Christmas Arrives in January at a Washington D.C. Camp of Instruction

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Rob Wilson

Union soldiers open a shipment of clothing on Christmas Day, 1861, in this
Illustration by Winslow Homer that appeared in Harper’s Weekly (Library of Congress).

Combing through my great grandfather’s Civil War letters for a holiday season story, I learned how, in 1861, he celebrated Christmas in January. That year George A. Marden was a fresh volunteer in the Army of the Potomac on December 25, and just a month into his training at the U.S. Sharpshooter’s Second Regiment Camp of Instruction in Washington, D.C. The letters home— which were saved by his parents, back in Mont Vernon, N.H.— have been passed down to me through my family.

By multiple newspaper accounts, this Christmas was a joyous occasion for most of the tens of thousands of Union soldiers training for war in 1861 at the Army of the Potomac camps in and around Washington, D.C. The weather leading up to the day had been miserable, but Christmas morning dawned “with all the beauty of a Pennsylvania May Day,” wrote a Philadelphia Press reporter. The Keystone State troops he visited that day had been excused from drill and were busy decorating their camp. “Our boys… had quite a jovial time, all things considered,” he wrote.[i]

From the tone of his Christmas day letter, however, Marden had not joined in the camps’ general merriment and was feeling pretty blue. The 22-year-old from the tiny town of Mont Vernon had volunteered for the Sharpshooters in November. That month he and his Company G comrades— all boys from southern New Hampshire—had traveled some 500 miles by train and steamship to their Camp of Instruction. The fresh recruit was spending what likely was his first holiday season away from family and friends. In his letter of December 25, he wrote of missing his usual snowy New England Christmas at home. Yet homesickness was not the only reason for the soldier’s low spirits.

Despite the warming sunshine bursting forth on the 25th, the month of December had delivered its share of icy and wet days to the capital city. The soldier wrote that the harsh conditions were making camp life extremely difficult.

Our rain storm cleared off in a snow squall and came out in a gale of wind and cold snap…  I seldom have heard the wind blow harder, and it froze up tight.  You may imagine that a tent would not be the most comfortable place in which to pass the night. I confidently expected every moment that the tent would leave us.  We could keep no fire for our stovepipe chimney blew down, and I have not passed such a disagreeable night on the ground. Those who had fireplaces were even worse off, for the wind drove the fire all over the inside of the tents and came near causing a general conflagration.[ii]

The storm, he continued, blew down two hospital tents, leaving the sick inside exposed to the wind and cold. “In our Reg. the 2nd, of 700 men 150 are on the sick list,” Marden wrote. “Two men died night before last.” Just the week before, the soldier had visited one of the unfortunate soldiers— a Sharpshooter from New Hampshire he knew— as the man lay in his tent, on a bed of straw, suffering from measles and a bad cold and cough.

After describing a ration of raw salt pork he had been issued to fry or boil on his own because his company’s cookstand had been damaged badly in the storm, the lonely Private Marden concluded his woeful eight-page letter with an epicurean fantasy. “I should like a Christmas dinner from home and a few fried sausages if I didn’t have to pay the express.”

His letters do not indicate whether the Sharpshooter actually expected his family to grant his wish. But sixteen days later, on January 10, a substantial collection of holiday gifts from Mont Vernon arrived, packed in a barrel and addressed to Private George Marden. The delivery— which included a variety of food items that could be considered sumptuous by our own 21st Century standards— apparently caused quite a stir in the Second Regiment camp. Here is my ancestor’s account of the event, which brought some belated Christmas cheer to a day that was “wet and nasty… so it continues just foggy and drizzling and mud ankle deep.”

Detail of the newspaper illustration – featured complete at the beginning of this article

My Express barrel arrived at half past three in the P.M. To say that I was tickled wouldn’t to begin to express it. So it came off the wagon a dozen of the boys clamored around me to help carry it to our tent, eager and noisy… I manned the hatchet and commenced my first assault in a military capacity. I am proud of the success of my charge… The Sausages came out all straight in one sense, though crooked enough in another. The brown bread took best… I distributed a slice and a link to some of my particular friends and the way it brought New Hampshire to their minds was gratifying. Some jumped right up and down. The sponge cake was delicate and sweet and was a fitting addition to the rest. The baked chicken brought up the rear, and filled the post as bravely as Marshal Ney in Russia.* I don’t forget the cheese which like all the other things was excellent and in excellent order.”[iii]

Marden wrote that he shared much of his food with his enlisted Company G comrades, and delivered a portion of the “rear guard” chicken to a sick friend from New Hampshire soldier in another regiment. He also carried “a piece of the cake, a few of the sausages and a part of the brown bread” to one of the captains with whom he was friendly, perhaps hoping to bolster his chances for the promotion to sergeant towards which he’d been working.

