Christmas During the American Civil War

Christmas 1862 husband and wife separated by warChristmas 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 First images of Santa Clausand 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.

General Robert E. Lee in GordonsvilleA 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.




McClellan at Antietam

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Command Decisions

Battle of AntietamMaj. Gen. George McClellan’s final battle as commander of the Army of the Potomac was Antietam or as Southerners call it, Sharpsburg. The bloodiest single day battle in American history, Antietam is considered a tactical draw, even though the Union Army held the field while Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia retreated back across the Potomac into the safety of Virginia.

After the debacle of the Seven Days Battles, McClellan had withdrawn his huge army south to the James River where it was under the guns of the Union Navy. In August the bulk of McClellan’s command was transferred to the Army of Virginia, commanded by Maj. Gen. John Pope. Almost immediately Pope was engaged by Lee in a series of battles culminating in his defeat at Second Manassas or Bull Run.

After Pope’s defeat, Lincoln reluctantly returned McClellan to Washington where he combined both his force on the Peninsula and Pope’s shattered army into a strengthened Army of the Potomac. Lincoln told his aid John Hay, “We must use what tools we have. There is no man in the Army who can man these fortifications and lick these troops of ours into shape half as well as he. If he can’t fight himself, he excels in making others ready to fight.”

Meanwhile, Robert E. Lee shorn of any adversaries (or so he thought) crossed the Potomac and invaded Maryland on September 2nd. So began the great chase North. The two forces met at Harpers Ferry which Stonewall Jackson masterfully captured on September 15th. Another wing of Lee’s army fought pitched battles were fought on September 14 for possession of the South Mountain passes: Crampton’s, Turner’s, and Fox’s Gaps.

When Lee realized that he was overmatched he ordered his army to withdraw west to Sharpsburg. Meanwhile, an Indiana soldier discovered Robert E. Lee’s orders to his army wrapped around several cigars. McClellan confided to a subordinate, “Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home.”

Unfortunately, many historians believe that McClellan failed to fully exploit the strategic advantage of the intelligence because he was concerned about a possible trap (posited by Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck) or gross overestimation of the strength of Lee’s army.

Many historians say that even though McClellan brought a larger army that the Confederates to Antietam, he brought one soldier too many: himself. At Antietam, McClellan fought a piece-meal battle. Rather than ordering a general attack in the morning, the battle unfolded from north to south in a piece-meal fashion. These tactics allowed Lee’s outnumbered forces to move defensive forces to the points of the Union attacks.

McClellan also confined his movements across Antietam Creek the the various bridges that spanned the waterway. He believed that the creek was unfordable, yet units of Richardson’s Division forded it at the center of the battlefield opposite. My own second great grandfather recorded this in a latter affidavit.

In addition, McClellan has been heavily criticized for holding back his reserve force under the command of Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter. When Col. Francis C. Barlow and 350 men of the 61st and 64th New York saw a weak point in the line and seized a knoll commanding the sunken road. This allowed them to get enfilade fire into the Confederate line, turning it into a deadly trap.

The Confederate line broke and created a massive hole in their defenses but there was no force to follow up and rout the enemy. Porter is said to have told McClellan, “Remember, General, I command the last reserve of the last Army of the Republic.” McClellan took his implied advice and failed to commit his reserves into a battle that might have been won if he had used his forces aggressively.

McClellan failed to make the correct command decisions at Antietam and it cost the Union Army a clear victory and an opportunity to destroy Lee’s army. The destruction of the Army of Northern Virginia would have left Richmond virtually defenseless and with their capital city captured the South would have likely lost the war in 1862.




1862: The End of Conciliation in the East

This entry is part 4 of 18 in the series The Hard Hand of War

Map of US with divisionsWhile 1861 same several attempts to settle the war without shedding an ocean of blood, 1862 would see the gradual descent of the war into a bitter conflict on both sides. In order to understand this period we’ll look at the war from various perspectives. This post will cover the Eastern Theater.

After the First Battle of Manassas, or Bull Run as the losing Union side named it, both sides began a gradual feeling-out process that was the antithesis of the later total war waged by both sides. The reality of First Manassas convinced both sides that their armies were no more than armed mobs. Both armies were deficient in training, leadership and even uniforms.

Both sides had uniforms that in some cases caused confusion on the battlefield. There were Confederate units with blue uniforms and Union units with a sort of blue/gray uniform. Some of the uniforms were garish and impractical like the Zouave uniforms worn by units on both sides. Even the early Confederate battle flags caused confusion because of their similarity to Old Glory.

Both armies in the Eastern Theater spent the fall and winter reorganizing, training and equipping their troops. In the Western Theater there were tentative probes down the Mississippi River and into Kentucky which had tried to remain neutral.

Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant would make his first major foray from his base at Cairo, Illinois on November 7, 1861. The Battle of Belmont would see a limited clash of arms on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River with limited aims and a small loss of life.

In the Eastern Theater there were several engagements at the edges of the conflict but Maj. Gen. George McClellan refused to be pushed into major combat before he felt that his massive Army of the Potomac was ready to advance. By the end of 1861, McClellan had fortified Washington into one of the most defended cities in the world with 48 forts, 480 guns and 7,200 artillerymen.

The Army of the Potomac, McClellan’s chosen weapon of “shock and awe” had grown to over 190,000 men, the largest army ever assembled on the North American continent. It was was considered by far the most colossal military unit the world had seen in modern historical times. But McClellan wanted more. He envisioned an army of 273,000 with 600 guns to “crush the rebels in one campaign.”

McClellan continually overestimated the numbers of enemy troops that were facing him in the Washington area. On August 8, believing that the Confederates had over 100,000 troops facing him (in contrast to the 35,000 they actually deployed at Bull Run a few weeks earlier), he declared a state of emergency in the capital.

By August 19, he estimated 150,000 enemy to his front. McClellan’s future campaigns would be strongly influenced by the overblown enemy strength estimates of his secret service chief, detective Allan Pinkerton, but in August 1861, these estimates were entirely McClellan’s own.

The result was a level of extreme caution that sapped the initiative of McClellan’s army and caused great condemnation by his government. Historian and biographer Stephen W. Sears has called McClellan’s actions “essentially sound” if he had been as outnumbered as he believed, but McClellan in fact rarely had less than a two-to-one advantage over his opponents in 1861 and 1862. That fall, for example, Confederate forces ranged from 35,000 to 60,000, whereas the Army of the Potomac in September numbered 122,000 men; in early December 170,000; by year end, 192,000.

Eventually after much debate and arguments between McClellan and the Lincoln government, the Army of the Potomac was transported to the tip of the Peninsula where they began a slow advance northwest to their ultimate goal of Richmond. From the siege of Yorktown to Malvern Hill, McClellan and first, Joseph E. Johnston and then Robert E. Lee slugged it out over a four-month period. Eventually, the Confederates deflected the huge Union army from its goal.

While McClellan was left idle at Harrison’s Landing, Lee turned and thrashed Maj. Gen. John Pope at Second Manassas. He then turned north and headed into Maryland where Lee and McClellan met in the bloodiest one-day battle of the war at Antietam. After a bloodletting that caused almost 23,000 casualties, McClellan was relieved of command and replaced by Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside.

With the departure of McClellan the war in the Eastern Theater began a slide to total war. Burnside’s first major battle was at Frederickburg on the Rappahannock River. The Union artillery preparation for the crossing of the river would destroy a large part of the town.

Union cavalry units were sent into the Virginia countryside to seize food and fodder thus denying it to the Confederates. This would establish a pattern for both armies to prey upon the civilian populations. The Confederate cavalry would do the same in Maryland and later Pennsylvania.


Hooker’s Corps Commanders (Part I)

This entry is part 2 of 15 in the series The Chancellorsville Campaign

General Daniel ButterfieldAs the new commander of the Army of the Potomac, General Joe Hooker exercised his prerogative to name several new subordinate commanders to staff and corps command.

As his Chief of Staff, Hooker originally asked for Brig. Gen. Charles P. Stone. Unfortunately, Stone had commanded the troops at the disastrous Battle of Ball’s Bluff. Stone was largely blamed for the Union defeat and was arrested but never tried on any charges. In August 1862, he was released after 189 days in confinement. When Hooker asked for Stone as his chief of staff, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton denied the request.

Hooker moved on an asked for Brig. Gen. Daniel Butterfield instead. He was a dapper, New York businessman who worked at American Express, a company co-founded by his father. Butterfield had almost no military experience prior to the outbreak of the war, other than serving in the militia. He enlisted as a sergeant but quickly worked his way up to brigadier general by September 1861.

Butterfield was wounded at the Battle of  Gaines’ Mill on June 27, 1862 where he was recognized for his bravery with the Medal of Honor, “Seized the colors of the 83rd Pennsylvania Volunteers at a critical moment and, under a galling fire of the enemy, encouraged the depleted ranks to renewed exertion.”

It was while he was recuperating from his wounds that Butterfield began experimenting with bugle calls. He is credited with the composition of Taps, probably the most famous bugle call ever written. He wrote it to replace the customary firing of three rifle volleys at the end of burials during battle. “Taps” also replaced Tattoo, the French bugle call to signal “lights out”.

