Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Christmas During the Civil War

A scene from "A Christmas Carol"
Many of the current Christmas traditions celebrated today actually started during the Civil War era. Although Christmas wasn't an official holiday until President Ulysses S. Grant made it one in 1870, many Americans observed the holiday throughout the war as a way to find comfort and bond with family members through long-lost traditions.

Christmas was widely celebrated in Europe for centuries but when the Puritans came to the New World they brought with them their distaste for the holiday. Instead of the joyful, family-oriented holiday that it is today, they turned Christmas into a solemn occasion that involved praying and reflecting on sin. Feeling that it was more of a European pagan holiday than a Christian celebration, Puritans officially banned Christmas in Boston for over 20 years during the mid 1600s. Even after the ban was lifted it was still viewed with suspicion and dragged on as a dull, muted holiday over two centuries later.

In the early 1800s, a growing religious revival spurred the return of Christmas celebrations in many states. In 1830, Louisiana became the first state to make Christmas a holiday. Other states followed suit and soon families started sending Christmas cards, singing carols, preparing special holidays meals and attending winter dances. Children received small, homemade gifts such as hand-carved toys, fruit and cakes. Families had Christmas trees, which were small and sat on top of a table, that they decorated with strings of dried fruit and popcorn.

 Illustration depicting Lincoln inviting Confederate soldiers to Christmas dinner
During the Civil War, soldiers celebrated by decorating their camp Christmas trees with hard-tack and salt-pork and singing carols such as “Come All Ye Faithful” and “Silent Night.” After General William Sherman captured Savannah in December of 1864, his soldiers dressed their horses up like reindeer by attaching branches to their headgear and delivered food and supplies to hungry families in Georgia.
Although some soldiers, especially Union soldiers in the beginning of the war, enjoyed special Christmas dinners of turkey, oysters and pies, other soldiers were not as lucky: “And when I turned from these musings upon the bill of fare they would have at home to contemplate the dreary realities of my own possible dinner for that day – my oyster can full of coffee and a quarter ration of hard-tack and sow-belly comprised the menu” wrote one soldier in a book titled The Story of a Common Soldier of Army Life in the Civil War, 1861-1865.

President Abraham Lincoln and his family celebrated Christmas during the first year of the war by holding a Christmas party at the White House. During the Christmas season in 1862 and 1863, he visited injured soldiers in a various hospitals. Mary Lincoln raised money for Christmas dinners and their son Tad sent gifts to wounded soldiers he met during his father's holiday hospital visits.

One of the most famous Christmas gifts was when General Sherman captured the city of Savannah, Georgia in December of 1864, a significant military achievement that marked the beginning of the end of the war, and sent Abraham Lincoln a telegram that read: "I beg to present you as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 100 and 50 guns and plenty of ammunition, also about 25,000 bales of cotton."
Telegram from General Sherman presenting Savannah as a Christmas gift

Christmas at the White House: Abraham and Mary Lincoln

Christmas During the Civil War

The Smithsonian Associates: Christmas North and South

American Heritage; When Christmas Was Banned in Boston; Dana Marriott

The Story of a Common Soldier of Army Life in the Civil War, 1861-1865; Leander Stillwell; 1920

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Diary of John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes Booth

When John Wilkes Booth fled Ford's Theater after shooting Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, he was chased down and killed in a barn on a farm in Virginia two weeks later. Officers found a red leather diary on his body that contained only two entries along with photos of five women. In the entries, which were later published in the New York Times, John Wilkes Booth defended his actions and denied that killing the president was wrong or immoral. He also expressed his anger at being hunted by the police and stated he couldn't understand why he was being persecuted instead of thanked:

