The Christmas Experience

Emmitsburg News Journal, December 2009

Christmas for soldiers, no matter what war they were fighting in, was a time of reflection, their thoughts always turning to their family and friends and more pleasant times. For this month, I wanted to compile another “In their own words” on what a Civil War soldier from Emmitsburg and a soldier serving in Frederick County wrote about Christmas and how they spent it far from home while serving their country.

Emmitsburg resident and newly promoted Lieutenant Albert Hunter of Cole’s Cavalry Company C wrote his memories about his first Christmas away from home during the Civil War. “Our folks from Gettysburg, Emmitsburg, and Taneytown gave us a large box of good things for a Christmas dinner, and oh how good it was. Some of the boys were away on patrol duty and we kept a share for them. When that night a rascal of our company, but from New York, stole the good things. We summarily discharged him. The Corporal of the guard took him a mile from camp and told him his life would not be worth a cant if he ever appeared at the Old Mill, I need not to say we never saw him again. Our next camp was at Hagerstown, where we had a splendid time until spring. We had the Fair Ground, and all the conveniences we could ask for, besides a jolly good time in the old barn.”

Lieutenant John Ross Horner of the 80th New York Infantry wrote a letter home from Patterson, North Carolina, on January 1862 comparing the town to his home near Gettysburg and Emmitsburg. “The little village of Patterson presents no particular attractions, to me at least, except the situation, which is a very pretty one. The whole village factory and all belong to a company and the inhabitants, all except this one family, are renters, and rather poor, too. I haven’t heard of such a thing as a singing school, since I came to this part of the country. Lenoir is a dry little country place about one quarter the size of Emmettsburg. I was over there all last week. The schools there Male & Female are having holiday (a week or two). I’d received your letter in Lenoir Saturday before Christmas. Poor chance here to get anything for a Christmas gift. This country may be good for some things, but you don’t find me teaching school here five years from this time.” John Ross Horner was later killed at the battle of Second Manassas on August 30th, 1862.

Gettysburg Resident James A. Scott of Cole’s Cavalry, Company C wrote a letter home shortly before Christmas of 1861: “The winter was very severe but the boys bore it’s harsh uncomplainingly. Company C was on picket duty at Four Locks on the canal. Colonel Kenly of the first Maryland Infantry was in command of the forces along the river with headquarters at Millstone Point. His infantry like the cavalry was scattered here and there at various points on the river. Drilling and picket duty was the principal occupation of both cavalry and infantry which was schooling them for the more serious business of the oncoming days of the war.”

In mid December of 1861, Private Clayton of Cole’s Cavalry, Company C wrote: “Our camp is in a pleasant situation, at the edge of a pine woods, one mile from the Potomac, on the Greencastle road. We have good quarters for our horses having built barracks of saplings, thatched with straw and pine branches. Some of the boys have very tasty huts, built of logs, plastered with mud.”

Joseph Wible, a Gettysburg resident served with Company C of Cole’s Cavalry and kept a diary of his exploits as a newly recruited soldier when he enlisted in August of 1861. On his first Christmas away from home he wrote: “Today has been a very pleasant day. Was in town this morning [Frederick] and, this afternoon was at home [camp] anxiously looking for our Christmas presents which we expected this evening before, but which didn’t arrive until this evening about six o’clock. Our men were wild with joy when they beheld the box and knew that the present was a reality. It exceeded all of our expectations. There was cakes, pies, roast chickens and roast turkey in abundance and numerous other nice little things to cheer our hearts. There was many a heart filled with gratitude to the kind donors of this bountiful gift. I wish the ladies who sent the above mentioned articles could have been here to enjoy the goods themselves in common with our Company.”

Although not from Emmitsburg, Robert Gould Shaw, the famed Colonel of the 54th Massachusetts was stationed near Frederick at Christmas in 1861, when he was a lieutenant of the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry. This excerpt is from the book “Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune, the Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw” Edited by Russell Duncan. Lieutenant Shaw wrote to home from Camp Hick’s, near Frederick at 3 1/2 o’clock on the morning of Christmas Day while in charge of guard duty: “It is Christmas morning, and I hope it will be a happy and merry one for you all, though it looks so stormy for our poor country, one can hardly be in a merry humour. My Christmas Eve has been like many other eves during the last six months. It began to snow about midnight, and I supposed no one ever had a better chance of seeing “Santa Claus”; but, as I had my stockings on, he probably thought it not worthwhile to come down to the guard-tent. I didn’t see any of the guard’s stocking pinned outside their tent, and indeed it is contrary to army regulations for them to divest themselves of any part of their clothing during the twenty-four hours.”

“I should like about fifteen more pairs of mittens; and some warm flannel shirts and drawers would be very useful, if there are any spare ones. “Uncle Sam’s” are miserable things. ‘Merry Christmas” and love to all.”

Many Emmitsburg men served in the 1st and 2nd Maryland regiments for the Confederacy. The 1st Maryland disbanded in August of 1862 and then became the 2nd Maryland, keeping many of the same soldiers within its ranks. Although James William Thomas was not an Emmitsburg resident, he does share how Christmas was spent in 1861 while serving with his Emmitsburg comrades. “Christmas. To me very dull. Nothing to do. No friends to see and no merry-making. The only difference from other days was more men drunk. Nearly all the camp was in that condition.” A year later, in 1862, his description of Christmas had improved little. “Tolerable, pleasant. Nothing gay, nor even merry, but at least not unpleasant. Bought some apple jack and went to camp.”

I would like to wrap up this month’s edition by wishing everyone serving in our Armed Forces a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Your service is not forgotten and we support you. Thank you for providing the very “Freedom” that has been protected by those who served our nation generations before.