Like all major conflicts of any duration, the American Civil War took its participants on a wild roller coaster ride of emotions and hope. Fortunes could change with each battle, and the perspective of individuals on any given day often varied dramatically depending on their own circumstance. Over the course of a year, what once looked a sure thing might suddenly seem a lost cause, and what once seemed unattainable now seemed within grasp. Never was this truer than December 1863.
“Such is the scarcity of provisions, that rats and mice have mostly disappeared, and the cats can hardly be kept off the table.” John B. Jones, a clerk in the Confederate war department, wrote this unappetizing appraisal of life in Richmond, Virginia on Christmas Day, 1863. Three years of war had shaken the Rebel capital. With citizens feeling the increasing effects of the Northern blockade and the Southern government’s policy to divert resources to sustain its own military effort, Jones could hardly but wonder what a difference a year makes.
The previous Christmas the Confederacy was coming off one of its most decisive victories, having embarrassed the Army of the Potomac and General Ambrose Burnside at Fredericksburg. While the Rebel army and Confederate government basked in the prospects of independence, President Lincoln had spoken of the federal government and wondered if he could hold the country together, lamenting to staff that the “bottom had fallen out of the tub.”
But the ensuing twelve months brought dramatic change, leaving the South gasping for air. Southern spirits soared after decisive spring victories at Second Manassas and Chancellorsville, before crushing defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg that summer changed the course of the war. To make matters worse, the North followed up those disappointments in late November with a dramatic victory over General Bragg at Lookout Mountain and the repulse of General Longstreet before Knoxville.
Now, depending on one’s particular circumstance, Americans welcomed the year-end in a state of elation or depression. Even so, most shared feelings of uncertainty about what lay ahead. Yet an astute observer, or a practical one, likely understood that the tide had inexorably turned.
Bragg’s defeat was particularly disheartening, coming on the heels of a Confederate victory at Chickamauga. Instead of pressing his advantage, the Confederate commander grew cautious and ordered his men into defensive positions. With the initiative there for the taking, Ulysses S. Grant jumped, ordering federal troops under generals George Thomas, Joseph Hooker, and William Tecumseh Sherman to attack. Inexplicably, one sector of Bragg’s line collapsed with little fight. Grant drove the Rebel army into retreat, paving the way for Sherman’s assault on Atlanta the next summer. The ensuing criticism forced Bragg to resign in disgrace. Back in Richmond, clerk Jones found that the general had become a joke. “Today a countryman brought a game-cock into the department,” Jones wrote. “Upon being asked what he intended to do with it, he said it was his purpose to send its left wing to Bragg!”
With flour going for $100 a barrel, bacon at $3 per pound, and butter at $4, Jones was in no mood to celebrate the season. “It is a sad Christmas,” he wrote in his diary. “My two youngest children, however, have decked the parlor with evergreens, crosses, stars, etc. They have a cedar Christmas tree, but it is not burdened.” And a meager table was not his biggest concern. While his family attended Christmas mass, Jones stayed home, noting, “It would not be safe to leave the house unoccupied. Robberies and murders are daily perpetrated.”
For many in the Southern capital, living conditions had only gotten worse since the previous April’s bread riot. Then, thousands of destitute Richmonders had threatened to loot the city. The mob only dispersed when Confederate President Jefferson Davis personally threatened to unleash the home guard.
Yet if the Jones household was typical of Richmond families, it did not represent them all. Mary Boykin Chestnut, wife to James Chestnut, a former governor and senator and now aide to Davis, had recently arrived in the city. The Chestnuts still enjoyed the better fortunes of southern society. Their wealth and position insulated the household from most deprivations. During the last month, Mary, festooned in Paris gowns, had helped entertained General John Bell Hood—in the city to recuperate from the loss of his right leg as a result of a wound suffered at Chickamauga. Her social circle included President Davis and his wife, as well as the top echelon of the military. Her Christmas table stood in stark contrast to the Jones’.
“We had for dinner oyster soup, besides roast mutton, ham, boned turkey, wild duck, partridge, plum pudding, sauterne, burgundy, sherry, and Madera. There is life in the old land yet!”
