As 2014 draws to a close, many of us are home enjoying the comfort and relaxation of the holiday season. However, not everyone has the opportunity to enjoy these luxuries. Let us be mindful of the men and women who are away from their families this holiday season. Let us also look back and explore the following questions: What was life like in wintertime for Civil War soldiers and how did they celebrate Christmas away from home?
Camp life was often tedious and became even more monotonous during the long winter months. Regiments were less transient and established fixed camps. These camps were unfortunately unhygienic and acted as breeding grounds for disease. Poor sanitation, bitter cold, and sickness were further compounded by the ever-present threat of boredom and restlessness. In order to combat this restlessness, soldiers pursued leisure activities that ranged from playing card games to engaging in snowball fights!
Caption from Civil War Trust: Snowball fight near Dalton, GA. Winter 1864. (Library of Congress)
When Christmas rolled around, some soldiers in camp mimiced traditions from home. For example, Alfred Bellard, a member of the 5th New Jersey, recounted that a small tree was put up in front of his tent and decorated with hard tack and pork! In spite of such attempts at jollity, soldiers experienced Christmas in comparatively gloomy conditions. Although the holiday provided a reprieve from the monotony of life in a winter encampment, it caused soldiers to feel homesick for the families they had left behind.
Clara Barton was often on the road throughout the Civil War. How did she spend Christmas away from home? In particular, how did she spend December 1862?
Fredericksburg, December 1862:
PBS: Battle of Fredericksburg
The Battle of Fredericksburg, which was fought from December 11-15, 1862, was one of the largest and deadliest battles of the Civil War and included nearly 200,000 combatants. The armies fought in the streets of Fredericksburg itself. In response to the fighting, a dressing station was established at Chatham Manor, which was then known as Lacy House. Its owner, James Horace Lacy, was a plantation master and slaveholder who supported the South and left Chatham to serve the Confederacy. The Union army subsequently occupied the manor and used it as a hospital.
NPS Caption: “Artist conception of Chatham Manor just before the Battle of Fredericksburg”Source: http://www.nps.gov/frsp/chatham.htm
During the battle itself, the doctors did not keep medical records. Clara Barton, who was staying at the manor, kept a list of the men who died at Chatham and where they were laid to rest. Although this work predates the establishment of the Missing Soldiers Office, it clearly reflects Miss Barton’s characteristic meticulousness and compassion. She was the only volunteer female nurse and relief worker in Fredericksburg. Her efforts brought her into the thick of the action; according to her diary, the Lacy house itself was struck by a shot during the battle.
While at Chatham, Clara wrote a letter to her cousin Vira about the conflict.
Camp near Falmouth, Va.
December 12th, 1862 - 2 o'clock A.M.
My dear Cousin Vira:
Five minutes time with you; and God only knows what those five minutes might be worth to the many-doomed thousands sleeping around me. It is the night before a battle. The enemy, Fredericksburg, and its mighty entrenchments lie before us, the river between - at tomorrow's dawn our troops will assay to cross, and the guns of the enemy will sweep those frail bridges at every breath. The moon is shining through the soft haze with a brightness almost prophetic. For the last half hour I have stood alone in the awful stillness of its glimmering light gazing upon the strange sad scene around me striving to say, "Thy will Oh God be done." The camp fires blaze with unwanted brightness, the sentry's tread is still but quick - the acres of little shelter tents are dark and still as death, no wonder for us as I gazed sorrowfully upon them. I thought I could almost hear the slow flap of the grim messenger's wings, as one by one he sought and selected his victims for the morning. Sleep weary one, sleep and rest for tomorrow toil. Oh! Sleep and visit in dreams once more the loved ones nestling at home. They may yet live to dream of you, cold lifeless and bloody, but this dream soldier is thy last, paint it brightly, dream it well. Oh northern mothers wives and sisters, all unconscious of the hour, would to Heaven that I could bear for you the concentrated woe which is so soon to follow, would that Christ would teach my soul a prayer that would plead to the Father for grace sufficient for you, God pity and strengthen you every one. Mine are not the only waking hours, the light yet burns brightly in our kind hearted General's tent where he pens what may be a last farewell to his wife and children and thinks sadly of his fated men. Already the roll of the moving artillery is sounded in my ears. The battle draws near and I must catch one hour's sleep for tomorrow's labor. Good night near cousin and Heaven grant you strength for your more peaceful and less terrible, but not less weary days than mine.
Yours in love,
Fredericksburg was ultimately a catastrophic Union defeat in which General Burnside’s forces suffered 12,600 casualties. Many of these men were brought to Chatham to be taken care of. Clara was among those who provided aid to the wounded men, which she administered with warmth and devotion. She sacrificed her own comfort and lived in a tent in the front yard rather than inside the manor, which was crowded with the sick and wounded. It was so packed that some men were required to stay outside. Clara had her assistants heat up bricks and use them to help keep these men warm. She also set up a soup kitchen in the yard and prepared hot toddies for those under her care. Miss Barton even made “milk punch” for a severely ill man named Wiley Faulkner. In spite of the kindness and care she provided, the horrors that Clara witnessed at Chatham would ultimately plague her for the rest of her life.
A recipe for milk punch, which Miss Barton prepared for Wiley Faulkner, can be found in Marion Harland’s 1875 cookbook Breakfast, Luncheon, and Tea.
Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project
Later that month on December 16th, the Army began to evacuate the wounded from the hospitals around Fredericksburg. They were transported to Washington, D.C and Alexandria. On December 25th, 1862, which was both Christmas Day and Clara’s 41st birthday, she continued to help evacuate patients. For Clara Barton and Fredericksburg, Christmas of 1862 was marred by the turmoil of war and the harsh realities of the aftermath of battle.
Let us be cognizant of and thankful for the comforts surrounding us this holiday season.
Happy Holidays and Happy New Year from the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum!
Please Note: The CBMSO is currently undergoing renovations. We will reopen on January 16th, 2015. Thank you for your patience!
“Winter Encampments: The Long and Frozen Road.” Civil War Trust. http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/warfare-and-logistics/warfare/winter/winter-encampments-1.html
“Christmas During the Civil War.” Civil War Trust.
“Fredericksburg.” Civil War Trust. http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/fredericksburg.html?tab=facts
“Chatham Manor.” National Park Service. http://www.nps.gov/frsp/chatham.htm
“Clara Barton at Chatham.” National Park Service. http://www.nps.gov/frsp/barton.htm
Harland, Marion. Breakfast, Luncheon, and Tea. Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project. http://digital.lib.msu.edu/projects/cookbooks/books/breakfastluncheon/brkf.pdf
Oates, Stephen B. A Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War. New York: The Free Press, 1994. Print.