Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Christmas Good Will

Holiday charity was displayed frequently during the War Between the States. On more than one occasion, troops displayed reciprocity by exchanging coffee for tobacco, northern newspapers for southern ones, and songs. The Rebel bands proudly played “Dixie,” followed by a retaliatory rendition of “Yankee Doodle” from the Yankees. Both sides came together as they played “Home Sweet Home,” with nary a dry eye on either side as soldiers reminisced of their home and loved ones.

The Civil War was unique in that both sides held the same basic principles and beliefs, had the same religions, patriots, and histories. The soldiers frequently came together to share stories, and then turned around and killed each other the next morning during battle. It is difficult to fathom such an existence, and indeed, many veterans expressed the same sentiment years later during Civil War reunions.

I previously mentioned Sergeant Richard Kirkland, a Confederate soldier who displayed compassion on the battlefield at Fredericksburg. But Union soldiers also felt empathy for their adversaries. On Christmas Day, 1864, ninety soldiers from Michigan and their captain loaded up wagons with food and supplies. They then distributed them to destitute citizens living in the Georgia countryside who had been victimized during Sherman’s “March to the Sea.” The Yankees even went so far as to tie tree branches to the heads of their mules, resembling reindeer.

Nothing expresses the nation’s sentiment better than this excerpt printed in Harper’s Weekly on December 26, 1863: “Even with all the sorrow that hangs, and will forever hang, over so many households; even while war still rages; even while there are serious questions yet to be settled – out it not to be, and is it not, a merry Christmas?”

Monday, December 28, 2009

Happy Holidays! (Enjoy Your Family)

The week between Christmas and New Year’s was a very lonely one for Civil War soldiers away from home. Those who lived close enough were allowed to return home during the winter, but for the ones who were too far away, the winter was spent in camps constructed of dirt and logs with cracker barrel chimneys. Besides their loved ones, the topic on most every soldier’s mind was food. Victuals became especially scarce for Confederate soldiers, and those who were in Virginia suffered more profoundly because the state and its occupants had been depleted of crops and livestock early on in the war.

On Christmas Day, some regiments were treated to egg nog - and I mean the real stuff - made from eggs, cream, and nutmeg. Because whiskey was considered a daily ration, and used for medicinal purposes, it was also supplied for the yuletide drink, although most soldiers were only able to partake in a shot or two at most. Besides holiday cheer, the men enjoyed special treats when the army could supply them, or partook in treats sent to them in packages from home. These included brandy-soaked fruitcakes, cookies, gingerbread, and rock candy. They also enjoyed oysters, which were far more plentiful back then, but still considered a delicacy.

Loneliness was felt most profoundly on Christmas, as is apparent by the following letter written by Elisha Hunt Rhodes, who served the Union army with the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry: “Christmas December 25, 1862. We have passed a very quiet day and except that we have been excused from drill, the day has been like others … In the evening … we had a sing. I should like to be at home on this Christmas night.”

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Savannah as a Christmas Gift

On December 21, 1864, after pushing his troops over 300 miles across Georgia in his "March to the Sea," General William Tecumseh Sherman arrived in Savannah, capturing the city that was by now inhabited by only a few women, children, and slaves. Happy with his accomplishment, Sherman telegraphed President Lincoln. "I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah with 150 heavy guns & plenty of ammunition & also about 25.000 bales of cotton."

I can't imagine what the women of Savannah felt upon this invasion other than utter loathing, which is understandable. By now, most of the South was aware that the war was winding down, and that they were losing. What complete loss they must have experienced at a time that was traditionally held as a joyous occasion.

With this in mind, let us rejoice in our freedom, and celebrate the fact that we live in such a prosperous country. Even though commercialism is everywhere, we should try to look past it and celebrate in honor of those who fought, suffered, and died before us for what they believed in. Without their sacrifice, we wouldn't be where we are today.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas During Wartime

Soldiers who were (and are) subjected to being away from home at Christmas suffered a particular kind of homesickness, different from the usual melancholy they usually felt. Because most soldiers who fought in the Civil War were Christians, the celebration of Christmas was a very special time for them. As Victorians, they believed that Christmas should be celebrated as a happy time of year. But with all the death surrounding them, it must have been nearly impossible to feel that way.

