The first Christmas of the Civil War was not very merry, on either side

December 6, 2011
No merry Christmas in 1861

When the fathers and older brothers marched off to war in the spring of 1861, most left behind families filled with patriotic pride. But as Christmas drew near, their families were filled with sadness at the thought of the holiday without them.

At least they didn’t have to worry about losing their loved ones in battle. Not much fighting went on during the winter, so the armies stayed in camp, drilling and trying to keep warm. Mothers and children packed Christmas boxes to send them. Apples, baked goods and other treats to share — maybe even a ham or a pound of butter! — and knit socks and gloves.

On Christmas Day, most children went to church with their mothers and received small presents. This early in the war, there was enough food for a special Christmas dinner, too. People sang carols and tried to be cheerful. But in army camps on both sides, it was an ordinary winter day: drilling, writing letters and bringing in firewood. In the evening, though, the cooks prepared a special meal, and often there was singing as well as races and games.

This first wartime Christmas was not a joyous one, but those that followed it would be much worse.

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