DECEMBER 2021 PROGRAM
Turkeys, Holly, Hearts & Shamrocks
The Civil War and the Transformation of American Holidays
by Dr. Cheryl Wells
"The sun glistens through Spanish moss which drapes a three-quarter mile corridor of 276-year-old giant oak trees." As "the Christmas holidays roll through the giant oaks, . . . Boone Hall Planation in South Carolina comes "alive with festivities, decorations, and good ole southern holiday hospitality." Breathtakingly "beautiful Christmas trees" adorn "every room of the planation main floor," poinsettias spill down the staircases, and wreathes of fresh fruit adorn doors and windows. In White Castle, Louisiana, verandas of Nottaway Plantation are splendidly "draped in fresh green garland and gates, doorways, and lampposts" richly "bedecked with wreaths." A majestic "15-foot-tall Christmas tree grac[es] the grand White Ballroom," candles flicker reflected in the polished silver and twinkling crystal, and the plantation is alive with "the Christmas spirit in both young and old." And so, it goes across the south as plantations, except for the Whitney Planation in Louisiana, peddle a nostalgic, romantic, and seductive version of the lost cause antebellum south designed to reflect the manufactured history of moonlights and magnolias, a version designed, to as Karen Cox suggests in her book Dreaming of Dixie, to sell the South.
Over half the population remains conspicuously absent in this version and commodify-cation of Christmas in Dixie. Enslaved people, while an effort is being made to increasingly include them, in the selling of the South, overwhelming remain invisible after the Civil War in ways they never were in the antebellum era. This brings us to the question, how did the American Civil War change the ways in which Americans understood, digested, and commode-fied holidays. I hope to brush out the broad strokes of this answer by looking at a variety of antebellum holidays, their meanings and means of celebration, those same holidays during the Civil War, and final how the War changed these holidays and gave birth, out of the carnage to new, often controversial, and sectional holidays.
Until after the Civil War, and even that is debatable, American holidays were in no way national unifying holidays, but rather sporadically celebrated days often celebrated at different times in different parts of the country. Before the mid 19th century, Americans "did not dream of Christmas at all." As scholar Penne Restad explains in her book, Christmas in America, colonial "Americans of different sects and different national origins kept the holiday (of did not) in ways they carried over from the Old World. Puritans, for instance," ignored "Christmas because the Bible was silent on the topic" and they viewed it as a pagan holiday which had its roots in the Roman winter festival Saturnalia. Fines accompanied Christmas celebrates, as a 1659 law passed by the Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared "whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas, or the like, either by forbearing for labor, feasting, or any other way" would be slapped with a five-shilling fine. Some colonial Virginia planters, took the occasion to feast, dance, gamble, hunt, and visit, perpetuating what they believed to be the Old Christmas customs in English manors" yet others did not thing at all. Nicholas Creswell, an Englishman traveling in Virginia, noted in 1775 that "Christmas day was little observed in this country except by the Dutch." Quakers unlike the Dutch appeared to ignore Christmas while some Lutherans, Catholics, Moravians, and Anglicans celebrated. "Many Americans, churched or unchurched, northern or southerners, hardly noticed the holidays at all."
Colonial Americans debated if to celebrate Christmas and how or how not. In the Puritan colonies people remained working while in the southern colonies some whites celebrated. Christmas was not a recognized holiday during the Revolutionary war and in fact Congress held its first session on Christmas day 1789. George Washington spent the day settling his accounts and "renewing" the contracts on his indentured servants. For Americans who did celebrate, conflict arose over when to celebrate the holiday. Christmas. December 25th of course but on what calendar? In 1752, to bring Britain and the colonies in line with the Catholic countries of Europe who had adopted Gregorian calendar in 1582, the calendar underwent a change. Britain and the Colonies switched from the Julian calendar to the Catholic Gregorian Calendar. 11 days were removed from the calendar meaning the day after Wednesday September 4th 1752 was Thursday, September 14th 1752. Not everyone in the Colonies embraced this change. Catholics who were already on the Gregorian Calendar remained on it, maintaining the 11-day dislocation from the Julian calendar. In short, those who celebrated Christmas did so on both the 25th of December on the new calendar and on January 6th which would have been Christmas on the Julian calendar but was now January 6th on the Gregorian calendar. Christmas therefore emerged in the colonial era an often-uncelebrated holiday.
