"We must have the faith that things will work out somehow, that God will make a way for us when there seems no way."
- Martin Luther King
Soldiers, officers, and chaplains often improvised around the holidays to recreate traditions and remember loved ones. They did their best to organize Christmas or Passover celebrations:
"Holiday season charity was not forgotten this year," wrote one Michigan soldier. On Christmas Day 1864, 90 Michigan men and their captain loaded up wagons with food and supplies and distributed them to destitute civilians in the Georgia countryside. The Union "Santa Clauses" tied tree branches to the heads of the mule teams to resemble reindeer.
While lying there, our camp duties were not of an arduous character, and being apprised of the approaching Feast of Passover, twenty of my comrades and co-religionists belonging to the Regiment, united in a request to our commanding officer for relief from duty, in order that we might keep the holydays, which he readily acceded to . . . and, as the Paymaster had lately visited the Regiment, he had left us plenty of greenbacks.
Our next business was to find some suitable person to proceed to Cincinnati, Ohio, to buy us Matzos . . . a supply train arrived in camp, and to our delight seven barrels of Matzos. On opening them, we were surprised and pleased to find that our thoughtful sutler had enclosed two Hagedahs and prayer-books. . . . We obtained two kegs of cider, a lamb, several chickens and some eggs. Horesradish or parsley we could not obtain, but in lieu we found a weed. . . .
We had the lamb, but did not know what part was to represent it at the table; but Yankee ingenuity prevailed, and it was decided to cook the whole and put it on the table, then we could dine off it, and be sure we had the right part. The necessaries for the choroutzes we could not obtain, so we got a brick which, rather hard to digest, reminded us, by looking at it, for what purpose it was intended.
At dark we had all prepared, and were ready to commence the service. There being know rabbi present, I was selected to read the services, which I commenced by asking the blessing of the Almighty on the food before us, and to preserve our lives from danger. . . .
There, in the wild woods of West Virginia, away from home and friends, we consecrated and offered up to the ever-loving God of Israel our prayers and sacrifice. I doubt whether the spirits of our forefathers, had they been looking down on us, standing there with our arms by our side ready for an attack, faithful to our God and our cause, would have imagined themselves amongst mortals, enacting this commemoration of the scene that transpired in Egypt."
- J.A. Joel, from a Union Camp in 1861
We see similar scenes in A Civil War Christmas, when "real" coffee becomes a Christmas treat, or when acquiring a Christmas tree is the most special gift that a matron can give her children or a wife can give her husband.
In the face of destruction, the little remembrances of holiday traditions are enough to remind the faithful of the trials and tribulations of those who came before them. Small actions allow all to remember that love, peace, and family are precious treasures, not to be taken for granted.
In an unexpected way, the difficulty of war allowed many people to understand the holiday season from a new perspective - one in which humility and thanksgiving became essential, making the time of year a particularly crucial component of American identity. As one historian said, "The Civil War made Christmas a truly American holiday in a way it had never entirely been before."
Remaining upbeat around the holidays became increasingly difficult both on the field and at home as supplies became sparse and the death toll rose:
This day, one year ago, how many thousand families, gay and joyous, celebrating Merry Christmas, drinking health to absent members of their family, and sending upon the wings of love and affection long deep, and sincere wishes for their safe return to the loving ones at home, but today are clad in the deepest mourning in memory to some lost and loved member of their circle.
- Tally Simpson, in a letter to his sister
from Fredericksberg, 1862
Santa Claus may not make it through the blockade
to deliver presents this year. . . .
- A common lamentation of Southern parents in 1862
We had many a drunken fight and knock-down before the day closed.
- An Officer of the 20th Tennessee,
after providing the soldiers with
a barrel of whiskey to celebrate
the night, 1862
The men gathered about the camp fires during the evening hours with abortive attempts at merriment, soon to be given up, and then to talk in whispers of friends and family and home. The bugle calls, holding out the promise that balmy sleep might be forgetfulness, were welcomed; although tattoo seemed a wail, and lights-out a sob.
- The 19th Ohio Colonel, 1862
The one worn-out railroad running to the far South could not bring us half enough necessary supplies: and even if it could have transported Christmas boxes of good things, the people at home were too depleted to send them.
- Confederate General Gordon,
writing from headquarters near Petersburg, 1863
FAITH IN THE FACE OF DESTRUCTION
Soldiers, politicians, preachers, doctors, and families turned to faith as they struggled to cope with the destruction and grief caused by the Civil War. Letters to loved ones frequently contain a "God willing," or an "I pray to God," and references to faith and God appear in both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis' public speeches.
Often, the church and government borrowed language from one another to instill a sense of nationalism rooted in spirituality among citizens in both Northern and Southern territories. The faithful did not lose hope:
"We'll fight for liberty
Till de Lord shall call us home
We'll soon be free
Till de Lord shall call us home"
- Reported by Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a Massachusetts officer who organized the freed slaves into one of the black regiments, recorded in his diary the simple, hopeful hymn his men had sung at Christmas 1862 in his camp
. . . I believe, and I shall try to show, that all through these last years, and especially through this last year, there has been a great drawing back of all of us to resume and fully occupy realms of life, blessings and duties which ere never but half-occupied before. . . . We ought to render up our thanks for the new power and completeness with which the ordinary blessings of God's natural providence have been received and realized, in consequence of the peculiar circumstances under which we have been living. . . .
More than fourscore years ago this nation declared itself free and independent - the new ground of a new experiment in national, social, and individual life. It needs no very wise historian to tell how very partially that bright announcement has been fulfilled. We have never half claimed our independence.
- Reverend Phillips Brooks
in his 1863 Thanksgiving Day Speech
Services were often ecumenical, and some members of the clergy sought to promote common beliefs with members of other religions. For example, Rabbi Illowy's sermon at Baltimore, January 1861 condones the National Fast Day:
. . . it is neither new moon nor Sabbath, but it is a day designated by the Chief Magistrate of the United States, for the purpose of fasting, humiliation, and prayer. In compliance with his proclamation, we are assembled here to join our fellow citizens of the various denominations in keeping this day as a solemn fast; as a day devoted to religious exercise only.
- Rabbi Illowy, National Fast Day Sermon,
Baltimore, January 1861
Hannah, you wanted me to tell you the news in our camp and tent. The news in our tent is that we are trying to serve the Lord. We have prayer meetings in our tent twice a week and one of us reads a chapter, and pray every night before laying down to sleep . . . we take turns [leading]. I enjoy my[self] better here serving the Lord than I did at home.
- James Gould of the New York 144th Infantry
to his sister, 1862
I asked God for strength, that I might achieve,
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked him for health, that I might do great things,
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy,
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men,
I was given weakness, that might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life,
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for-but everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among all men, most richly blessed.
- By an unknown soldier
Molly, this is a beautiful Sunday morning, and I expect you are gone to church somewhere. You must not fail to attend church as often as you can. I have not heard a sermon in about four months. . . . I never wanted to hear preaching as bad in my life.
- William Stilwell in an 1862 letter to his wife, 1862
For the hope for peace is sweeter than peace itself.
- Paula Vogel, A Civil War Christmas
— by Noelle Goodman-Morris, Long Wharf Theatre