The Battle of Fredericksburg took place a little over a week before Christmas, on December 13, 1862. This battle was especially sad, because the citizens of Fredericksburg were forced out of their homes. Some had no recourse but to camp in the woods in subzero temperatures. The Union forces invaded the town, looted, destroyed, and burned much of it, and shelled it as well. They then marched up to Marye's Heights, where Confederate troops were waiting for them. Because the Rebels were at an advantage, the Yankees were forced to march up the hill through an open field, thus making them sitting ducks. Needless to say, thousands were slaughtered.

When the townsfolk were finally able to return to their homes, they found only destruction. It is difficult to imagine this kind of sorrow for many of us today. Somehow, they managed to carry on through the terrible sadness that engulfed them. It is interesting to note that, during a lull in the battle, one soldier found the compassion to come to the aid of his enemies. His name was Sergeant Richard Kirkland, a Confederate from South Carolina. Without the protection of the white flag of truce, he braved the open field to provide water and blankets to the wounded and dying Union soldiers. Because of his bravery, the "Angel of Marye's Heights" is immortalized with a statue at the Fredericksburg National Military Park.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

More Photos of Huntsville's Antebellum Homes

I wanted to include more photos of buildings in historic Huntsville that I found interesting. Below is a short description of each one:

Photo #1: First Presbyterian Church, c. 1860. This is the oldest Presbyterian Church in Alabama. During the Civil War, local women gathered in the basement to sew socks for the soldiers. It had the tallest spire in Huntsville until a storm destroyed it in 1878, and it was never replaced.

Photo #2: Howard Weeden House, c. 1819. This was the home of John McKinley, the Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and the birthplace of Maria Howard Weeden (famous poet and artist). It is now a museum.

Photo #3: Regions Bank Building, c. 1835. This is the last surviving building of the originals that stood on the public square. It has been in continuous service as a financial institution since it was built, and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

Photo #4: Moore-Rhett House, c. 1826. Hand pressed bricks used for the walls were made by slaves.

Photo #5: McDowell House, c. 1848. During the Union occupation, General Ormsby Mitchel used this house as his headquarters. Period outbuildings surrounding the house have been preserved.

Christmas in Huntsville

This week, we were in Huntsville, Alabama. I love this town! Not only is there an abundant supply of rich history, but the people are sweet as well. Because Huntsville plays a predominant role in my novel, I decided to feature it here on my blog.

Huntsville is fortunate in that it has one of the largest concentrations of antebellum structures in the South. This is because it was occupied by the Union army early on in the war, and was spared from being destroyed.

The first photograph is of the Morgan-Neal House, built c. 1823. It is the birthplace of John Hunt Morgan, a famous Confederate raider. The second picture is of the Thomas Fearn House, c. 1820. Dr. Fearn was a prominent Huntsville resident. Photo #3 is graffiti that either Union or Confederate soldiers drew on the inside walls of the Huntsville Train Depot. In 1862, the town was invaded by Yankees, who kept Confederate soldiers prisoner upstairs for 10 days until they were shipped to Union prison camps. Picture #4 is a train at the depot, all decked out for Christmas, and Photo #5 is the depot itself, which is one of the oldest remaining train depots in the country.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Christmas at Beauvoir

On a recent trip down to Biloxi, my husband and I stopped by Beauvoir, the beautiful home where Jefferson Davis lived out his final years after the Civil War. The structure was damaged from Hurricane Katrina, but has since been restored to its original splendor.

The first photo shows the work being done to replace the presidential library that was destroyed by the storm. Sadly, most of the contents in the museum that was housed on the first floor were destroyed. The books were upstairs, however, so they were spared, and are now being stored at various locations around town until the new library is completed, which should be in two years.

The second photo is Beauvoir, which means "beautiful view" in French. The entire porch and steps have been replaced. Photo #3 shows the Confederate cemetery on the grounds behind the house. After Jefferson Davis died, Varina Howell Davis, his wife, donated the property to Confederate veterans as a retirement home for them and their spouses. These are the people buried in the cemetery, along with Jefferson Davis' beloved mule and dog. President Davis and Mrs. Davis are buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.