Little changed in the antebellum era. Christmas celebrations remained uneven across the country. German and Dutch immigrants celebrated around the Christmas tree; many Americans didn't acknowledge the holiday at all, for as one man in Pennsylvania put it in 1810, "Shall we have Christmas?" The answer was not a foregone conclusion.
In the antebellum south, Christmas offered planters a time to show their generosity, and that is certainly the version they sold to themselves and each other. Indeed, antebellum plantation Christmas celebrations figure largely into the cavalier myth of the south that would have its natural result in the Lost Cause myth. Christmas was a time, as the myth goes, for illustrating the perceived virtues and goodness of the plantation system. It showed abolitionists that they were wrong. On some plantations, Christmas was a day like any other. This held particularly true for Louisiana sugar plantations for the nature of the crop required labour over Christmas. On other plantations, slaves may have had a day off or as much as a week. Regardless, the contours of the myth hold. Slaves would happily and excitedly gather to enjoy the generosity of their masters. Indeed, one Nashville Tennessee master went so far as to say that "southern slaves enjoyed far more happiness over" Christmas "than did free northern factory operatives" for they were gifted with luxuries, rich foods, and respite from work which allowed slaves to travel to neighbouring plantations to visit family and friends. Eliza Ripley recounted in her memoir Social Life in Old New Orleans that, on her plantation on "Christmas day, the field negroes were summoned to the back porch of the big house, where Marse Jim, after a few preliminary remarks, distributed the presents - a head handkerchief, . . ., a dress for the baby, shoes for the growing boy, . . . etc. etc. down the list. . . Then, after Charlotte brought forth the jug of whisky and tin cups, everyone had a dram".
There is of course some truth to this idyllic version of Christmas on the plantation but there is also a much darker truth: a truth erased, for the most part, by plantation Christmas tours. A closer look at the gifts given by the masters reveal that these were things designed to enhance productivity and gifts that the masters would have eventually been required to provide. Clothing for example. Alcohol poses a different conundrum. Alcohol was widely available over Christmas but not necessarily for the benefit of the slaves but for the amusement of the masters, some of whom, as Frederick Douglass points out, took great pleasure in forcing their slaves to drink and fight for their entertainment. Moreover, Douglass argues planters saw drunkenness as a benign way that slaves could release the pressures of being slaves for the fear of Christmas rebellions lurked through the antebellum era and, if plastered, a rebellion was clearly harder to organize and carry out.
Whites were not immune from holiday spirits. In 1826, an Eggnog Riot, also known as the Grog Mutiny, broke out at West Point masterminded, as the story goes by none other than Jefferson Davis. Earlier in 1826, Superintendent Sylvanus Thayer found discipline lacking and banned the consumption, possession, or storage of alcohol by cadets. Fourth of the July passed without incident so there was no reason to think the Christmas season would likewise pass in peace. Jefferson Davis had other plans. On Christmas of 1826 cadets smuggled in vats of egg-nog. The cadets, reportedly a third of all those at West Point, proceeded to get right royally pissed. Reports reveal that cadets "stumbled from their barracks, clothes torn or astrew. Many were barefoot, cursing, still drunk from the night before. Behind the cadets, West Point's North Barracks stood in a state of near ruin. Windows had been smashed along with the building's furniture. Banisters had been ripped from stairways, thrown down with other rubble. Shards of shattered plates, dishes and cups were strewn over the ground. Looking at the mix of hungover and drunk cadets, the officer of the day dismissed the Corps." Discipline soon followed with 12 cadets dismissed. Davis despite previous discipline for alcohol-based violations escaped dismissal.
While Davis and his fellow West Point cadets created their own Christmas celebration, so too did slaves. Slaves also embraced the holiday and made it their own. Slaves also held their own parties and weddings in the slave quarter. On some North Carolina plantations slaves developed a custom called Koonering where men, "dressed as animals or disguised with various masks, would parade around the plantation, dancing and making noise." According to scholar Peter Wood, the story of Koonering comes from the actions of John Koonering who "was a West African leader who fought the Dutch in the 1720s. "Slaves performed the ritual to call him to come back down among them . . . one person played the part of John Canoe, festooning himself with bones, bells, and ribbons, and a mask made of a raccoon's skin. He danced in a combination of bodily contortions, flings, kicks, gyrations, and antics of every imaginable description . . . to music played by fellow slaves." Regardless of such perceived autonomy, slaves remained property and subject to the whims of the master.
