Pages Menu

Categories Menu

Posted on Aug 13, 2006 in Front Page Features, War College

Christmas 1863

By Wyatt Kingseed

With jobs plentiful to keep pace with the federal army’s demand for goods and material, factories ran full tilt as the North enjoyed a robust economy. On that front, northern civilians were blessed. But conditions south of the Mason-Dixon Line could best be described as desperate, with starvation a real possibility. Understandably the Confederate government put first priority on feeding its armies, confiscating food and supplies from the civilian populace as necessary across the South. This policy of impressments angered southern statehouses at a time when deflation ravaged Confederate currency. A Confederate dollar was now worth but five cents, prompting clerk Jones to dryly observe, “As well might one lift himself from the earth by seizing his feet, as to legislate a remedy.”


In the Confederate congress, President Davis managed to beat back a challenge from disgruntled southern governors, but evidence of weakening Southern resolve could no longer be denied. If the Army of the Potomac didn’t do the job, internal pressure and infighting were likely to sink the South’s waning hopes for independence.

In the camp of the commanding general of the Army of Northern Virginia, Robert E. Lee felt sadness over word from the capital of the death of his daughter-in-law, Charlotte. Her health had steadily deteriorated since the capture last summer of her husband, Lee’s second son, Rooney. At present, Rooney was incarcerated at Fortress Monroe at the mouth of the James River.

Lee spent much of that December in Richmond hoping to dissuade President Davis from reassigning him to Tennessee as Bragg’s replacement. He convinced the beleaguered Davis to name Joe Johnson instead. In the meantime Lee enjoyed a rare respite from daily command to visit with family. But ever the consummate professional soldier, he left early, without spending Christmas with his ailing wife, Mary. Setting an example for his men, he returned to Orange Courthouse on the 21st.

In a letter to his wife, Lee unburdened his grief on learning of Charlotte’s death on the 26th. “It has pleased God to take from us one exceedingly dear to us,” he wrote. “I grieve for our lost darling as a father only can grieve for a daughter, and my sorrow is heightened by the thought of the anguish her death will cause our dear son and the poignancy it will give to the bars of his prison.”

Some men in the opposing army shared Lee’s sense of duty. Elisha Hunt Rhodes of the 2nd Rhode Island infantry was one of the soldiers Lee’s army would face in the coming spring offensive. Rhodes was presently in winter quarters with the rest of Army of Potomac between the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers north of Richmond. The regiment’s tour of duty was scheduled to end in June, and the main topic of conversation that Christmas week was who wanted to re-enlist. Rhodes felt compelled to finish what he started.

“I decided without hesitation,” he wrote. “The United States need the services of her sons. I am young and in good health, and I feel that I owe a duty to my country.” Having already served longer than expected, and not knowing how much longer he’d be needed, Rhodes was determined. “So goodbye to homesickness. I am going, if God wills, to see the end of this wicked rebellion.”

The young adjutant spent Christmas riding his newly acquired horse, Kate, and hosting a dinner party for fellow officers. They tried to celebrate the holiday in “a becoming manner.”

Rhodes’ new horse gave him a pleasant diversion. But for many soldiers the dull routine of army life and winter encampment got the best of them. Captain Francis Donaldson of the 118th Pennsylvania stood under arrest for having recently threatened to shoot his commanding officer, Colonel James Gwyn. The personalities of the two officers had clashed throughout a yearlong feud. Disgusted with his superior’s drunkenness, and tired of the man’s constant criticism, Donaldson had confronted his nemeses earlier that month, hoping to force his own dismissal from the service. Gwyn complied, bringing charges of insubordination and mutiny. Now, awaiting the verdict of a recent court martial, Donaldson enjoyed a glass of brandy for Christmas breakfast and wrote his brother. “You ask the meaning of ‘oskerfoodle.’ Well, it is a term used by the soldiers to denote drunkenness, or rum, according to how it is applied. Thus, Adj. Hand was ‘oskerfoodled,’ meaning that he was drunk, a condition that he is in pretty much all his time just now…”

Across the lines a rebel cannoneer, George Neese of Jeb Stuart’s horse artillery, felt grateful for his good fortune. “I am glad I am alive and whole, for during this year many a poor soldier whose sun of life glowed in the very zenith of manhood and glory was cut down and immolated on the alter of his country.” To commemorate the day, the crew fired two rounds from their guns as a birthday salute to Christ. They restricted their Christmas menu to beef with gravy and corn bread, fearing anything more exotic would upset their stomach and “throw us headlong on the sick list.”

At the White House, Abraham Lincoln fielded requests for help while he recovered from varioloid, a mild form of smallpox. Feeling magnanimous and flush with confidence the Union would be saved, earlier that month he had issued a Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction. With some exceptions it promised a full pardon to anyone taking a loyalty oath, no questions asked. Becoming personally involved with one captured enemy soldier, Lincoln answered the father’s letter the day after Christmas. “Your son, Dan, has just left me with order to the Secretary of War, to administer to him the oath of allegiance, discharge him and send him to you.”

Because Lincoln regularly visited the telegraph office in the war department to monitor events, he likely read of the day’s only significant combat action—Charleston residents had their holiday disrupted when the federal navy dropped 150 shells onto city streets in its continued bombardment of the southern port. Several buildings were set fire. Luckily for Agustus Smythe, one was not Saint Michael’s Church. The Confederate Signal Corps veteran watched the bombardment from the steeple of the city’s tallest structure. From his vantage point, Smythe would have also heard the action that morning along nearby Stono River.

Saint Michael’s Church

At dawn, hidden rebel shore batteries unleashed their guns on the federal steam gunboat, USS Marblehead, while a regiment of Confederate infantry readied to assault a Union garrison on Saint John’s Island. Lieutenant-Commander Richard Meade ordered his crew to slip cable and return fire. His battle report to Rear Admiral John Dahlgren of the South Atlantic Blockading Fleet described the contest. “Both officers and men of the vessel behaved admirably, and, though the vessel was struck over twenty times and was much cut up aloft, on deck, and in personnel, stood their guns until the enemy retired discomfited from theirs.”

The Mablehead suffered seven casualties, including three deaths. The engagement was hot enough to earn quartermaster James Miller a Medal of Honor, but when sister ship, the USS Pawnee, joined the fray, the rebels conceded defeat. They cancelled the ground attack and abandoned their guns to the enemy, who landed and disabled the weapons.

That excitement over, a brief calm descended on the city. And in the respective capitals of the combatants, in the infantry camps of the armies, along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, and across the nation, civilians, sailors and soldiers put aside the war—now in its third Christmas—to celebrate as best they could the holiday; and wait the spring thaw and inevitable resumption of hostilities.


Eye of the Storm – Robert Knox Sneden, The Free Press, 2000

A Diary from Dixie – Mary Boykin Chestnut, D. Appleton and Company, 1905

A Rebel War Clerk’s Diary – John B. Jones, J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1866

The New York Times, 12/25/63

The Richmond Dispatch, 12/22/63

R. E. Lee, vol 3 – Douglas Southall Freeman, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1935

All for the Union – Elisha Hunt Rhodes, Andrew Mowbray Inc., 1985

The War Years, vol 2 – Carl Sandburg, The Pictorial Review Company, 1925

Three Years in the Confederate Horse Artillery – George M. Neese, Neale Publishing Co. 1911

Ashes of Glory – Richmond at War – Ernest B. Furgurson, Alfred A. Knoph Inc., New York 1996

Inside the Army of the Potomac – Francis Adams Donaldson correspondence, Stackpole Books, 1998

Official Records of the Navies – Vol. 15 page 190.

Pages: 1 2