“I didn’t get any more than taste the things for I got enough to eat and ‘the boys’ needed it all,” he continued. “I can’t tell which they were most pleased with, but you may all rest assured that everything was thankfully received.”

The bounteous barrel also contained some practical items that Marden especially appreciated. “I was most pleased with the clothing, and visions of clean shirts, clean collars and a pair of boots I could wear pleased me more than all the edibles,” he gushed. “When I realized them all this morning, I came out a new man.”

The soldier knew well that the cost of the various purchases and the shipping of the express barrel constituted a considerable expense for his parents. The gift of boots “I could wear” (as opposed to his uncomfortable government-issued footwear) were, to Marden, a treasure. They were made by his father, who owned a small shoemaking facility and shop in Mont Vernon. George had worked there when he was not in school, and his wages helped to fund his college education.

As he continued his winter training in Washington during January and February, the cold and miserable weather slowly would improve. Yet, challenges of a more desperate and deadly variety awaited on battlefields in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. For Marden, those risks would commence when he was promoted to sergeant, transferred to the U.S.S.S. First Regiment staff, and shipped to southern Virginia for the Peninsula Campaign. But the Sharpshooter, like so many of his Army of the Potomac comrades, would weather war’s cruel hardships and carry on. Letters and the occasional packages received from home—arriving at Christmastime or anytime— would play an essential role in boosting the soldiers’ morale through the Civil War’s darkest moments.


* Ney had been a leader in the French army, and was well-known in Marden’s time. The Marshal’s command of the retreating French rear guard is credited with saving Napoleon’s forces from annihilation during their disastrous 1812 invasion of Russia.

[i]  Philadelphia Press, Dec. 27, 1861

[ii] The Civil War letters of George A. Marden, Dec. 25, 1861 (Archived at Rauner Library, Dartmouth College, Hanover N.H.)

[iii]  Ibid., January 10, 1861

“On Christmas Day” – An ECW Tradition

Merry Christmas!

It’s a tradition at Emerging Civil War to read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day” and Meg Groeling’s memorable article, sharing the Civil War history surrounding this holiday classic.

As you enjoy your Christmas morning traditions, we hope you will be inspired by this historical poem and the account of family and faith.

“I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day…”

Boughs of Holly

In May of 1863, the thick and prickly holly bushes were just one of a dozen hostile flora the soldiers had to contend with as they tried to maneuver and fight their way across the Chancellorsville battlefield. Tonight, though, the holly offers a welcome splash of green–punctuated by little dots of red–on a peaceful winter weekend.

Merry Christmas from Chancellorsville.

Holly @ C-ville

Ice-Skating in the 1860’s

An illustration of ice-skating (1859)

Ice-skating! Across the chilly regions of America, this favorite pastime created fun and energetic entertainment during the Civil War era. In city parks, the winter activity was refined as a social skill and art while on less sophisticated ponds or lakes youngsters had their ice-skating parties. Ladies participated in ice-skating, a sport that allowed them out of the decorated parlors and gave them another reason to visit the dress makers. Ice-skating created a pleasant diversion from the tragedy of war, especially during the Christmas season.

According to an article published in the New York Herald on December 24, 1864, ice-skating on Central Pond gained a happy reputation at the beginning of the decade and had increased popularity each year. A system for judging and announcing ice thickness and safety had been developed, and the citizens eagerly watched for a red ball in the park which signaled skating season had begun. On the city ponds, workmen swept away the snow and scrubbed off the rough piles of ice or frozen snow to make a smooth, glassy surface for easy skating. According to the paper’s account, the ponds were prepared for skaters by noon on fine days when the ice was safe. Skates and ice chairs were available for rent in Central Park, and the enterprising merchants set up booths to sell hot drinks and refreshments.