Christmas time did not make slaves safe from sale and punishment. A northern teacher in the postbellum south recounted that the first thing her students told her about their slave experience was about the "anxiety and terror that they used to suffer at Christmastime, which was the season of hiring and selling servants." Harriet Tubman launched one of her most famous underground railroad rescues when she learned that her three brothers were to be sold off on Christmas day 1854. On Christmas morning, she spirited them to freedom. One of the most famous photos titled "Gordon Under Military Inspection," reveals "his back heavily scarred . . . from a whipping administered on Christmas Day." Christmas offered little safety.
While slaves may have had some time off at Christmas, New Year's marked not only the end of the Christmas season and the start of a new year but also the start of the selling season. While some whites across the colonies celebrated with fireworks, whiskey, and the random shooting off of guns, others filled the pages of their diaries with ideas of New Years as a "time of memory and of tears," a time of earnest reflection on the passage of time, a nostalgia, and an anticipation of the future. Indeed, father time representing the old year hands the future to a baby representing the new year. Yet all was not so positive, as scholar Alexis McCrossen points out. Her forthcoming book is an investigation of New Years in America, and her work reveals that for "working class families, New Years Day was moving day when city families who could not pay the rent were sent to the curb, and when slaves" were, until Lincoln's January 1st Emanci-pation Proclamation, sold or rented away from their families and homes. For slaves, New Years Day was known colloquially as heartbreak day for clear reasons.
Valentine's Day and St. Patrick's Day enjoyed an explosion of popularity in the antebellum era. As scholar Leigh Eric Schmidt wrote, St. Valentine's Day went "from being an often forgotten, easily neglected, Old World saint's day to an indigenized, not-to-to be missed American holiday" in the 1840s. What we see in the 1840s is the commodification of the holiday, a commodification that, like that of Thanksgiving, remains. Stores in major urban centres like Charleston and New York for example began to display valentines spreading what had been a rather middleclass romantic, sentimental day into a commercial success. Unlike St. Patrick's Day, which remained tied to ethnicity, Valentine's Day proved more secular and lucrative. By 1848, at least 11 American businesses made their own valentines with a slew of others importing valentines from the UK for sale. Harper's Weekly reported in 1858, that valentine dealers were traveling the country selling their products. "Estimates put the number of valentines going through the New York mail in 1843 at 15,000, 21,000 in 1844, 30,000 in 1847. In Boston one express company alone in 1847 reportedly delivered 8,000 of these holiday greetings." The Boston Daily Evening Transcript "incredulously" reported in 1845 white satin valentines 'trimmed with Mechlin lace' and priced at $80. Six years later, the paper marveled at a $150 valentine that had "diamonds, pearls, rubies, and other precious stones, artistically displayed." For Americans lacking capital, homemade valentines and handwritten poems filled that void. Valentines and love tokens were exchanged across the country as were baldly vicious cards that portrayed "publicly active women . . . as devils, snakes, tiger, or hissing cats in posting a threat to prevailing cultural definitions of true womanhood; they were depicted in subhuman, bestial and demonic form." Along side the courtly love traditions lay deeply ingrained misogyny.
St. Patrick's Day lacked the romance of St. Valentines. Initially celebrated where large groups of Irish settled: Boston, New York City, Savannah, Charleston, and New Orleans amongst other places, this urban holiday was celebrated with parades, church services, and tolling bells but also in astonishingly high amounts of liquor being consumed and an increase in brawls. While New York City boasts the oldest, St Patrick's Day parade beginning in 1762, it is Montreal which held the first parade in North America in 1759. Colonial and antebellum St. Patrick's Day celebrations also served to help alienate the Irish from the American population as the holiday reinforced stereotypes. For planters, the holiday was of concern. In 1768, slaves on Montserrat launched a failed rebellion, the spectar of which continued to hang over southern plantations throughout the antebellum era.