April 13, 14, Friday, the Ides...I struck boldly, and not as the papers say. I walked with a firm step through thousands of his friends, and was stopped, but pushed in. A Colonel was at his side, I shouted “Sic Semper” before I fired; in jumping broke my leg. I passed all of his pickets, rode sixty miles that night with the bone of my leg tearing the flesh at every jump. I can never repent it, though we hated to kill. Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment....Friday, 21st – After being hunted like a dog, through swamps and woods, and last night being chased by gunboats till I was forced to return, wet, cold and starving, with every man's hand against me, I am here in despair; and why? For doing what Brutus was honored for, what made Tell a hero; and yet I, for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew, am looked upon as a common cut-throat. My action was purer than either of theirs....I knew no private wrong. I struck for my country, and that alone – a country that groaned beneath this tyranny, and prayed for this to end, and yet no behold the cold hand they extend me! God cannot pardon me if I have done wrong. Yet I cannot see my wrong except in serving a degenerate people.... For my country I have given up all that makes life sweet and holy, brought misery upon my family , and am sure there is no pardon in the Heaven for me, since man condemns me so....God, try and forgive me and bless my mother. To-night I will once more try the river with the intent to cross, though I have a greater desire and almost a mind to to return to Washington , and, in a measure, clear my name, which I feel I can do. I do not repent the blow I struck; I may before God, but not to man....To-night I try to escape these bloodhounds once more. Who can read this fate? God's will be done. I have too great a soul to die like a criminal. Oh, may he spare me that, and let me die bravely!”

John Wilkes Booth's diary

The diary was taken off of John Wilkes Booth's body by Colonel Everton Conger and passed around to various military officials, including the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and General Holt, yet it was never introduced as evidence in the 1865 Conspiracy Trial of Booth's accomplices.

The diary was rediscovered in 1867 in an old war department file and although the two original entries remained intact, much speculation was made over some mysterious missing pages. Stanton wrote a letter to President Andrew Johnson about the diary, explaining that the pages were already missing when the diary was first discovered on Booth's body and the diary looked no different than on the day they originally discovered it. An official report that same year by General Holt stated that the condition of the diary was still exactly as Holt first saw it in 1865. He theorized that the missing pages probably contained entries from early 1865 and were most likely destroyed by Booth himself. The pages have never been found and their contents remain unknown.

The diary is now on display at Ford's theater in Washington D.C.


Library of Congress: John Wilkes Booth Diary

New York Times; Diary of John Wilkes Booth: An Official Certified Copy; May 1867

Ford's Theater: John Wilkes Booth Diary

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Timeline of the Civil War

Abraham Lincoln visiting the Battlefield of Antietam
October 1859:
John Brown's raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.

December 1859:
Brown is hanged for murder and treason at Charles Town, Virginia. John Wilkes Booth watches the execution from the crowd.

November 1860:
Abraham Lincoln is elected President.

December 1860:
Lincoln’s election triggers South Carolina to secede from the Union.

January 1860 – February 1861:
Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas secede from the Union.

January 1861:
Kansas is admitted as a free state.

February 1861:
Delegates from six seceded states form a government. They elect Jefferson Davis President of the Confederate States of America.

March 1861:
Abraham Lincoln's inauguration.

April 1861:
Fort Sumter is attacked by South Carolina troops. Fort Sumter surrenders.
Lincoln calls for 75,000 volunteers to enlist in the military.
Lincoln orders a blockade of all Confederate ports.
Colonel Robert E. Lee resigns from the United States Army and takes command of Virginia's troops.

April – May 1861:
Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina secede from the Union.

May 1861:
Union troops capture Alexandria, Virginia.
After being killed by a local innkeeper while trying to remove a Confederate flag from the roof of the building, Union Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth, a close friend of Abraham Lincoln, is the first casualty of the war.
Richmond becomes the capital of the Confederacy.

June 1861:
Four slave states stay in the Union: Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri.

July 1861:
The Confederates win the First Battle of Bull Run.
Confederate General Thomas J. Jackson earns the nickname “Stonewall Jackson” for his bravery during the battle.
General George B. McClellan replaces General McDowell as the general-in-chief of the Union armies.

November 1861:
Julia Ward Howe composes the lyrics to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." The lyrics are published in the Atlantic Monthly in February.

February 1862:
General Ulysses S. Grant and his troops capture Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in Tennessee.

March 1862:
General McClellan loses command of the Union army. He is given command of the Army of the Potomac and is ordered to attack Richmond.

April 1862:
Union General Ulysses S. Grant and his troops win the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee.
Commander David G. Farragut captures New Orleans.

May 1862:
Stonewall Jackson and his Confederate troops win the Battle of McDowell in Virginia.

