Christmas celebrations were by their very nature subdued in many parts of the North and the South. The year of 1862 had seen a series of grim and bloody battles, with Shiloh, the Peninsula Campaign, the Seven Days battles, Second Manassas and the bloodiest day of all at Antietam.
The New York Times reported that Christmas 1862 was “the dampest, warmest, muggiest and most burdened with mingled feelings of joy and grief.” The unseasonably warm weather had made the Central Park Pond unsafe for skating, but had brought out crowds of Christmas shoppers.
“The money expended this year in Christmas gifts exceeds by far, by very far, that which has gone that way in many years,” the Times noted. Furs were a popular gift that year, and the streets echoed with the blare of tin horns, the latest craze among young boys.
In Washington, the Lincolns visited wounded soldiers in the area’s military hospitals. The recently concluded Battle of Fredericksburg had produced thousands of casualties, many of whom were transported to the 46 hospitals in the Washington area.
President Lincoln was visibly shaken by the outcome of the battle, and looked more sad and careworn than usual. He remarked to his friend Governor Andrew G. Curtin of Pennsylvania, “If there is a worse place than Hell, I am in it.”
It was reported that 6,000 pounds of poultry and “large quantities of other delicacies” were distributed to the hospitals for the Christmas dinners of the wounded. “Fish, flesh and fowl, puddings and pies, and these of all sorts,” one report said, “with plenty of cider.”
Meanwhile, Confederate President celebrated Christmas in his home in Mississippi. “After an absence of nearly two years,” he said, “I again find myself among those who…have ever been the trusted object of my affection.” But Confederate Christmas celebrations in the area were cut short by reports of Union troop movements on the Mississippi threatening Vicksburg.
In the fall of 1862, Confederate refugees from the fighting in the areas surrounding the capital began to flood into the city. They included those who fled farms and towns now in Union-held territory, wives of Confederate soldiers looking for employment, and the destitute.
This influx of refugees drove rent prices much higher than they’d been previously, and wartime inflation sent prices on everyday goods skyrocketing. In the city, ten pounds of bacon, which cost $1.25 in 1860, now cost $10. Four pounds of coffee jumped from $0.50 to $20.
Richmond diarist and author Sallie Brock Putnam wrote about the sadness of Christmas for families who had lost soldiers in the war:
The Christmas dinner passed off gloomily. The vacant chairs were multiplied in Southern homes, and even the children who had curiously questioned the cause of the absence of the young soldier brother from the festive board, had heard too much, had seen too much, and knew too well why sad-colored garments were worn by the mother, and why the fold of rusty crape placed around the worn hat of the father, and why the joyous mirth of the sister was restrained, and her beautiful figure draped in mourning. Congratulations were forced, and tears had taken the place of smiles on countenances where cheerfulness was wont to reign.
Christmas of 1862 saw an important cultural development with the emergence of the modern image of Santa Claus. Famed illustrator FOC Darley published an edition of Clement Clark Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas (‘Twas the Night Before Christmas) featuring drawings of Santa as a plump man with a pipe, furry coat and pointed hat.
Thomas Nast, who in the late 19th century produced what came to be regarded as the definitive representations of St. Nick, published his first Santa drawing in Harper’s Weekly, January 3, 1863. “Santa Claus in Camp“ showed a star-spangled Santa in his reindeer-drawn sleigh handing out presents to jubilant soldiers.
A reported 40,000 soldiers watched a baseball game at Hilton Head, S.C., between the 165th New York Zouave regiment and a picked team from other units. One of the players was Abraham Gilbert Mills, later president of the National League.
Across the South there were movements of troops. Confederate General John Hunt Morgan engaged in his famous Christmas Raid in Kentucky; on that single day, Morgan’s men destroyed everything they possibly could of the improvements that the Louisville & Nashville Railroad had made along 35 miles of track from Bacon Creek to Lebanon Junction.
Robert E. Lee wrote his wife, “What a cruel thing is war. To separate & destroy families & friends & mar the purest joy and happiness God has granted us in this world…. I pray that on this day when ‘peace & good will’ are preached to all mankind that better thoughts will fill the hearts of our enemies & turn them to peace.”
Meanwhile, along the Rappahannock River, the two armies faced each other, probing their opponent’s lines looking for weak spots and capturing prisoners and supplies. Soldiers in both armies did what soldiers normally do during the winter. They rested and refitted. They entertained themselves with games and tournaments. They exchanged supplies with their fellow Americans across the river.
“And so the day passed,” 18-year old Private John R. Paxton, 140th Pennsylvania wrote. “And we forgot the biting wind, the chilling cold; we forgot those men over there were our enemies, whom it might be our duty to shoot before evening. We had bridged the river, spanned the bloody chasm. We were brothers, not foes, waving salutations of good-will in the name of the Babe of Bethlehem, on Christmas Day in ‘62.” By the end of the war Paxton had risen through the ranks to the rank of Captain.