Christmas During the Civil War

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Thomas Nast’s “Santa Claus” Picture. Harper’s Weekly 1865

For most of us Christmas is a time for family and friends gathered around a tree exchanging present and having a good time just being together.  For the solider on the front he is away from family, well his biological family anyway, and is often away from all of the familiar parts of the holiday celebration.

I also like to remind myself that what we know of Christmas in the 21st century was not really what Christmas was like in the 19th century.  During the time of the Civil War Christmas was not a federal holiday.  It would not become so until 1870 when President Grant chose to make it a federal holiday in an attempt to unite North and South.

But what of Christmas in the field, how did the soldier celebrate Christmas.  Some were given furlough to return home, sometimes for recruiting duty, but they were able to join their family around the Christmas table.  Others spent time in battle, not major battles but minor skirmishes were always taking place.

Soldiers would write in their diaries about celebrations in camp.  There are stories of makeshift Christmas trees being decorated with salt pork and hard tack.  Having actually eaten hard tack I can understand the desire to use it as a Christmas ornament.  A captain from Massachusetts treated his troops to a great meal with turkey, oysters, pies and apples.

There were also acts of charity.  On December 24, 1864 90 Union soldiers from Michigan delivered food and supplies to the poor folks in Georgia.  The decorated the mules used to pull their wagons as reindeer tying branches to their heads to resemble antlers.

Harper’s Weekly was a publication that would bring news and information to people around the country.  First published in 1857 it featured foreign and domestic news and during the Civil War brought the most comprehensive coverage of the war.  Editorial cartoons and drawings were a large part of the weekly publication and were often used, as they are today, as propaganda.

Thomas Nast was one of the featured cartoonists.  He brought the original image on Santa Claus, as well as the Republican Party’s elephant.  But his images of the Civil War brought home the great sacrifice of the war.

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The image above portrays a woman, peering out the window in prayer for her soldier husband who is picture opposite her in the field also in prayer.  This first appeared in the January 1863 edition of Harper’s Weekly with the title “Civil War Christmas.

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The next image first appeared in the Christmas edition of 1863 and shows, what the cartoonist wants us to think, is the wife and husband from the image a year earlier being reunited during the soldiers furlough.  The image is also interesting as it is the first time that Santa was pictured holding a sack with gifts and visiting children.

But for the most part Christmas passed as any other day on duty.  Most would dream of the end of the war and being able to go home and be with their families.  No doubt some would be thinking of those who were no longer with them and wondering if they might be next.  Christmas is just another day for the soldier in the field.

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