In Times of War: Lincoln and the Holidays

Like other Americans, the Lincoln family would have wanted to celebrate the Christmas holiday. But what was it like during those early days of the Civil War? 

Though Lincoln certainly had his hands full, the press of the day did seem to give the Lincoln family some privacy when it came to their holiday celebration. A check of the New York Times of the era showed scant mention of Lincoln and Christmas, though there were certainly some stories that give us a flavor of the time.

In 1861, eight months after the Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter and the Civil War began in earnest, the news reports of December 25, 1861 were subdued. There is mention of the fact that there is little news because of Christmas, and that “extensive preparations have been made in all the camps for the celebration of Christmas…The President and Cabinet intend making a trip down the Potomac on board the new steam sloop-of-war Pensacola.” (NYT 12-25-1861). There is no mention of Lincoln’s family or specific activities at the White House.

Holiday Mention 1862

By 1862, news coverage of the holiday was more robust. Perhaps this reflects the population’s acceptance of war as an ongoing factor in their lives. The New York Times (12-26-1862) notes that “As a Nation, we are not in a particularly jolly mood.” However, the editors present a roundup of activities around the nation with special attention being given to what was being done for groups ranging from wounded soldiers to “the colored orphan asylum” and the “newsboys’ lodging house.” [Anyone know about housing for newsboys? If so, contact me, or I’ll poke around and report back another week.] With ponds frozen over, public skating was popular. It seemed that the nation was becoming somewhat accustomed to wartime and having to continue on with normal activities.

That year the Times (1-3-62) prints a letter from a member of the infantry who spent Christmas Day in Camp Anderson, near Washington, D.C. The soldier writes of the special dinner that was provided for soldiers on that day, and notes that ne “would be glad if Christmas Day could conveniently be celebrated once a month, at least.” When we consider how often the Union troops had trouble obtaining adequate food, this letter takes on a deeper meaning. The letter also reports on what the soldiers were hearing about the timing of when they would be pressed into action.

And in the spirit of holiday giving, one article (12-24-1862) notes that the perfect holiday gift for family members would be a “Photographic Album” …this would have been in the very early days of photography–the first daguerreotype dates to 1839. People realized then, as now, that there is no better gift for the holidays than a collection of personal photographs that spur family memories.

While the news coverage of the era is more restrained than what we see now, what is clear form a quick survey of these articles is that even with a Civil War underway, Americans treasured the spirit of the holiday, and they took time to fix a holiday meal and to enjoy a moment with friends and family–the same aspects of the holiday we try to honor today.

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