(This article is an excerpt courtesy of  “All Not So Quiet Along the Potomac: The Civil War in Northern Virginia & Beyond” by Ron Baumgarten. It was originally posted on the blog on December 21, 2011.  Read the entire article at http://dclawyeronthecivilwar.blogspot.com)

Many may wonder what the holiday was like 150 years ago during the first winter of the conflict. The Washington area was home to thousands of young men who had never been away from home for Christmas.  The soldiers had to celebrate as best as they could, combating homesickness while trying to experience just a little holiday cheer.  Many accounts remain of what Christmas was like for the Union soldiers encamped across the Potomac from the nation’s capital.

The Philadelphia Press reported that the weather in Washington that first December 25 was “very un-Christmas like.”  During the early part of the week leading up to Christmas, the region “was threatened with a  heavy storm and fall of snow,” but “the threat past away in bluster, and the morning came upon us with all the beauty and associations of a Pennsylvania May-day.”   The correspondent observed, “except that . . . the hills over in Virginia looked brown and dreary, it would have been accepted and recorded as a pleasant day in spring.”

The correspondent was pleased to report that “[o]ur boys over the river had quite a jovial time, all things considered.”  Perhaps with a bit of exaggeration, the Press noted that “[t]here was a relaxation of discipline, and none of the monotonous drilling and guard duty.”  The soldiers also tried their hand at holiday decorating.  According to the Press, “[t]he cedars and pines were stripped of their branches, and the tents and camp-lanes were improvised into pretty pastoral retreats.”

Most importantly, the Union troops took some time to celebrate on December 25.  Then, as today, eating played a central role in the festivities.  As war correspondent Charles Carleton Coffin recalled in his book Following the Flag,

“Christmas came.  The men were in winter quarters, and merry times they had, — dinners of roast turkey, plum-pudding and mincepies, sent by their friends at home.”
The men of the 3rd Pennsylvania Reserves at Camp Pierpont in Langley also partook in holiday meals with victuals from the home front:

And the boys were not forgotten by those they held dear, for many were the Christmas boxes received, filled with roast fowls, cake and sweetmeats, and many happy hearts there were in camp that day. Innumerable little dinners were given by comrades of boyhood days, and if the turkey or chicken was not so hot, the cakes and other delicacies not so fresh and nice as at home, the repast was sweetened by the thought they came from dear home. (Woodward 56.)

Surely the delivery companies did a brisk business in the days leading up to Christmas.  The Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph (Harrisburg, Pa.) reported that “[i]t is estimated that five thousand turkeys, already roasted, went down to the soldiers on the Potomac, by Adams’ Express, about Christmas time, together with other etceteras necessary to make them go down appetizingly.”

The men rounded out their holiday with numerous activities:

After dinner [the soldiers] had games, sports, and dances, chasing a greased pig, climbing a greasy pole, running in a meal-bag, playing ball, pitching quoits, playing leap-frog, singing and dancing, around the camp-fires through the long Christmas evening. (Coffin 42.)

The 3rd Pennsylvania Reserves held the normal dress parade.  However, at the conclusion of the drill, a captain “stepped forward and presented their colonel with a pair of holsters containing a magnificent pair of naval revolvers, which, in a neat and appropriate speech, he presented to the colonel in behalf of his brother officers.”   (Woodward 56.)  The colonel accepted the gift and “replied in a few neat and eloquent remarks, which were received with great enthusiasm by the officers and men.”  (Woodward 56.)

“The bright side of the war – holiday festivities of the 44th New York Volunteers at their camp, Hall’s Hill, Virginia,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Jan. 18, 1862 (courtesy of George Mason University)

The 44th New York was encamped around Hall’s Hill in present-day Arlington.  The men found an interesting way to celebrate the holiday by organizing “a burlesque parade” (pictured above):

As the men reflected on the holiday, they may have shared the sentiment expressed in an editorial appearing in the Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph on December 24:

The Christmas of 1861 sees the world full of strife and our own land full of rebellious contentions and traitorous designs. . . .  If man has failed in the performance of his duty to man. . . . Christmas comes to us shorn of none of its holy glory or diminished in no degree in any of its sublime promises.  It is still the anniversary of the Savior’s birth, an epoch in the world’s history unequalled by any other for glory, grandness, and Heavenly love. . . . It must be the Christmas of the soul, though our hearts are sorrowful.  It must be a Christmas for those at home, though many homes are now made desolate by the absence of their ornaments; and we trust, too, that while men are arrayed in battle, the Christmas of the year will be made glad for the children of the land.

As the soldiers around the nation’s capital looked to the year ahead, they could only guess as to where they would be next Christmas.  Camp was no substitute for home, but at least the soldiers had made the most of the holiday.  Now the men would return to army life, hoping that next year, they would be gathered around the fire with loved ones.

(Featured Image: Christmas Boxes in Camp Jan 4, 1861-Harper’s Weekly, courtesy of sonofthesouth.net)