Christmas Day 1862: Another Day on the Front Lines of the Civil War

    Christmas Day 1862 was a time of joy, for gift giving, carols, family gatherings, sumptuous feasts, and of earnest prayers for peace. The United States of America was passing its second Christmas with the nation at war with itself. There were few tables, North or South, that did not have an empty chair, with a husband, father, or brother either off to war or already numbered among the lost. But for the men in the western armies of the Union, Christmas was just another day in the army. Usually by December, the time of active operations for the armies had passed.  The fall rains had turned the roads into quagmires, and the coming of ice and snow made active operations extremely difficult. The armies usually went into winter camp by December, but in 1862, the Federal armies in the West were on the move. 


This image of a patriotic Santa Claus presenting trinkets to the troops was far removed from the reality for most western theater men on December 25, 1862. The two major Federal armies of the West were either on the move or about to move, and the Christmas feasts they were used to at home had been replaced by spartan commissary fare punctuated by whatever the soldiers could hunt, scrounge, barter, or steal from the local population. 

    "This is Christmas Day, and Santa Claus has not come," commented Chaplain William Haigh of the 36th Illinois. "Would give a good deal to be at home today." It was a sentiment shared by thousands in the army, but both the Army of the Tennessee and the Army of the Cumberland were poised to embark on major campaigns: Grant's army, based in Memphis and northern Mississippi, was driving south in its first major offensive against the bastion of Vicksburg. In Middle Tennessee, Rosecrans' army was about to move south from Nashville and confront Braxton Bragg's army at Murfreesboro. And at small outposts scattered throughout Kentucky and Mississippi, small contingents of Federal troops kept a vigilant watch for Confederates and tried to ward off boredom and loneliness while thinking of their loved ones back home.

    Lieutenant Colonel Marcus Spiegel of the 120th Ohio wrote to his wife in a spare moment while his steamboat was taking on wood at Milliken's Bend, Louisiana. The colonel was excited because he had just been shown the plan for the forthcoming operation against Vicksburg. "I saw the maps and everything and think there can be no doubt of success," he wrote confidently. "We are to land somewheres near the Yazoo River, reduce Fort Haines on the Yazoo. Grant will join us somewhere between the Yazoo and Black River. General Banks will come up from New Orleans with his expedition and Grant, Sherman, Banks, and Admiral Porter with the gunboats will jointly operate together. It is a gigantic movement and if only the junctions are properly and successfully made, we must be victorious. The weather is splendid, like June and July at home, everything growing delightfully. I enclose you a flower plucked in the woods this morning," he concluded. Little did the good colonel know that this expedition would fall apart, and end as a disaster a la Fredericksburg on a smaller scale.

    While Spiegel wrote to his wife, Thomas B. Marshall of the 83rd Ohio was slogging through the mud behind Milliken's Bend on an expedition to destroy nearby railroad bridges on the Shreveport & Vicksburg. "The next morning, Christmas Day, we started back into the country to destroy a large railroad bridge across the Bayou Tensas belonging to the Shreveport & Vicksburg Railroad. This road was the main artery of supply between the cattle and wheat fields of Texas and the Confederate armies east of the Mississippi River. The distance was 26 miles, an exceedingly long march. The men were in light marching order carrying only a blanket apiece. We reached our objective point, Dallas Station, very late in the day and immediately began the work of destruction. The bridge was of wood and 200 feet long. There were two others, smaller ones, and all were destroyed, together with all buildings, and Confederate cotton. The bridges were piled full of ties, railroad bars, and cotton, then fired. The great heat warped the iron, rendering it useless. The next morning, the work of destruction was continued on two smaller bridges with some warehouses and cotton mills that had escaped in the darkness. The job was completed at 9 o'clock and after a few hours rest, we started back," he said. The regiment soon embarked at Milliken's Bend to take part in the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou. 

    Thomas W. Connelly of the 70th Ohio was in camp in northern Mississippi and received a speech from the brigade commander as his Christmas present. "Our brigade headquarters was handsomely decorated with flags. The brigade was massed into solid column in front of brigade headquarters when Colonel J.R. Cockerill, our brigade commander, delivered the boys a nice Christmas speech. In connection the many good things said upon that occasion, the Colonel got off the following: 'With the bold 70th Ohio, the fearless 90th Illinois, and 53rd Ohio, the never-flinching Bouton Battery and the daring Chicago Battery, he would follow the Rebels to the gates of hell and there give them battle.' That was a happy Christmas to all of us; we enjoyed it well," Connelly concluded.