June - July 1862:
General McClellan’s army retreats, ending the Seven Days’ campaign.

August 1862:
The Confederates win the second Battle of Bull Run.

September 1862:
The Union wins the the Battle of Antietam in Maryland.
As a result of the Union victory at Antietam, President Lincoln issues the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

November 1862:
General McClellan loses command of the Army of the Potomac.

December 1862:
The Confederates win the Battle of Fredericksburg.

January 1863:
Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in the seceded states.

March 1863:
President Lincoln signs a federal draft act.

May 1863:
The Confederates win the Battle of Chancellorsville. Stonewall Jackson is wounded during the battle, develops pneumonia and dies on May 10.

June 1863:
Confederate cavalry fight the Union cavalry in the Battle of Brandy Station in Virginia. The battle is inconclusive.

July 1863:
The Union wins the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania.
Confederates surrender Vicksburg to Ulysses S. Grant and the Union army.
The Draft Riots break out in New York City

September 1863:
The Confederates win Battle of Chickamauga in Georgia.

November 1863:
Lincoln delivers his Gettysburg Address.
The Union army wins the Battles of Chattanooga in Tennessee.

March 1864 :
Ulysses S. Grant is officially appointed commander of all the armies of the United States.

May 1864:
The Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia takes place. The battle is inconclusive.
The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in Virginia takes place. The battle is inconclusive.
The Union wins the Battle of Yellow Tavern in Virginia. Confederate cavalry commander Jeb Stuart is killed at Yellow Tavern.

June 1864:
The Confederates win the Battle of Cold Harbor in Virginia.
Lincoln signs a bill repealing the fugitive slave laws.

July 1864:
The Union wins the Battle at Fort Stevens in Washington D.C. Abraham Lincoln observes the battle in person.

August 1864:
The Union wins the Battle of Mobile Bay.

September 1864:
The Union army forces the Confederates out of Atlanta and capture the city.
The Centralia Massacre takes place in Missouri.“Bloody Bill” Anderson and Jesse James take part in the killings.

October 1864:
The Union wins the Battle at Cedar Creek in Virginia.

November 1864:
Lincoln reelected President. Andrew Johnson reelected Vice President.
General Sherman's March to the Sea.

December 1864:
The Union wins the Battle of Nashville in Tennessee.
Savannah is captured by the Union army without resistance.

January 1865:
Congress passes the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery throughout the United States.

February 1865:
Columbia, South Carolina is destroyed by fire, most likely set by Union troops.

March 1865:
Lincoln is inaugurated as President for a second term.

April 1865:
Petersburg, Virgina is captured by the Union. The Confederate government evacuates Richmond. Confederate commander Ambrose Powell Hill is killed in action.
Union troops occupy Richmond.
Robert E. Lee and his troops surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox.
John Wilkes Booth shoots President Lincoln at Ford’s Theater and flees
Secretary of State William H. Seward is stabbed and injured in an assassination attempt at his Washington home.
Abraham Lincoln dies.
Andrew Johnson is inaugurated as President.
Joseph E. Johnston surrenders to William T. Sherman in North Carolina;
John Wilkes Booth is shot and killed in a barn in Virginia.

May 1865:
American Statesman and leader of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, is captured and taken prisoner in Georgia.
Confederate General E. Kirby Smith surrenders in New Orleans, marking the official end to the Confederate resistance.

June 1865:
All eight conspirators are convicted for the assassination of President Lincoln.
Four of the conspirators are sentenced to death and hanged and the other four are sentenced to prison.

Library of Congress: Timeline of the Civil War, 1861

Smithsonian Institute: Timeline

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Battle of Gettysburg

Dead Union soldiers on the Gettysburg Battlefield
The Battle of Gettysburg was a three day battle considered by many as a major turning point in the Civil War. The battle was fought on July 1, 2 and 3 of 1863 in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania between troops led by General Robert E. Lee and General George G. Meade. With 51,000 casualties by the battle's end, more soldiers died on the Gettysburg battlefield than on any other battlefield in North America. The battle was a part of General Lee's ambitious plan to invade the north after his troops successfully defeated Union troops at the battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia in the spring of 1863.

