Civil War Christmas
Christmas is a holiday often spent with family and friends enjoying a special meal and exchanging gifts. For most of those serving during the Civil War, their holiday was spent with their fellow soldiers far away from their families. Though the war did not halt because of the holiday, the troops did what they could to bring Christmas cheer to their day.
In letters home, soldiers described how they spent their holiday often expressing their sadness at being separated from their families. Richard H. Greene, the only known Black Civil War surgeon to serve with the navy during the war, regularly wrote letters home describing life on board ship and his feelings at being separated from his family. A graduate of Dartmouth Medical College, Greene served on several ships caring for sick and wounded sailors. In this excerpt from a letter written to his mother on December 25, 1863, Greene expressed his feelings of homesickness at being separated from his family on this holiday.
Beaufort, SC Dec. 25, 1863
I received last evening a letter from you dated the 15th which I consider my Christmas and it is indeed a very acceptable one to I assume you. for if I am deprived the pleasure of being at home on this day you can imagine me sitting by a fire in the Chimney reading over your letter again + again, which caused my mind and especially on this day to wander and dwell homewards as to our family affairs, and wish I was so situated that I could drop in often for a few hours at least, and receive the benefit of counsel together for I sometimes feel and in fact I am dependent on my own exertions for success in this world (not for a moment forgetting the assistance I have always received at home) but you understand me when I mean the counsel of Father or older Brother who have had experience with the ways of the world.
Private Alfred Bellard of the 5th New Jersey Infantry described the efforts made to make the holiday festive: “In order to make it look much like Christmas as possible, a small tree was stuck up in front of our tent, decked off with hard tack and pork, in lieu of cakes and oranges.” [i]
Confederate soldiers felt no less sad about spending the Christmas holiday at war. Private Robert A. Moore was a Confederate soldier who kept a diary while serving in the army. His entries of December 24 and 25 reflect his feelings about the holiday: "This is Christmas Eve but seems but little like it to me. This is Christmas & a very dull Christmas it has been to me. Had an egg-nog to-night but did not enjoy it much as we had no ladies to share it with us."[ii]
Both Black and white soldiers made an effort to enjoy the Christmas holiday as best as they could, but their thoughts always turned to their families and the celebrations they were missing at home.
Learn more about Navy surgeon Richard H. Greene in Without Concealment, Without Compromise: The Courageous Lives of Black Civil War Surgeons, available June 2023. Pre-order today at Southern Illinois University Press and use SIUP20 for a 20% discount. Also available for pre-order at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
[i] “Christmas During the Civil War,” American Battlefield Trust. [ii] Moore, Robert A., "Robert Augustus Moore Diary (Volume 2)" (1861), Priv Diaries. 4, December 24 and 25, 1861, https://egrove.olemiss.edu/ciwar_diaries/4.
© Jill L. Newmark 2022