A Federal field camp near Nashville in 1864 shows a sprawling field or shelter tents with stacked arms on the left. The shelter tent was just being introduced in the western armies at the end of 1862 and there was much grumbling from the men about being forced to turn over their spacious Sibley tents for their new "dog kennels." But over time, the men found that being able to carry their own shelter was preferable to being held captive to the whims of the regimental wagon trains. During the summer months, many soldiers trusted to chance and opportunity and shed their tents altogether.

    Corporal Myron B. Loop of the 68th Ohio spent Christmas Day in camp located on the north side of the Tallahatchie River near Abbeville, Mississippi, not far from the 70th Ohio. "Christmas morning dawned upon us with nothing in our stocking but a pair of wet feet and nothing in our haversacks but a vacancy," he drily commented. "So we turned our attention to grinding corn using for that purpose rude hand mills such as used by the colored people on Southern plantations, and then made our meal in corncakes. There corncakes were washed down with a cup of corn coffee. About noon, our commissary sergeant brought us two beeves accompanied by the owner. Our happiness depended on the sergeant's ability to withstand the pleadings of the owner for the lives of Bossy and Buckey. But while he was parleying with the owner, one of the boys armed with an ax delivered a well-aimed blow and Bossy fell. The owner now grasped Buckey around the neck and made an effort to lead it away, meantime heaping all manner of vile epithets upon the heads of Northern Yankees. The flash of an ax was again seen, and a few moments later the 68th boys were busily engaged in preparing a Christmas dinner of fresh beef, broiled over our campfires on the end of our ramrods."

     In Kentucky, Union garrisons occupied numerous small towns and villages along the all-important railroad lines that fed the Army of the Cumberland. Among them was Lieutenant Albion Tourgee of the 105th Ohio who spent his first Christmas in a lonely camp guarding the railroad trestle at Munfordville, Kentucky. The ennui of another day in camp was alleviated by an impromptu rabbit hunt. "It was a warm, sunny day like the early spring of the North. Lieutenant Colonel Doan of the 101st Indiana, the biggest and warmest-hearted old boy in the brigade, preferred a request to the colonel commanding that his regiment might be allowed a Christmas rabbit hunt," Tourgee wrote. "Straightway the matter was taken under advisement; the commanders of the other regiments were consulted, and it was finally determined to organize a big hunt for the brigade. The regiments were accordingly mustered under arms, each man equipped with a stout stick, and having been marched to a favorable location, pickets were thrown out to prevent surprise, then each regiment stacked arms, formed a hollow square, faced inward, took distance at ten steps apart, and began to march toward the center, beating the cover as they went. It was a jolly hunt, abounding in shouts and ludicrous contretemps. Many rabbits were killed, many more escaped, there were broken heads and bruised shins for one cannot be sure who is behind the rabbit at which he strikes, but nobody minded such things, and few who engaged in it will recall a scene of more hilarious merriment. Each regiment got enough of the soft-eyed victims to flavor the Christmas stew with which we were regaled that night," he concluded.  

Once the army went into winter camp, the men devoted much of their time and ingenuity into devising comfortable shelters to get out of the drafty tents. A group of pards often collaborated to design and build the structure shown above, and some of the happiest wartime memories of the men were of the quiet times spent in their "she-bangs" with the closest friends. Each one was a very personal creation, and the men took a great deal of pride in their homes and were loath to leave them when the campaigning season dawned in the spring. 

    The 104th Ohio was stationed in the works at Richmond, Kentucky and passed a rather pleasant Christmas due to a recent shipment of packages from home. "We made quite a jolly Christmas of it altogether. Nearly all the boys had received good things from home and several messes were able to fill up with something better than hardtack and bacon. Nearly all had received warm, woolen underclothing, mittens, socks, etc. from loved ones at home, so at the end of our first three months of service we were quite comfortable for soldiers and although there had been considerable sickness in the regiment, there had been no deaths," recalled one veteran. 

   In camp with the Army of the Cumberland at Nashville, Captain John H. Otto of the 21st Wisconsin was preparing to enjoy a Christmas novelty: dessicated condensed vegetables, also known as hot Trinity. "The commissary thought to surprise us with a good Christmas dinner, so on Christmas Eve he issued for the first time vegetables. It was queer looking stuff, pressed into cakes a foot square and two inches thick and consisting of all possible garden greens: cabbage, beets, rutabagas, and turnip leaves, beanpods, onion vines, and sliced onions, parsley, sage, and celery, sliced turnips, carrots, and cohlraby, cauliflower, and last but not least, red pepper," he wrote. "These ingredients had been slightly boiled before they were pressed into form. When to be used, they were soaked in water overnight which dissolved the cakes. It needed a tremendous boiling to get it done, some bacon or grease was added and it was ready to be served, but nobody could tell exactly how it tasted because there were so many tastes that it was difficult to give any one the preference, except that all agreed that it was hot, hot like blazes. One man called it the 'hot Trinity.' When you began to eat it, it was hot, when you were half through it was hotter, and when you have done with it it is just the hottest. Wherever the stuff was manufactured, red pepper must have been of no account or they would not have been so liberal with it," he commented. 

