyous laugh rang through the house, as he helped us to dress the rooms with evergreens for the gay party the next evening.”

The following morning the civilians were startled awake or during their morning chores by the sound of rifles and cannons. Some felt alarmed at first and thought another battle had begun, but soon, they discovered it was only the Union soldiers shooting off their guns in celebration of the holiday. That wasn’t the only excitement, though. In the afternoon, Union pickets were driven in and rumors swirled that the town was about to be delivered from the Yankees again; but by the end of the day, the situation had not changed, and Union soldiers moved along the sidewalks, going door to door and asking for food.

Food preparations and the attempt to have a “normal” holiday fill Lee’s journal in 1862, but there’s also a stark new contrast—a realty of Winchester’s war: she has to guard the house and food. On Christmas Day, she noted, “Much to my sorrow, I have to stay at home this morning in place of going to church, where it would have recalled old associations to hear the Christmas music; anything that carries me back to hours, unconnected with war, refreshes me & does me good. I had to stay because the Yankees were searching the houses on this street & I did not like to run the risk of their coming in my absence. I hear they are playing the polite & courteous game, at first…. This day recalls so many, many happy seasons & some so sad; but I ought not to complain, when I remember how many more have been bright & joyous, than gloomy. To-day, will I hope be the only one in the hands of a barbarous, ruthless foe…”

Christmas 1862 capstoned the year of nearby battles, the establishment of the hospital town, and the regular arrivals and departures of Union troops. In some ways, Winchester civilians secretly longed for another skirmish, another battle that December since it could restore to the city to Confederate control—a fervent wish of the pro-Southern white community.

The following year brought more significant changes to the keeping of the holiday. Though some families, like Mary Greenhow Lee’s, managed to enjoy some of the flavors of Christmas with a cake and chocolate, others struggled to make ends meet and keep basic food on the tables. 1863 had carried Winchester through a six-month occupation with Union General Milroy, the Second Battle of Winchester, the arrival of a 17 mile long ambulance train from Gettysburg, and an autumn of uncertainty as the town changed hands almost daily at one period.

Still, the community drew together on Christmas Eve for a “Christmas fete” at the Lutheran Church where a lantern show, singing, and a Christmas tree provided needed cheer. But darker feelings lingered beneath the bright moments. Mary Lee recorded her inner struggle, saying, “I have such a lonesome, finished feeling, this Christmas; as if I had gotten through with every-thing, every body; had nothing to live on or for & had no interest, in life. I have had the same sensation before & it generally preceded some entire change in my mode of life. I am worn out with the monotony of my present life; still if a change for the worse were to come, I might regret the present quiet…”

Again, civilians drew from their pre-war memories of the holiday, making comparisons and perhaps beginning to question their situation more seriously. For Mrs. Lee and other civilians the holiday reminded them of all they had lost and they understandably found it difficult to focus on other aspects:

Christmas Day. The day opened differently from Christmas in the olden times, when every had their Christmas gifts to give & receive. Lute’s carte de visite & bonnet pin, were my sole presents. Mr. Avirett opened our church for us & I was so overwhelmed by the host of sad associations, connected with the missing ones who were with us the last Christmas at our church (two years ago) that I could not restrain my tears—an emotion to which I rarely give way. So many of my friends who were with me then have been killed in battle, or died from other causes, or are exiles from their homes, that my mind was filled with ghostly specters & when I came out of church & Mr. Avirett wished me “Merry Christmas” I was so rude as to tell him it was a mockery….

The final Christmas of Winchester’s Civil War—1864—took place during the lasting occupation of Union troops. General Sheridan and his troops had taken the city for the last time and took prominent (though hated roles) in the drama recorded in Southern journals. Again, Mrs. Lee recorded the events with clear precision. As in the previous years, she managed to make a Christmas cake and also spent a portion of her time at the hospital with Confederate patients and prisoners and then:

Christmas – Each Christmas since the war has been entirely different & I think I have enjoyed this more than the two last. Hurried through housekeeping to get to church in time. The Christmas music was the only thing to remind me of old times. In every other respect the presence of the Yankees interfered with the enjoyment of the services. Their responses blended with ours & I felt how unnatural it was to be joining in prayer & praises with men whose hands were red with the blood of our friends. Sheridan & Custer & numbers of gayly clad officers were there, staring as if they had never seen ladies before. Sheridan is a common looking vulgarian. He had the impertinence to send round a wagon load of beef to people in town & a scrap of beef was sent to Dr. Baldwin with Genl. Sheridan’s compliments. I wish he had sent me some that I might have returned it with such a message that even he, rough creature that he is, would have felt.

It is curious that Mrs. Lee wrote how she enjoyed this Christmas, but then cataloged a number of things she did not like. Is it possible that while she has settled for a routine “hating of the Yankees”, she finds a bit of comfort that some level of stability has been restored to her life? With Winchester firmly in Union grasp, the constant skirmishing through town and uncertainties of a city caught between armies had ended. Though she used a lot of ink expressing her regular disdain for Union officers and soldiers, they did provide a stability not seen in Winchester for years and a more settled routine.

On November 17, 1865, Mary Greenhow Lee penned her last journal entry—just about a month before that year’s Christmas. But perhaps it is fitting that she did not record another for us. The war was over. She had resettled. The curtain fell on Civil War Christmas sagas. The war moved from the battlefield and doorsteps into memory. Memory that would be built and told and retold around family tables for decades, and the tale of how parts of Civil War memory was built around family tables will have to be another story for another year.

Winchester—along with the rest of the country—experienced their last Civil War Christmas in 1864. At the end of each war year, Christmas came on the calendar like it always does. For the citizens of this war-torn town in the Shenandoah Valley, Christmas always brought memories of “the way it used to be” and a chance to evaluate the moment. To ask the questions—at least silently—if the struggle would be worth it.

Private journals like Mary Greenhow Lee’s provide us with glimpses of what Christmases were like in 1862, 1863, 1864 and perhaps remind us that the feelings we experience are not so distant from those in the Civil War era. The joys, the sorrows, the conflicts, the fears, the hopes, and the faith we may experience at various Christmases or perhaps all tied in one may have different causes, but are the similar emotions and feelings that span like glittering threads in the weave of our own lives and history.

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