Day 1

The battle started on July 1st as a chance encounter between General Lee's troops and General Meade's cavalry unit while the Confederates were on their way north to Maryland and Washington D.C. While searching the town of Gettysburg for supplies, Lee's troops spotted Union cavalry soldiers on a ridge just west of the town. The Confederate troops attacked the cavalry but were unable to overtake them until later in the afternoon when more Confederate troops joined the battle and helped drive the Union cavalry back through town and onto Cemetery Hill. Over the course of the night, reinforcements arrived for both sides and troops readied themselves for the following day.
General Meade

Day 2 

On July 2nd, General Lee tried to surround the Union troops by first attacking their left flank near Peach Orchard, Wheatfield, Devil's Den and Little Round Top hill and then attacking their right flank at Culp's Hill and East Cemetery Hill. The Union army lost some ground but held Little Round Top as well as Culp's Hill and East Cemetery Hill and fought off many of the Confederate troops.

Day 3

On July 3rd, General Lee unleashed an unsuccessful artillery bombardment at the center of the Union soldiers at Cemetery ridge. Desperate to gain some ground, General George E. Pickett, then led 15,000 Confederate troops on a one mile march across an open field toward the Union soldiers on Cemetery Ridge on what would come to be known as Pickett's charge. During the long march, Pickett's men where heavily bombarded with gun fire and artillery. Although the Confederate troops managed to reach Cemetery Ridge they were unable to break through the Union lines and suffered major causalities. The failed charge resulted in the death of 10,000 soldiers in the span of an hour.

General Lee
Shortly after the defeat, Major General Pickett described the charge in a letter to his wife, which was published in the book “Pickett's Charge: Eyewitness Accounts at the Battle of Gettysburg”:

My brave boys were full of hope and confident of victory as I led them forth, forming them in column of attack, and though officers and men alike knew what was before them, knew the odds against them, they eagerly offered up their lives on the altar of duty, having absolute faith in their ultimate success. Over on Cemetery Ridge the Federals beheld a scene never before witnessed on this continent, a scene which has never previously been enacted and can never take place again, an army forming in line of battle in full view, under their very eyes – charging across a space nearly a mile in length over fields of waving grain and anon of stubble and then a smooth expanse - smooth with the steadiness of a dress parade, the pride and glory soon to be crushed by an overwhelming heartbreak. Well it is over now. The battle is lost, and many of us are prisoners, many are dead, many wounded, bleeding and dying. Your soldier lives and mourns and but for you, my darling, he would rather, a million times rather, be back there with his dead, to sleep for all time in an unknown grave. Your sorrowing soldier”

The Result

General Pickett
The failure of Pickett's charge and devastating casualties ended the battle of Gettysburg. The Union army had won and General Lee's soldiers retreated during the afternoon of July 4. The scene they left behind was a disaster. 51,000 bodies littered the town along with 5,000 dead horses and thousands of seriously wounded soldiers. The wounded were picked up and brought to a field hospital at the nearby Spangler farm. About 70 of the soldiers who died in the field hospital were buried on the farm. Others, especially Confederates, were buried where they died; on the battlefield, along roads and in trenches and unmarked mass graves.

Governor Andrew Curtin forbade the removal of the soldiers bodies, out of fear of spreading disease, and a national Union cemetery was erected in the town. Many of the previously buried bodies of Union soldiers were exhumed and reburied in the cemetery. Abraham Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg address during the cemetery's dedication ceremony on November 19, honoring the memory of the soldiers who died during the historical battle. Many of the Confederate bodies remained buried on the battlefield for another eight years until they were exhumed and reburied in the south.

General Lee never again attempted such a bold military campaign after the battle of Gettysburg and the Confederates continued to suffer more defeats before Lee and his troops finally surrendered in 1865.
The Spangler farmhouse
Dead horses at nearby Trostle farm after the battle of Gettysburg
Mass grave of Confederate soldiers on the Gettysburg battlefield

Civil War Trust: Death on the Baltimore Pike

"Pickett's Charge: Eyewitness Accounts at the Battle of Gettysburg"; Richard M. Rollins; 1994

National Park Service: The Battle of Gettysburg