Simple encampments such as this blockhouse and tents near Chattanooga, Tennessee dotted the landscape throughout Kentucky and Tennessee during the war years. The blockhouse provided the local garrison with a strongpoint from which they could defend themselves from the marauding Confederate cavalry bands that roamed the West. The blockhouses were usually built near important railroad bridges or tunnels. 

    Thomas H.B. McCain of the 86th Indiana enjoyed a quiet day in camp at Nashville, despite a tent in one company catching fire. "The spirit of Christmas, of fun and frolic, took hold of all for a short time, and the camp of the 86th became a perfect bedlam beyond all description. Cat-calls, yells, and camp slang made it an uproarious time for the space of 15 or 20 minutes when nature again asserted herself and all returned to bed to secure the much needed rest. While friends at home are enjoying the festivities of the occasion, we are here upon the tented field. I witnessed a flag presentation in the 59th Ohio. It was presented by the citizens of Clermont County, Ohio and in their behalf Colonel Fyffe of the 59th Ohio made the presentation speech. On its fold were inscribed Shiloh, Corinth, Ivy Creek, Perryville, and Crab Orchard, the names of the fields upon which the 59th had displayed valor and courage. Christmas evening was spent listening to speakers from Colonel Hamilton, Captain Sheath, and Captain Lambert, interspersed with music by the 59th Ohio band and the Hoosier Glee Club," he wrote. 

    Things were less jubilant over in the camp of the 59th Illinois where Captain Hendrick E. "Buck & Gag" Paine held command. "One of our boys deserted from the regiment last night and it is supposed he has gone over to the Rebels," wrote Surgeon David Lathrop. "He was tied up yesterday for leaving camp without first getting a pass. He slipped the guards and visited Nashville where he remained all night. When he came back, he was arrested by the captain of his company and tied by both hands to the lower limbs of a tree where he was kept some two hours or more. This morning, he is missing. In some cases, it seems to be necessary not only to bind the hands but to tie the tongue also. This is done by forcing some substance into the mouth so as to keep the jaws separated. The practice of this sort of punishment by one of the officers gave him the name of Buck & Gag.," Lathrop stated. 

    Getting food and forage for the army was a task that was never out of season, even on Christmas Day as related by Wilbur Hinman of the 65th Ohio. "The first order for the advance came to us at 4 o'clock on the morning of December 24th. We struck tents, loaded wagons, and waited, expecting the tap of the drum until late in the afternoon. Then we were directed to pitch tents again and prepare for an early march on Christmas morning. We were ready at daylight, but were soon ordered again to unpack. Instead of waiting in camp, however, we went out with the forage train. Three hundred wagons trailed out the Franklin Pike escorted by three entire brigades, batteries and all. Twelve miles from camp we found the Rebel pickets but as we had some 8,000 men, we kept right on, brushing them from our front and driving them two miles There was considerable sharp skirmishing and one of the 51st Indiana was killed and several wounded. At one of the picket posts, the Johnnies had shown great skill in carving and penciling on the bark of several large trees. A cordial, polite and very neatly written invitation to the Yanks to call over and eat a Christmas dinner with them was signed H.A. Bruce, Co. B, Texas Rangers. We had accepted the invitation, but they were not there to act as hosts, nor was there any banquet spread to tempt our appetites. After loading our wagons, we struck out for camp at a rapid gait. [The expedition also captured 18 head of cattle.] We were far to the front and there was danger that a large force might be sent out to annoy us. The Rebel cavalry followed us as closely as they dared, dodging behind trees and buildings to keep out of range. Late in the evening, we reached camp in safety with all our plunder. After our return from this expedition, we received an order that the army would positively move on the following day, and that night was the last of our stay at Nashville," Hinman wrote. 

Winter campaigning was not for the faint at heart or the sickly, as proven during the Chickasaw Bayou and Stones River campaigns where inclement weather played an important role in the outcome. Heavy rains and snow combined with the heavy wagon traffic of an army on the move turned the primitive 19th century roads of the rural South into muddy quagmires, slowing movement and exasperating the officers and men tasked with keeping the army on the move. Add in the wind and cold, men soaked to the skin, and sleeping out of doors oftentimes without shelter, it is no wonder that many became ill from the experience of winter campaigning. My own great-great-great grandfather claimed on his pension application that it was Schofield's hard winter campaign in December 1864 and January 1865 that left him with permanent lung issues due to exposure to the wet and cold. He died in 1892 at the age of 51 from the effects of these lifelong health problems. 

