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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Wartime Christmas, 1862

(Cannon surrounded by Union graves on the top of Marye's Heights, Fredericksburg.)

Christmas, in 1862, was a holiday only just beginning to gain acceptance in New England. For the first two hundred years of our Puritan English settlement, the holiday was ignored. By the Civil War, when a large influx of Irish immigrants brought the holiday with them, and they, like the holiday, were struggling for legitimacy in a still-Puritan New England, the holiday began to take root here.

An advertisement ran in a New England newspaper that autumn:

“Ladies of the right spirit and proper capacity are constantly wanted to act as nurses…” read the ad in the Chicopee Journal. It was an unusual ad for a time when the nursing profession, like the Irish, and Christmas, was struggling to gain acceptance in a skeptical New England. A new field for women, it was considered unrespectable because of the unpleasant conditions of the work and the intimacy of caring for male patients.

But the new profession offered adventure and the opportunity to contribute to the national cause. The ad warned the women would be required “to labor all day, and sometimes all night, performing duties always difficult, and sometimes extremely unpleasant; to live in the midst of suffering, disease, and death; to check the impatient, cheer the despondent, and pray for the dying….”

For many suffering soldiers, prayer was the only comfort as the field hospital conditions of the day were barbaric by our standards.

The Civil War was embarked upon with waving banners and noble slogans from both North and South. There was much at stake, and such social and economic upheaval in so short a space had not been seen anywhere in the world up until that time. Northern halls echoed with fiery orations and determined ladies’ sewing circles. Patriotic fever ran high even as somber reality set in when the letters from the front were received.

The first two years of the war were especially bitter for the Union, prospects discouraging, progress slowed, battles lost. Christmas of 1862 came in on the heels of the Union defeat at Fredericksburg, Virginia. The ladies who answered the ad for nurses were witnessing awful scenes in the Washington, D.C. hospitals.

Western Massachusetts was kept abreast of the news from the frontlines through telegraph dispatches, and from letters from the soldiers. Many of the men volunteering from Chicopee, Westfield, Springfield, and Holyoke, and surrounding towns, served with the 10th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. This unit was formed in Springfield in 1861.

The Westfield Newsletter of December 17th carried a letter from a Westfield soldier in the 10th, written to his parents:

“I am on the supply train now, and there is a prospect that I shall remain here for some time to come…On the 26th of November, we started from our encampment with thirty odd head of condemned horses and mules, broken wagons, and dilapidated harnesses. The horses and mules were all so worn out with hard work and by disease that they could not trot and some of them could hardly walk. We went to Aquia creek Landing, and found night upon us…We started Thanksgiving morning, after breakfast (which consisted of a cup of coffee, two crackers and a small piece of pork) for Bell Plains -- camped after dark, then hunted for the yard -- found coffee, pork and crackers but no yard -- started the next morning and went to Falmouth and then about two miles further to Gen. Burnside’s head quarters. There we were told to take some food, which order we obeyed without a second notice. We were so hungry that we could not wait for our pork to be cooked…the worst part of the whole was in lifting and pulling the worn out mules from the mud. Sometimes we had to wade in water and mud up to our knees. That is the manner in which I spent my Thanksgiving day -- also the day before and after it.

“It begins to look like stopping here for some time. It is too bad, as I want to see this war finished.”

The Springfield Republican’s correspondent was attached to the 10th Mass, who signed himself R.W.B. He recorded the battle as the Union forces in their disastrous campaign at Fredericksburg, Virginia, finally crossed the Rappahannock River.

“About 10 this morning the firing commenced in front of us, and now, about 1 p.m. the shells are bursting all around us as I write. Gens Newton, Devens and Cochrane, Col Eustace, Major Parker and several staff officers went out in front of us a few minutes ago to take a look, and the rebs trained a gun on them and exploded a few shells near them, inducing them to leave that place, which they did with some witticisms, not the least of which was one by Liet. Knight that ‘There were too many stars in that constellation….’”

It grew closer to Christmas, and stereopticons, hair receivers, and books were advertised for sale, as well as Christmas fairs to aid the soldiers. After this one Fredericksburg campaign, 1,284 Union men were killed, 9,600 wounded, and 1,760 were still missing.

