As I was decorating the house the other day for the Christmas holidays, for some reason I started thinking about what my ancestors would have been doing at Christmas time during the civil war.
I’m sure they didn’t string fancy garlands or lights and probably not every one put up a Christmas tree as the European custom of having a tree was just becoming popular. If they did decorate a tree, I’m sure the decorations would have been handmade usually of stringed sugared fruits, ribbons, popcorn, pine cones, colored paper, silver foil and spun glass ornaments.
As I looked around guiltily at all of my decorations, I wondered did they decorate their houses? Did they sit with their families around a fire and sing songs? Did they trade gifts and visit neighbors?
Not having any way to know what my ancestors did, I started thinking about my husband’s ancestors. Then I remembered that we had a copy of my husband’s great-grandfather, A.J. Smith’s diary that he wrote during the civil war. My father-in-law, Al Reynolds has the original diary in his possession.
This is A.J. at about the time he enlisted as a Pvt. in Co. K, 20th Regiment Arkansas Infantry, CSA on March 6, 1862 in Lafayette Co., Arkansas.
So, I pulled the diary up and looked for dates around Christmas time and this is what he wrote (the year is 1863 from farther up in the diary):
“Dec 24th Ark troops and some others to the amount of 500 are parolled for exchange and put on the steamer New York and go to the Fortress Monroe and ly over till the evening of the 25th. On the night of the 25th ly in the mouth of James River. On the morning of the 26th sail to City Point and wait for the Confederate Boat from Richmond till the morning of the 28th.”
We know from his diary and muster rolls that he was taken prisoner at Big Black on May 16, 1863 and imprisoned at Fort Delaware and then later at Point Lookout, where the parole he mentioned above took place.
I went back into the living room at this point and sat and looked at my tree. A.J. was not sitting in a warm house around a tree with his family during the Christmas of 1863. However, I imagine being paroled from prison after seven months, was a pretty good Christmas gift. I imagine he was sitting on that steamer on Christmas eve, glad to be on his way to freedom and thinking very much of his family at home, but was he even thinking about it being Christmas as he didn’t mention that in the diary?
I found a picture of the New York steamer, which you can view here. I can’t imagine being stuffed in there with 499 other parolees. I wonder what he was fed? I’m sure it wasn’t anything like the meal we will eat on Christmas eve. In fact, he was probably lucky if he got anything at all.
In doing a bit of research, I came across this entry, written in a diary on Christmas day 1863, by Sergeant John L. Hoster of Co. A., 148th NY, who was serving an extended period of non-combat duty in the Fort Norfolk, Virginia area. He wrote:
“Cool but pleasant. Corpl. Spaid, Dick Bachman, the orderly and I had a splendid Christmas dinner today, consisting of roast goose, mashed potatoes, good gravy, bread and butter. The goose was bought in market yesterday by F. Spaid for $1.25, stuffed with crackers and oysters and roasted by Mrs. Duncan. We had it served up on a fine large platter, borrowed, bought or stolen for the occasion. Had a fine supper on the remains. Flag of truce ship, New York, came here today and took away a few prisoners to City Point. A schooner also came today with several new pontoons which were unloaded at the dock.”
This dude is chomping down on a goose, from a platter probably stolen from some southern lady, while poor A.J. was getting taken away to City Point. Sgt. Hoster’s good fortune didn’t last long as it was only a matter of time before his own goose was cooked and the next Christmas he was sitting in a Confederate prison eating sweet potato soup and meal dumplings.
I am happy to report though that Sgt. Hoster did eventually return home to his family, as did A.J.
I don’t know what any of my ancestors were up to during the civil war at Christmas time. Of the eight great-grandfathers that I had during that time period, four of them fought during the war between the states. One was shot in his head and survived, but suffered greatly for the rest of his life.
So, this Christmas I will remember what my ancestors, and my husband’s ancestors sacrificed so that we could end up here together, living a life of luxury compared to what A.J. was going through during 1863. I’m thankful, and I don’t take it for granted and I know my husband doesn’t either.
My son, Pvt. Cole is currently at Ft. Sill in Oklahoma completing his AIT training. We get the privilege of Skyping. If you don’t know what that is, it’s where you both log on to Skype either on a phone or computer and we can chat while a webcam sends video, to the person on the other end. This is what my screen looks like when we are talking.
I can only imagine that A.J.’s mother would have wished for a letter or some word that A.J. was still alive and was being released and would be on his way home soon. He had already been sent home once deathly ill to recover at his parents house, only to then be later captured.
His father, Robert Burnett Smith was off fighting in an Alabama regiment and so I imagine his mother, Sarah Yates Smith lived in constant fear for her husband and son. She also had, two other sons fighting; John Calvin Smith and Joel Benjamin Smith. She wasn’t lucky like I am to be able to sit here at my computer and see a smiling face from hundreds of miles away, with just a few clicks on a phone.
Have you thought about what your ancestors were doing during Christmas way back when, and how drastically different it is from what we do now at Christmas time?
I’m thinking maybe we should cook a goose in honor of A.J. this Christmas and share that story with the kids!