By the Battle of Antietam, Butterfield had risen to division command and at Fredericksburg he commanded the V Corps where his troops made the primary assaults against Marye’s Heights.

He developed a close personal and political friendship with Hooker. The two were known for their drinking and womanizing; their headquarters being described as a combination of a “bar and brothel”. By March 1863, Butterfield had been promoted to the rank of major general.

Another key appointment was that of Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles. Hooker appointed him to General Daniel E. Sicklesthe command of the III Corps, replacing Maj. Gen. George Stoneman who was transferred to command the Cavalry Corps.

Sickles was a New York lawyer and politician who was best known for killing his wife’s lover, Philip Barton Key. A Member of the House, he was tried for murder but was acquitted by using the insanity defense, the first successful use of this legal tactic in United States history.

At the outbreak of the war, Sickles actively recruited volunteers in New York. He was appointed a colonel, then a brigadier general of volunteers but his commission was not approved by Congress. Using his political skills his commission was confirmed by May 1862 and he rejoined his brigade.

Despite his complete lack of military experience, Sickles was found to be a competent commander in  the Battle of Seven Pines and the Seven Days Battles. Promoted to division command, at the time of the Antietam Campaign his division was one of those units that protected the capital. His division was in reserve at Fredericksburg.

He was a close ally of Hookers and was given command of the III Corps in February 1863, a controversial move in the army because he became the only corps commander without a West Point education.

General John ReynoldsThe I Corps was commanded by Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds, a West Point educated career officer. Reynolds had graduated in 1841 from the military academy. He had served with distinction during the Mexican War, receiving two brevet promotions in Mexico—to captain for gallantry at Monterrey and to major for Buena Vista, where his section of guns prevented the Mexican cavalry from outflanking the American left.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Reynolds was Commandant of Cadets at West Point. He was eventually appointed to the rank of brigadier general and given command of a brigade of the Pennsylvania Reserves.

During the Seven Days Battles, he was captured but was quickly exchanged. Promoted to command of the Pennsylvania Reserves Division, he led them at the Battle of Second Manassas where he personally led a successful counterattack waving the flag and shouting, “Now boys, give them the steel, charge bayonets, double quick!”

He missed the Antietam Campaign while on detached assignment with the Pennsylvania militia. Despite the protests of Generals George McClellan and Joseph Hooker, the governor of Pennsylvania insisted on his temporary assignment to his home state.

When he returned to the Army of the Potomac, he was given command of the I Corps which he led at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Despite his corps’ lackluster performance in the battle, After the battle, Reynolds was promoted to major general of volunteers, with a date of rank of November 29, 1862.

The II Corps had been commanded by Maj. Gen. Edwin Vose Sumner until his appointment as the commander of “Right Grand Division”, one of George McClellan’s reorganizations.

In his place Maj. Gen. Darius N. Couch had been appointed to command the corps. DariusGeneral Darius Couch Couch was an 1846 graduate of West point. He served in the Mexican War where he was he was brevetted a first lieutenant for “gallant and meritorious conduct” at the Battle of Buena Vista.

At the outbreak of the war he was given the command of the 7th Massachusetts Infantry on June 15, 1861. He quickly rose to brigade and then division command. He led his division at Seven Pines and then at the Battle of Oak Grove on June 25 and the Battle of Malvern Hill on July 1.

Pleading failing health, he submitted his resignation but General McClellan would not accept it and Couch was promoted to major general. On November 14, 1862, Couch was assigned command of the II Corps, and he led it during the Battle of Fredericksburg.

General George Gordon MeadeMaj. Gen. George Gordon Meade was the commander of the V Corps. Meade was a West Pointer, graduating in 1835. He served in the Second Seminole War and the Mexican War where he was brevetted to first lieutenant for gallant conduct at the Battle of Monterrey.

At the outset of the Civil War, Meade was promoted from captain to brigadier general of volunteers by August 1861. He was assigned command of the 2nd Brigade of the Pennsylvania Reserves. At the Battle of Glendale, one of the Seven Days Battles, Meade was severely wounded in the arm, back, and side.

He partially recovered his strength in time for the Northern Virginia Campaign and the Second Battle of Bull Run, in which he led his brigade, then assigned to Maj. Gen.Irvin McDowell’s corps of the Army of Virginia. His brigade made a heroic stand on Henry House Hill to protect the rear of the retreating Union Army.

He was promoted to division command at the start of the Antietam Campaign. In the Battle of Antietam, Meade replaced the wounded Hooker in command of I Corps, selected personally by McClellan over other generals his superior in rank. He performed well at Antietam, but was wounded in the thigh.