(Above, the Sunken Road at the bottom of Marye's Heights, Frederickburg, where hundreds of Union men were killed.)

“A report may be spread that Chaplain Fuller of the 16th Massachusetts, was killed yesterday while accompanying his regiment as a volunteer in an attack upon the houses. It is not true; the deceased was a man resembling him.” Small comfort to the family of the man resembling Chaplain Fuller. Among the men of the 10th Mass: John Hazlett of Company A, whose spine was severed.

On Christmas Day, the Republican contained a report from RWB sent from Virginia the week before. The battle over…

“…there is prospect of our resting a little. We had a large mail yesterday and were made very happy thereby. We can write to our friends now, a privilege we have not had for a long time.”

Perhaps some of the letters from the men of the 10th Mass found their way to their friends and families in time for Christmas. The Westfield Newsletter’s war correspondent reported on Christmas Day from Washington:

“The wounded soldiers in our hospitals have been treated to-day to a Christmas dinner -- Benevolent ladies and gentlemen here have had the matter in hand for sometime, and the result has been a sumptuous dinner for the invalids. There is some difference of opinion in regard to whether it will benefit them…

“The day has been beautiful -- such as one would be appropriate to the month of April.”

Two days before, on the 23rd, RWB also noted the break in the weather, and described a funeral. It is an interesting letter, thoughtful, and touching in its simplicity.

“This is a beautiful morning, the sun is warm, and the out of doors life is quite agreeable today. I can sit by a campfire and write without overcoat and gloves. How nice!...

“…Day before yesterday we buried D.A. Buswell of Company H. The members of his company speak highly of him, and he is believed to have died a Christian. Oh, how solemn are these funerals of our comrades, and how soon do we forget the admonitions. We perform the last rites with sorrow, and turn away to mingle with the others in what first attracts our attention, with the same heedlessness as before.”

RWB and the men of the 10th were human, even under inhuman conditions. According to the regimental history, “Christmas day in camp was not a merry one though some brave hearts attempted some betterment of their regular rations by resorting to the sutler. The general tone of the army was low.”

In such conditions, one finds comfort where one can. In the same dispatch, RWB noted that the troops of the 37th Mass were kept amused by a four-footed member of their unit. He was a cat named Picket, who belonged to a soldier from Pittsfield.

“It is amusing to see her on the march, perched upon the top of the shoulders of the captain’s servant, or on the roll of blankets he usually carries, where she jolts along when he runs, and reposes quietly when he walks. ‘Picket’ feeds from the same plates and drinks from the same cup with the officers, not always being particular to wait until they have finished.”

This is how Christmas of 1862 was celebrated by some New England men far from home. It was the second wartime Christmas of the Civil War, and the people back home were adjusting to privations and becoming hardened to losses and bad news.

The year before, on the first Civil War Christmas, an editorial in the Westfield Newsletter reflected on the task at hand and the hope that was necessary in times like these.

“The people of the free states are in great measure exempt from the horrors of this war, and enjoying their Christmas festivities in comparative quiet…Our friends and relatives are on the tented field, or, perhaps engaged in deadly conflict, and for this our hearts may be sad. But we will yield not to despair! In this distant future we behold the fulfillment of the promise to the shepherds, and the advent of the Messiah, of ‘Peace on Earth and good will to men’ Then, let us be joyful to-day, for rich blessings are in store for us and for our children.”

It would be months until spring, years before the war’s end, and many miles for the soldiers of both armies to trod. But a letter, a few days warmth were momentary blessings enough to dispel the gloom. They were hopeful, and the spirit of Christmas which represents a great hope, brought comfort to those of the 10th Mass, and the folks at home on Christmas Day.
An earlier version of the above essay was published in Chickuppy & Friends Magazine. Sources for this essay include:

The Chicopee Journal
The Springfield Daily Republican
The Westfield Newsletter

“Tenth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry 1861-64” by Alfred S. Roe (Tenth Reg. Veterans Assoc., Springfield, Mass., 1909)

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