As we begin to make preparations for Christmas this year, we not only need to realize why we celebrate this holiday, but we should think of those who are defending our homeland in order to keep us safe. Undoubtedly, our men and women serving in the military will be able to observe the Christmas holiday, but it will not be quite the same as being home during this time of year. And, as we decorate, cook and send cards, it will be hard for us to imagine what life was like during the War Between the States. The people of that era gave up most or all of their possessions, money, and even their lives for the cause of war.

According to research, military actions of the war did not stop just because it was Christmas Day. During 1861, a blockade runner was caught by the Union army; there were skirmishes in Maryland and Virginia. In 1862, several conflicts occurred, including the famous Christmas Raid of Confederate General John Hunt Morgan in Kentucky. On that day, Morgan’s men destroyed most of the improvements of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad along thirty-five miles of track from Bacon Creek to Lebanon Junction. There was also a military execution for desertion, and the soldiers were forced to witness that. Then, in 1863, Union forces destroyed the Confederate salt works at Bear Inlet, North Carolina. Also, near Charleston, South Carolina, and on the Stone River, there were a number of skirmishes between Confederate artillery and the Union navy. During 1864, the Confederate forces drove back the Union assault on Fort Fisher; and there were conflicts in the western theater of the war. These were just some of the activities which occurred during Christmas Day of the war years.

Christmas of 1861 tells that soldiers were relatively well fed and equipped, and anticipating the arrival of boxes from home filled with homemade goodies. The officers often authorized extra rations of spirits and the men kept busy by having greased pig-catching contests, footraces, jumping matches and impromptu pageants dressed as women. These soldiers set up small evergreen trees strung with hardtack (a cracker that is made from flour, water, and at times, salt) and pork. (The pork which was used was salt pork, which resembles bacon, but is not cured; hard tack and salt pork were the basic rations of the War Between the States.) Even though some of the soldiers might have been excused from drills, it has also been noted that “chores” such as hauling wood for firewood had to be done, even on Christmas Day. However, as the war lingered on, there are accounts of Christmas dinners for the soldiers consisting of crackers, hard tack, rice, beans and a casting of lots for a single piece of beef which was too small to divide. Many did receive boxes from home which may or may not have arrived with the contents “altered!” One account from a Confederate prisoner tells that a friend had sent a bottle of old brandy to him, and that when he opened it, he found that the package had already been opened, and the brandy was replaced with water!

The gifts given in the 1860’s were mostly homemade, unless a family happened to be wealthy and live where they were able to either buy or order from a large city. Children were content to get small hand-carved toys, or fruit, if it happened to be available. Even though families wanted to send packages to their loved ones who were fighting, they just did not have anything to send, because most of what they had was either given or stolen for the cause of war.

However, the most famous Christmas gift of the war was sent by telegram from William Tecumseh Sherman to Abraham Lincoln on December 22, 1864. This telegram stated that Sherman was presenting Lincoln with the city of Savannah, Georgia, along with one hundred and fifty guns, plenty of ammunition, and approximately twenty-five thousand bales of cotton. Of course, the real gift was not any of these things, but the beginning of the end of the war. After the capture of Savannah, approximately ninety Michigan men and their captain loaded several wagons full of food and other supplies and distributed the items around the devastated Georgia countryside. These Union “Santas” had tied tree branches to the heads of their mule teams so that they would resemble reindeer!

And thanks to my friend, Ron Harris, for information relating to the Christmas hymn, O Holy Night. This song was requested by a parish priest in a small French Town, written in 1847 by poet and winemaker Placide Cappeau who later split with the church, made into music by Jewish composer, Adolphe Charles Adams, and later an American writer, John Sullivan Dwight, who was an abolitionist, saw that the third verse to the song supported his view on slavery. Dwight then published the English translation of the Christmas carol in his magazine. Therefore, this song was brought to America as a tool to end slavery and has become one of the best loved Christmas carols ever written. It is interesting to note the stories behind the music of Christmas so that we are better able to appreciate them more.

Today as we prepare to celebrate Christmas, we need to especially remember the true meaning of this holiday, the birth of Christ. As we get caught up in our “busy days,” we also need to think about our past history and the events which shaped our country and our lives. Life today is fast-paced and full of activities, but there are times when we need to slow down and remember others. Even though we are not forced to give up our food, clothing, etc. as our ancestors were during wartime, we might do well to think about what they went through during the War Between the States. And although we do not like to think about the suffering that was present during wartime, it is our past history, and we need to study these events in order to understand our present life and be able to live in the future. Therefore, we should learn from the past in order to live in the present and prepare for the future.

Pat Guffey can be reached at pat459@charter.net