Photo #4 shows what was salvaged from a memorial monument built by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. It was originally erected in front of the house. Like the monument, a few antiques that were in the museum were found, but most were damaged. They are on display in the gift shop. The final picture is one of the grounds, which overlook the Gulf of Mexico. It is absolutely stunning, and it's no wonder why they named the home "Beauvoir."

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Another Anniversary for 2009

This year marks the 150th anniversary of John Brown's Raid at Harper's Ferry. For those unfamiliar with John Brown, he was a religious fanatic who was also a staunch abolitionist. He killed a bunch of slave owners in Kansas, and that is how it became known as "Bleeding Kansas." From there, he took his posse to Virginia, where he attempted to start an uprising. However, his plans backfired, as no slaves revolted. The U.S. Marines closed in, and captured John Brown. Sadly, the first man to die in the raid was a freed slave. Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart participated in the capture at the arsenal building. Strangely, those men would end up fighting for the Confederacy only two years later.

As John Brown was led to the gallows, he is quoted as predicting the bloody days to come: "I, John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood." Ominous, to say the least! One of the spectators to witness the hanging was John Wilkes Booth, who was Abraham Lincoln's assassin. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson was also in attendance.

In honor of the anniversary of this profound event that some say started the Civil War, historians from Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland formed the John Brown Sesquicentennial Quad-State Committee to promote the event. They even staged a mock hanging!Events also included re-enactments, dramatic productions, art exhibits, academic lectures, and special tours. If you ever have the opportunity to see this historical town, I strongly recommend it.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Year of Lincoln

Historians and the media have dubbed 2009 as the "Year of Lincoln," because it is the 200th anniversary of his birthday. We have honored our illustrious 16th president since his election, but his legacy became even more apparent following his death. Because he was the first American president to be assassinated, and because the country had just gone through four years of horrible misery, Abraham Lincoln will forever go down in history as the man who saved the slaves, which is what he verbally wished to be remembered for the most.

In 1909, it was decided that Lincoln would appear on the penny in honor of his 100th birthday, and his likeness has been there ever since. He was the first president to be immortalized on U.S. currency, and his face also appears on five dollar bills. There is nothing on record that indicates why Lincoln was chosen for the $5 bill,which took place in the 1920's.

Lincoln's likeness also appears in many other places. There is an enormous monument in Washington D.C. that has inspired many, including Martin Luther King, Jr., who gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech there. Our current president, Obama, was so inspired by Lincoln that he pledged his oath of office on the same Bible as Lincoln. Old Abe is one of only four men chosen to be immortalized on Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. His statue stands at Gettysburg, he (of course) has a presidential library in Springfield, Illinois, and he is honored, along with the Father of our Country, George Washington, every February. Some of us even get the day off! Lincoln will always hold a fascination to us, and even though he was considered just another politician during his presidency, he has since been elevated to an iconic status, even considered a martyr by some.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Black America (And How It Almost Never Was)

We all know that the Civil War evolved into a war to end slavery. But that isn't how it began. Although he was an abolitionist at heart, President Lincoln was against freeing the slaves. His main intention was to preserve the Union, period. He thought it would be best for the nation if slavery was allowed to exist in slave states, and free states remained free. This had to do with westward expansion, as the South wanted to keep slavery in newly established states for free labor purposes.

Lincoln originally opposed emancipation, and refused to move on the slavery issue. "I would do it if I were not afraid that half the officers would fling down their arms and three more States would rise," he said. "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that."

The President backed a plan that called for paying slave owners $400 for each slave that was freed. He also favored sending the freedmen to separate colonies in Africa and South America. In essence, he wanted to do to them what was done to the American Indians. Because Frederick Douglas spoke so adamantly against it, Lincoln was forced to back down on that issue.

Freeing the slaves was essentially an act to undermine the Confederate economy, and although Lincoln personally felt slavery was wrong, he avoided emancipation until the Union had a decisive victory, which didn't happen until the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg) in 1862. That fall, he made his Emancipation Proclamation public, and on January 1, 1863, it was put into effect. That is, only in the southern states, where Lincoln really had no influence. In fact, the proclamation didn't apply to slaves in northern states, and in Illinois, Lincoln's home state, freed blacks weren't allowed into the state at all.