Other Richmond residents weren’t so lucky. Robert Knox Sneden of Massachusetts spent that Christmas a few blocks from the high revelry of the Chestnut mansion. Near the more notorious Libby Prison, Pemberton Prison housed some six hundred Union prisoners of war. Sneden was in the midst of a three-month stay and on his way to Andersonville, Georgia.
Overcrowding exacerbated the prisoners’ living conditions in the five-story facility, a converted tobacco warehouse. Medical care was nearly nonexistent. Healthier prisoners ostracized those who contracted deadly typhoid fever, restricting them to floors with broken windows and no stove. Sneden eased the monotony by describing the sickest among them in his diary. “They walk up and down, ragged, shoeless and crawling with vermin.” When two men died and the Rebels failed to remove the corpses in a timely manner, the prisoners tossed the bodies out the window.
The circumstances here were so dire, that many prisoners probably envied the disease victims. Somehow Sneden managed to keep his sense of humor. When the nearby river was up the rats nightly scurried across sleeping prisoners. One made a surprise visit. “A large rat was taken out of the mess bucket among the bean soup. At the bottom of course. It was in a boiled condition, and caused some merriment. We had eaten the soup. So our stomachs did not turn on us. We thought it gave the stuff an extra flavor.”
Sneden complained that corrupt and unsavory guards confiscated food and clothing sent from Washington or from friends and family. It was a common practice on both sides. Guards often kept the best of such items for themselves, sometimes disposing the goods on the black market to supplement their army pay. Christmas dinner for Sneden consisted of a half-pound of corn bread, half boiled rice, and a pint of bean soup.
Thomas Cheshire, a fellow prisoner, remembered being so emaciated and weak from lack of food he could not walk upstairs. Transferred to the prison hospital, he managed to marginally improve his lot with a fuller belly. “The fare was no better there, except that as some were past eating their rations.”
Still, the residents of Pemberton knew better conditions than did prisoners on nearby Belle Isle. Here, topography and weather created a cruel, biting cold wind tunnel. Iowa soldier John Whitten waited until eight o’clock that evening for his Christmas dinner—turnips.
Nearly four hundred miles to the northwest, Henry Kyd Douglas, former aide to Stonewall Jackson, endued similar, though less harrowing circumstances as a rebel prisoner at Johnson’s Island on Lake Erie. Kyd Douglas, a native of Maryland, had been wounded and captured at Gettysburg. Like Whitten on Belle Isle, he too suffered from inclement weather. In understated fashion he wrote that the island was “hardly the place Southerners would select as a winter resort.” The sentinels fled their posts in the most severe cold, believing no escaped prisoner could live in so harsh an environment.
Not doubting that federal prisoners suffered in such places as Andersonville and Libby Prison, Kyd Douglas felt they were no worse off than the Confederate army in the field. The South had scant provisions and medicine to take care of its own men, let alone captured enemy prisoners. Moreover, because federal troops routinely stripped the southern countryside, he held the North largely responsible for the plight of its own men imprisoned in the south. By comparison, the North with abundant provisions was more negligent in its mistreatment of prisoners.
The Richmond Dispatch agreed, blaming northern marauders for the lack of food available to prisoners, calling their actions an attempt to “starve the South into submission.” A partial truth and an easy excuse. Poor treatment of federal prisoners may have also been retaliatory. Late in 1863 President Lincoln had suspended prisoner exchanges to further deplete the number of able-bodied men facing the federal armies.
On Christmas Kyd Douglas invited several friends to share a care package from home. His high expectations were dashed. “A bottle of catsup had been broken and its contents very generally distributed through the box. Mince pie and fruit cake saturated with tomato catsup was about as palatable as embalmed beef.” An even greater frustration followed the opening of a bottle of brandy.
“I quietly called several comrades up into my bunk to taste the precious fluid—of disappointment. The bottle had been opened outside, the brandy taken and replaced with water, adroitly recorked, and sent in. I hope the Yankee who played that practical joke lived to repent it and was shot before the war ended.”
Barnum’s Museum in New York
Elsewhere, the mood in the North’s most populace city, New York, was buoyant. The Times captured the feeling of eventual victory: “Seldom, in this city, has the Christmas festival been ushered in with more gayety and exuberance of joy.” And, “Santa Claus was never more liberal in his purchases.” Among that day’s attractions at Barnum’s Museum were the Arabian Giant, the Liliputian King, and moving wax figures.
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