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A Civil War Christmas Revisted at Pike County Civil War Forum

The Pike County Civil War Forum was treated to the trappings of a Confederate Christmas Monday night at historic Beulah Church in Troy.

Keith Roling presented a program on Christmas celebrations on the battlefields during the War Between the States. But first he treated those in attendance with the “party foods” that the soldiers of both the Confederate and Union armies enjoyed –hardtack and a “coffee” of roasted barley, rye and chicory.

“Hardtack was a hard, saltless, and I might add, tasteless, biscuit made of flour and water,” Roling said. “It was what the soldiers ate because it would last until it was all eaten. It was often all they had to eat.”

Roling, laughingly, said the bitter coffee was good for little more than to “wash the hardtack down.”

Roling’s program provided an interesting but “hard” look at Christmastime on the Civil War battlefields and how it was celebrated in the trenches.

“Christmas during the Civil War was celebrated in both the United States and the Confederate States of America – 1861-1865 – however, the day did not become an official holiday until five years after the war ended,” Roling said. “Christmas became an official federal holiday in 1870 when President Ulysses Grant made it so in an attempt to unite the North and South.”

But Christmas Day was not a holiday on the battlefields. War raged and skirmishes occurred throughout the countryside. Soldiers not actively campaigning celebrated Christmas in several ways. 

“Union soldiers would use salt pork and hardtack to decorate Christmas trees. However, some soldiers were treated to turkey, oysters and apples,” Roling said.

“In one incident on December 25, 1864, Union soldiers from Michigan, led by their captain, dispensed food and supplies to poor Georgians. They hauled the food and supplies with carts pulled by mules that were decorated with branches tied to their heads to resemble reindeer.”

In some units, celebrating Christmas was not allowed. On Christmas Day 1862, the soldiers in one unit were punished for celebratory gunfire when the gunfire was actually for a funeral salute,” Roling said.

In 1863, many Union soldiers received gifts from Tad Lincoln, the son of President Abraham Lincoln.

“Tad Lincoln had been deeply moved by the plight of the Union soldiers when his father took him to see them” Roling said. “The gifts were mostly books and clothing.”

Roling said the most famous Christmas gift Lincoln ever received came on December 22, 1864, when William Tecumseh Sherman announced the capture of Savannah, Georgia.

On Christmas Day, 1864, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote “Christmas Bells” after hearing that his son had suffered wounds during the Mine Run Campaign.

The poem was put to music and is the popular carol of Christmas, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

“The carol often doesn’t include two stanzas that focused on the war,” Roling said: And, in despair, I bowed my head. There is no peace on earth I said. For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth good will to men. Then rang the bells more loud and deep. God is not dead nor doth He sleep. The wrong shall fail; the right prevail, With peace on earth good will to men.

Roling said the Santa Claus we know today is an image that political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, depicted as a white-bearded Santa in the December 1862 edition of Harper’s Weekly. Nast’s Santa handed gifts such as socks to Union soldiers.

Roling closed the program with the thought that both the Confederate and Union armies spent each Christmas on the battlefields with little more than the hope of warmth and for better things to come.