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Friday, Apr. 29, 2016

Battlefield Dispatches No. 296: 'Christmas Angels'

Friday, December 23, 2011

During the Civil War, a few days before "Christmas" the soldiers of the blue and the gray often thought of hearth and home and of Christmases past. For the most part, on Christmas Eve and day combat stopped. There wasn't an official truce; however, the fighting just seemed to stop.

It was at this time that many of the soldiers penned their memories of past Christmases in their diaries and letters to their loved ones at home.

Today, service personnel use computers to be in touch with their loved ones, and their messages and images travel in mili-seconds from distant places in faraway lands. The Civil War soldier used a pencil or a pen to write a letter which took days and often weeks to reach its destination.

The following "Christmas" memories are from a book entitled "God Rest Ye Merry Soldiers: A True Civil War Christmas Story" by James McIvor that was published by Viking Press in 2005.

"Christmas 1862"

"A Virginia soldier wrote the following: "Christmas Day, the poorest ever spent, no eggnog, no turkey, no mince pie, nothing to eat or drink but our rations. We all talk of home today and wish to be there."

"Five Little Christmas Angels."

"In Winchester, Va., now occupied by Union troops, there lived the wife of a Confederate general. Her husband was in Richmond fighting for the South. The Confederate lady had started a dance class for the local boys and girls, and when Christmas came, the pupils wanted to give their teacher a Christmas present. Together they had managed to scrape three dollars in Yankee greenbacks, which they hoped to use to buy some sugar, coffee and tea. But the Union troops had forbade the sutlers (a type of portable general store) to sell supplies to the locals for fear that it would be used to aid the Confederate troops in the area. So five of the girls decided to go straight to the Union colonel and ask permission to buy their teacher's Christmas gift.

You can hardly imagine a more scared set of little girls," recalled one of the girls who set down the story years later, but they bravely marched up to the sentinel in front of the officer's tent and asked to see the colonel on "important business."

Ushered into the commander's presence, they explained their errand and were immediately set at ease when the colonel gently agreed to take care of the matter for them.

That afternoon up came the colonel's orderly with 20 pounds of sugar and a large packet of coffee and tea (I suppose five times as much as our money would have bought) and a nice letter with three one dollar greenbacks, saying that he was glad to contribute to the brave little girls who wished to give a Christmas present to the wife of a Confederate general who had given her time for our amusement."

"Evening at the fire."

On Christmas day, 1862, Henry V. Freeman of the 74th Illinois Volunteer Infantry penned the following in his diary which he eventually sent home:

"Last night was Christmas Eve. It brought to my mind a thousand recollections of the past. The contrast is great. I sat up late in the evening at the fire, after attending to drawing rations, for we were under marching orders for this morning at five o'clock. About eleven o'clock at night we heard heavy firing in the front. Where will the next Christmas Eve find me."

"Christmas Hearth"

In December of 1865, the first Christmas after the Civil War ended, the "Harpers Weekly Newspaper/Magazine" published the following poem that described the feelings of the soldiers of the blue and the gray.

"We keep our Christmas, so unlike, the Christmas of a year ago.

When in the camp at earliest dawn, the grimy- throated cannon woke

Our slumbers.

Ah! Then the smoke of battle hung

Its sulphrous cloud our land above,

And bitter feud and hatred filled

Brave hearts that should have warmed with love

So sweet it seems at home once more

To sit with those we hold most dear,

And keep absence once again,

To keep the Merry Christmas here."

This poem was with no malice toward any of the soldiers of the blue and gray who survived the carnage of our Civil War and those who did not, and for their families there would always be one or more vacant chairs around the Christmas dinner table. So it is today, as it was then, and the war goes on!

Arnold W. Schofield
Battlefield Dispatches