    Alexis Cope of the 15th Ohio also accompanied a foraging expedition that left Nashville on Christmas Day, this one going out on the Nolensville Pike. "We marched about five miles on this road when we came to a place where there was forage in abundance and filled our wagons by 3 o'clock. There had been some skirmish firing in our front as we marched. Near the place where we loaded our wagons there was a house where a Christmas dinner had been prepared for some of our enemies, and some of our men either confiscated it or paid for it with counterfeit Confederate scrip. We were well into a portion of the country and it was a matter of some concern to get our loaded train back safely to camp. But we had a formidable force, covered our train well with flankers, and brought it in safely," he stated. With the army's larders refilled, it was time for the Army of the Cumberland to move out. 

    At army headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee, William D. Bickham witnessed an extraordinary meeting of the army leadership on Christmas night. Orders had gone out the night before directing a forward movement, but they had been delayed one day. Expectation was that tonight Rosecrans would give the word, and all of the army's generals wanted to be there for the announcement. "Christmas night there was an assemblage of commanders at headquarters," Bickham wrote. "General Thomas was there, McCook, standing with his elbow on the mantle, merry and confident, and boastful of his gallant corps, Crittenden, stately and reticent, 'gay old Stanley' hero of five battles, quick and comprehensive in suggestions, moving about restlessly with a saber rattling at his heels. Johnson, grave and saturnine, but earnest and thoughtful, Negley, prompt, decisive and ready upon requisition come what might and quiet Phil Sheridan, keen observer, but silent now, so unlike him in battle where he shows a heart of oak." Rosecrans and Thomas drew off from the crowd and talked inside the military telegraph office, eager for news. "The other were chatting a little common place  colloquy or looking into the grate watching the cedar sticks curl unto flame," Bickham noted. Garesche, his head bowed over the corner of the table until his broad clear brow almost touched the tip of his pen was flinging off sheets of manuscript in his wonderful way. Father Trecy slipped into the room in his gentlemanly way, let fly his budget of grapevines which he had a faculty for picking up in the streets, and then slipped out again softly. Ducat stepped in promptly and stepped out promptly. The "old boy" looked in modestly, but when Kirby disappeared none could tell. He had a cat-like habit of getting away when there was nothing for him to do. Thoms and Thompson industriously worried out the pregnant ciphers. Tom fed the cheerful fire in the grate and the bright blaze was roaring pleasantly up the chimney; the telegraph fingers were clicking merrily in the little room and Monsieur John produced his steaming toddy."

    "Monsieur Vault had instinctively timed the toddy. When the glasses got to the corner, there was an eager sentence or two, an acquiescing nod on either side, and history was made. Rosecrans was jocose in an instant, but directly a glass went down on Garesche's table with a clang. Garesche looked up, surprised a little, and lounged back in his chair. Suddenly Rosecrans said, "We move tomorrow gentlemen! We shall begin to skirmish, probably as soon as we pass the outposts. Press them hard! Drive them out of their nests! Make them fight or run! Strike hard and fast! Give them no rest! Fight them! Fight them! Fight, I say!" His glittering blue eyes flashed like a gleam of lightning, and the nervous right hand dashed into the palm of his sacrificed left, ringing as is cymbals were clanging. Thomas looked up with a grim smile of approval, McCook's sharp eyes twinkled with internal enjoyment, and Crittenden straightened up his trim figure with a sort of swell, as if he had heard the programme exactly and was prepared to execute it."

       "Christmas came to us in camp at last. Christmas day, but not the good old Christmas times- social, generous, merry Christmas. To us it was only December 25, 1862," commented Ebenezer Hannaford of the 6th Ohio. "We had for some weeks quietly encamped near Nashville, almost the entire Army of the Cumberland. We stretched away out on the various roads centering here from the southward, waiting and watching the Rebel Army of Tennessee massed under Bragg at Murfreesboro 30 miles distant. An army of repose, truly, but it was not the repose of stagnation of sloth, it was only an unwilling passivity, a period of needful rest and discipline while the army could gather strength and its chief complete preparations for the work it was to do.  For days past we had now been under marching orders. Even the hour and order of the march had one or twice been set, and still we are here. So that night when the orderly sergeant, coming to our tent this Christmas night just after tattoo, peered in at the aperture of the door held open with both hands and pronounced, 'Reveille in the morning at 4 o'clock, march at daylight with three days' rations.' we received the announcement with all the philosophical indifference that doubt could engender."

A lonely sentinel leans against a barren tree in a snow-covered landscape in this depiction of winter picket duty by artist Alfred Waud. 


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