During the Battle of Fredericksburg, Meade’s division made the only breakthrough of the Confederate lines, spearheading through a gap in Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps at the southern end of the battlefield. For this action, Meade was promoted to major general of volunteers, to rank from November 29, 1862. After the battle he was given command of the V Corps.


The Battle of Port Republic: June 7-8, 1862

This entry is part 13 of 14 in the series Jackson's Valley Campaign

The Battle of Port Republic:

June 7-8, 1862

The Battle of Port Republic was the second part of the two-part battle that Jackson conducted against the Federal forces of John C. Fremont and James Shields.

The town of Port Republic, Virginia was by itself of no consequence with about 50 buildings and no major industry. Its most important feature was its geographic location. It was surrounded on three sides by water with the North River and the South River joining on the eastern edge of the town to form the South Fork of the Shenandoah River.

Just upstream from the confluence of the two rivers was the only bridge over the North River for many miles. Downstream the nearest bridge was at Conrad’s Store, about 13 miles north but Jackson’s men had destroyed it on their way south. The South River had two fords near the town and at other points upstream.

Battle of Port Republic (1)Jackson’s immediate goal was to maintain control of the bridge or destroy it in order to keep the two Federal forces from uniting. He choose to keep the bridge intact because he required it to maneuver his forces or if pressed too hard simply cross his forces and destroy it behind them.

Jackson positioned his force on a line of bluffs overlooking the approaches to Port Republic. He stationed very few men in the town itself. He was hoping to lure Fremont into an attack on Richard Ewell’s force. He could then lead his force in a counterattack.

On the evening of June 7th Jackson was at his headquarters on the southwestern edge of Port Republic. He was at the home of Dr. George Kemper. In the town was a single battery of six guns commanded by Capt. James Carrington. The two cavalry companies that had been posted in town were sent east to keep in contant with Shields’ on-coming division.

At 8:00 AM the following morning Jackson and several staff member were conferring on the veranda of the Kemper house when Federal cavalry raced into town and came close to capturing him. The enemy force included a detachment from the 1st West Virginia Cavalry that numbered about 150 troopers and 2 artillery pieces from Battery L of the 1st Ohio Artillery.

The unit was commanded by Col. Samuel S. Carroll who was in command of Shields’ advance brigade. On June 4th he had been detailed to seize the bridge on the North River. Because of the poor weather and the muddy roads he was delayed until the 7th when he set out with 1,000 infantry, 150 cavalry and a six-gun battery.

On the night of the 7th he halted for the night 6 miles north of Port Republic. Early the next morning he advanced into the town itself with his cavalry accompanied by 2 of the 6 guns. Carroll posted his 2 guns at the lower ford of the South River to cover the bridge after he had dispersed the Confederate skirmishers.

In the lower end of the town Carroll could see some cavalry, the Confederate trains and a herd of beef cattle. He had no idea that Jackson was in residence and without an escort. Jackson received twoCarroll's Detachment in Port Republic warnings about the Federal force: one from a panic-stricken courier and a Union artillery shell that was fired into the town.

After dispatching Jed Hotchkiss to alert the trains he mounted up with his staff and made a dash for the North River bridge. He managed to escape but at least two of his staff were captured. They were later either released or escaped.

Carroll moved his two cannon to Main Street where they commanded the both the bridge and the street. He then settled in to wait for reinforcements.

The Confederate artillery battery was fortunate to be bolstred by a 12-man infantry unit that stiffened the inexperienced artillerymen. They dug in at the Kemper estate where they could protect the trains from the marauding Union cavalry.

The teamsters were understandably panicky and preparing to flee when the Confederate infantry fired a point blank volley in the Union cavalry. The artillerymen took heart and fired a shot through the surrounding wooden fence and caused the Union cavalry to hesitate. Two more Confederate guns joined the battle and the Union cavalry retreated, their mission unfulfilled.

Meanwhile Jackson rallied his troops on the opposite side of the river. He ordered Capt. William T. Poague’s Rockbridge Battery to move up to the bridge and Charles Winder’s Stonewall Brigade to cross over into Port Republic.

After a brief confrontation at the bridge one of Carroll’s gun crews abandoned their piece and fled across the South River. When the 37th Virginia rushed the bridge and captured the second piece Carroll realized that he couldn’t hold the town without his supporting infantry and hastily crossed the South River. The entire raid had taken just an hour from start to finish.

To prevent a reoccurence Jackson posted William Taliaferro’s Brigade in the town and sent Winder’s Brigade two miles downstream to make sure that Shields’ Division didn’t surprise them. During the rest of the day while Ewell’s men battled Fremont’s force at Cross Keys, Jackson waited for Shields to arrive.