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Civil War Christmas


Christmas was celebrated differently in the Colonies and later the United States. It was a religious holiday and celebrated by the singing of Christmas carols, the giving of gifts as a tribute to the Magi or Wise Men who gave gifts to Jesus on Christmas. There was simply not much money in those days, but on the farm and in town people often saved for a special Christmas dinner containing a main course of goose or turkey, dressing, and sweet deserts. Wild cut cedar and pine trees were decorated with homemade ornaments, ribbon and candles. In 1861 England, the latest craze was Christmas cards, but it had not yet crossed the ocean to America. The Civil War put a damper on the celebration which was not yet a national holiday.

Union troops in one regiment celebrated by decorating their trees with salt pork and beef jerky. Occasionally men on both sides were furloughed to go home, where they were almost strangers to the children. In the south, children worried that Santa would not make it through the Yankee blockade. One little girl named Sallie Brock Putnam, drew a map showing Santa how to avoid the Yankee blockade. Sometimes, parents told their children there were no presents because the Yankees shot Santa.

Christmas during the Civil War was celebrated by both sides and both armies, but war did not stop. In 1862, John Hunt Morgan made his famous Christmas Raid. It was designed to disrupt the improvements the L & N Railroad made from Bacon Creek north of Munfordville along 35 miles of track ending at Lebanon Junction. It was likely on this raid one of my favorite Morgan stories occurred. Morgan’s men wore out horses due to the hard and fast action always attacking and withdrawing to gain advantage. Morgan led the 2nd CSA Cavalry, which included later the 3rd, 5th, 8th, 10th, and others of low numeric nomenclature. Eventually, he led over 2,000 men. The lower number given to a troop unit indicates their experience in battle. Higher numbered units were less experienced and greener. One winter near Christmas time, Morgan was informed that the 104th Illinois Cavalry was a few miles ahead. The second Confederate Cavalry needed two things, fresh horses and overcoats. They were, like most southern soldiers, poorly equipped.

Morgan was advised that the 104th were mounted on fine fresh horses and their men were wearing new Army Overcoats. Morgan ordered Basil Duke to put the men in line of battle, and Morgan addressed his troops. He called out, “Gentlemen, I have promised you fresh horses, and over yonder hill lies those horses, yours for the taking, but mind how you take them because there’s an armed man on the back of each one.” The charge began, and within a half hour the battle was over and the entire 104th Illinois was held prisoner. Morgan’s men were soon resaddled on their fine U.S. Government hoses, when a soldier got Morgan’s attention and asked, “General, what about our overcoats?” Morgan, shame faced, replied, “I forgot.” Then Basil Duke in his book wrote, “Morgan, fell the prisoners in, and issued an order to the 104th Illinois, not to be found in any manual of arms. “One hundred fourth, Ten-shun! Now, come out of them overcoats.” What a leader. His troops carried those coats through the rest of the war, even their last mission guarding Jefferson Davis and family, as bodyguards on their escape south. Interestingly, Boones Rangers originally formed of Meade, Hardin and Breckenridge County men, were assigned to Basil Duke and fittingly were with Morgan’s troops at war’s end.

(See Part 2, next week and read about a Guerrilla Christmas)