Central Park Lake Terrace in Winter (modern photo, public domain)

Appealing to the desires for good health, the reporter extolled the frozen winter wonderlands over the crowded and close atmosphere of the ballroom, claiming:

Skating and dance are the only two forms of recreative exercise within the reach of the gentler sex, the former being infinitely more healthful than the latter, from the fact that the rapid motion through a clear, bracing atmosphere, incident to skating, quickens the circulation and introduces the pure oxygen of nature into the system, instead of the noxious gases of the ballroom, where the atmosphere is redolent of caronic acid, frivolous tittle tattle, eau de colgne, insipid small talk, cutaneous exhalations, and simpering stupidity. The contrast, too, between the social surroundings of the skating pond and the ballroom is equally in favor of the outdoor recreation… The sanitary benefits accruing from skating are great, and especially is the exercise advantageous to females. The prominent cause of the delicate and sickly constitution of the majority of our city ladies arises from their great neglect of outdoor exercise and recreation…[i]

An illustration of a lady ice-skating, c. 1867

Many ladies eagerly took advantage of the outdoor sport. Unwilling to leave behind their fine clothes, they developed “ice skating costumes,” complete with hoopskirts. Godey’s Lady’s Book regularly featured new designs for these fashionable ensembles during the winter months. And, of course, a gorgeous hat, muff, and perhaps a fur-trimmed coat completed the classic Christmas image of an idealized lady gliding across the ice. Ice-skating gave women an opportunity to continue their feminine appearance while participating in a semi-liberating activity.

If skating gave women another social opportunity to step outside the home and enter a public arena, it also gave couples a chance to interact without close supervision in a parlor and gave singles the opportunity to meet rather casually. The New York Herald reporter even hints at this in his article: “In fact, the exercise not only brings roses to the cheeks, and imparts buoyancy to the spirits, but weaves nets to catch Cupid, and makes cages to retain him.”[ii] If eyes brightened by the exercise[iii] did not catch the gentleman’s attention, there was always the possibility of a graceful tumble to draw attention to oneself and create a need for gallantry. In an 1864 letter, a Virginian teen boy hinted that some girls skating on the frozen river kept purposely falling to continue the interactions with him and his handsome friends.[iv]

For some Union soldiers, skating and sledding were typical social activities in their small towns. Private William P. Lamson, Jr. in the 20th Maine Infantry asked his sister several times about the ice-skating parties at home and noted a major difference in the weather in Virginia and Maine: “You say you had good sleighing and skating [on] Christmas. We had neither snow nor ice after the sun got up, and have had none since. I never spent a New Year’s Day without seeing snow before.”[v]

“Winter – A Skating Scene” by Winslow Home, c. 1868

Southerners enjoyed their ice skating too – if they lived in a region that stayed cold long enough for ice to form and thicken. Miss Lucy Buck lived near Front Royal in the Virginian Shenandoah Valley and recorded her skating adventure in her diary.

January 12, 1864

Father took Laura and me down on the ice and gave us our first lessons in skating. It was a magnificent morning and I felt so invigorated by the bracing air, the bright sunshine and the run through the crisp sparkling snow. Then the ice formations at the dam were so exquisitely delicate and beautiful. We were there about two hours – Father predicting that we will make expert skaters – did not get one bad fall though Father did. Returned to the house with tired ankles but in a perfect glow…[vi]

During the Civil War era, ice-skating created a joyous homefront diversion, and many soldiers far from home associated memories of cheerful winter days with their skating escapades. Fashionable and fun, healthful and happy, this winter activity included men, women, and children, pulling them outside into the chilly winter days air and making the air ring with jolly laughter, joyous shouts, and the steady, faint swish of skates making circles on the ice.

And – for just a few moments, perhaps – the war seemed far away while the cheer of Christmas and magic of winter reigned.

Central Park skating pond, 1862

[i] “Skating at Christmastime” from the New York Herald, December  24, 1864. Published in The Civil War Christmas Album, edited by Philip Van Doren Stern, (1961), page 67-68.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] A reference from classic literature. In Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice (1813), Mr. Darcy comments that Elizabeth’s eyes were brightened by the exercise, comparing her favorably against her rival who tended to stay indoors and complain.

[iv] Beverly Stanard to his mother, February 21, 1864. Published in Letters of a New Market Cadet, edited by J.G. Barrett and R.K. Turner, Jr., (1961), pages 40-41.

[v] William P. Lamson to his sister Jennie Lamson, January 9, 1863. Published in Maine To The Wilderness: The Civil War Letters of Pvt. William Lamson, edited by Roderick M. Engert, (1993), page 49.

[vi] Lucy Rebecca Buck, Sad Earth, Sweet Heave: The Diary of Lucy Rebecca Buck, edited by Dr. William P. Buck, (1973), page 243.