Christmas Crackers—And Not Much Else

Guest post by Michael C. C. Adams

To lighten the gloomy Civil War holiday season, printmakers and newspaper editors, such as Currier & Ives and Harper’s Weekly in the North, produced pictures emanating good cheer. Well-clad soldiers were shown clustered around wood fires in cosy log huts with tent roofs and barrel chimneys, sharing food parcels from home. Civilians were depicted beside amply-provided dinner tables, family members reading soldiers’ letters before feasting. Louisa May Alcott memorialized this romanticized scene in Little Women (1868) when Mr. March returns from the front to enjoy turkey with his girls. Overall, concluded Meg,1862 had been a rather pleasant year.

Actually, it had been bloody, and war never took a holiday. On both sides, years ended with anxiety for those engaged in such savage contests as Fredericksburg, Murfreesboro, Spring Hill, and Franklin, where hogs and scavenger birds feasted on corpses.

Holidays bred homesickness among soldiers. Demoralization plus malnutrition produced dysentery, morphing often into nostalgia, a debilitating psychosomatic ailment, victims dying miserably in field hospitals.   Some men ran for home and, when caught, were executed. A seventeen-year old who deserted Sherman’s army, November 1864, pleaded in extenuation: “I just wanted to see my mother.” He was shot.

Winter quarters were rarely idyllic. Many men had no shelter, sleeping on bare ground, exposed to the elements. If fortunate enough to share a tent, soldiers were nauseated by foul smells as bad food churned through bowels. Although rosy images showed families enjoying Christmas Crackers imported from England (that, when exploded, threw out party favors), the only crackers most troops saw were hardtack biscuits (often moldy and home to weevils), along with dried beans. Intermittent food parcels arrived spoiled. When the 72nd New York’s Joseph Twichell opened his 1862 Thanksgiving box, it contained moldy pie and rotten turkey. Sam Watkins, 1st Tennessee (C.S.A.), serving on Lookout Mountain, November 1863, said the boys were starved, almost naked, covered in lice, sick, and heart-broken. They survived on corn kernels picked from the dung of officers’ horses.

Joseph E. Crowell, 13th New Jersey, recalled the 1862 holidays in his 1906 memoir, The Young Soldier. Crowell pulled picket duty on Christmas Eve, lonely and spooked by noises in the night. Returning to camp, he saw comrades lying feet to the fire, like spokes of a wheel. The warmth reached their legs, but shoulders and heads were buried in snow. Christmas breakfast was hardtack and coffee, followed by dinner comprising desiccated vegetables, rehydrated by boiling in a tomato can. They swelled out of the pot, tasting like rags.

The boys completed the festivities by boiling lice out of clothing seams, their tenting ground, used previously by many other soldiers, teeming with insects. Finally, snow turned to rain that, mixing with Virginia clay, formed mud the consistency of bread dough that glued to the feet in sticky strings.

Numerous civilians, especially Confederates, fared no better, barely subsisting, and struggling with grief. Mary Boykin Chesnut, seemingly fortunate to be the wife of a Confederate politician, endured a miserable dinner at the elite Preston family home in Richmond on Christmas Eve, 1863. The maimed male guests led one belle to quip darkly that her dancing partners were “a glorious assortment of noble martyrs and wrecks — heroes, I mean.” Another girl laughed bitterly, “I fear it will be my fate to marry one who has lost his head.” Many did, returning broken in spirit. Mary suffered nightmares, waking screaming after seeing the terrible injuries, including those of General John Bell Hood, who sat during dinner morosely staring into the fire, reliving ghastly fights. Mary’s holiday included spooning gravy and milk to men hospitalized with shattered faces, unable to feed themselves.

Although there were Americans who enjoyed ideal holidays as portrayed in prints, war increasingly stole the season’s joy. Many agreed with Crowell’s chum Butterworth’s wry comment, as they boiled their clothes, “This is a Merry Christmas, isn’t it?”

I capture such dark aspects of the conflict in Living Hell, a candid look at the war’s human cost.

The Young Soldier carried illustrations. Here are three, with explanations.


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