Prior to the War of 1812, white Americans sporadically celebrated the Fourth of July with orations and parades designed to bind the peoples of the new nation together through the creation of a common identity based on the legacies of the American Revolution: liberty, freedom, independence, and equality. With the wrongly perceived American victory in the War of 1812, a new patriotism swept the Republic, complete with a renewed commitment and dedication to the celebration of the Fourth of July as a National Day of Celebration. By the 1820s, the homogenizing nature of Independence Day celebrations began to wane. Where once speakers praised a common understanding of the Republic, the meaning of the Fourth of July increasingly fractionalized into sectionalism, and debates over slavery began to creep into the celebrations. Southerners increasingly used the Fourth of July celebrations to defend slavery and Northerners used it to defend the Union. As a result, the day became increasingly difficult for African Americans to stomach. As Frederick Douglass said, "What to the Slave is the 4th of July." Douglass' speech given in Rochester New York on the 76th signing of the Declaration of Independence, remains one of the most brilliant pieces of American oration. Douglass rightly points out "The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine." "What, to the American slave," roared Douglass, "is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham… mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy -- a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages." Douglass no doubt spoke for blacks, free and slave, for the Fourth of July, a holiday dedicated to freedom and liberty, was conceived in and existed in a country which held millions in bondage. In short, Douglass' speech highlighted the "ludicrous incongruity of a slaveholding democracy nurtured upon the Declaration of Independence".
Thanksgiving proved likewise complicated. We all know the story of the first Thanksgiving. As scholar David Silverman writes "The myth is that friendly Indians, unidentified by tribe, welcome the Pilgrims to America, teach them how to live in this new place, sit down to dinner with them and then disappear. They hand off America to white people so they can create a great nation dedicated to liberty, opportunity and Christianity for the rest of the world to profit. That's the story-it's about Native people conceding to colonialism. It's bloodless and in many ways an extension of the ideology of Manifest Destiny." We know there was more to the story and that that version and the modern version of Thanksgiving paper over the horrors of colonialism. For the Puritan's, celebrating Thanksgiving was problematic. Thanksgiving was not in the bible and Puritans "were doctrinally opposed to annual holidays". Celebrating Thanksgiving required some theological gymnastics which permitted "days of thanks for God's goodness" which "could be declared as often as the people had special reason to be grateful" such as the end of famines, droughts, and epidemics or, more positively in the face of bountiful harvests. Thanksgiving was a disjointed, regional, uncoordinated celebration across the colonies. It was Sarah Josepah Hale, editor of Godey's Lady's Book that, starting in 1846, pushed for Thanksgiving to be a national holiday. In some years, there were multiple thanksgiving celebrations in certain areas and in other years there were none. Each colony, state, or even parts of states celebrated days of thanksgiving. Presidents Washington, John Adams and James Madison declared days of thanksgiving - some in November and others in February and March. These days, in Washington's words, were meant to "inspire prayerful reflection and gratitude for 'God's beneficence towards us." There was no fixed date for Thanksgiving.
In the antebellum era, Thanksgiving remained a largely a Yankee abolitionist holiday, rarely celebrated in the South. Turkeys, cranberries, and pumpkin pies did not grace southern tables. Yet Hale and the Presbyterian church championed Thanksgiving as a national holiday in hopes of creating a unity to paper over the widening gap between North and South. Some Southerners resisted the holiday on religious grounds and on grounds of Yankee domination. Witness an 1855 statement from William H. Holcombe, a homeopathic physician in Natchez, Mississippi. He recorded in his diary, "This was Thanksgiving Day...I am sorry that the Yankee custom has crept in among us. I object to it because it makes gratitude to God a matter of a civil ordinance, and limits to a single day the exhibition of feelings which should be a portion of our daily life." Some parts of the south embraced the holiday with South Carolina and Georgia for example acknowledging the holiday in 1858, yet it could not stop the sectionalism that led to War.
As one scholar put it "Thanksgiving had a noticeable Presbyterian twang,". The Fourth of July and Washington's birthday brought out political antagonisms; Christmas and Easter still elicited sharp religious disagreements about whether the feasts were scripturally warranted. St. Patrick's Day was peculiar to the Irish; and various other holidays like Evacuation Day in New York City or Bunker Hill Day in Boston, were decidedly local and regional."
The Civil War, I would argue, changed every single aspect of American life and holidays were no different. The meaning of holidays changed as regional holidays became national holidays. Religious holidays became secularized, and new holidays, like Emancipation Day, Decoration Day, Juneteenth, and the slew of Confederate Holidays, like Robert E Lee Day, Stonewall Jackson Day, and Confederate Memorial Day to name but a few, were born from the rubble of the war.
On December 20th 1860, delegates to the South Carolina Session Convention voted 169 to 0 to leave the union. The Charleston Mercury declared the Union dissolved and Charlesto-nians celebrated. No doubt such action emboldened other secessionist states and unleashed unknown anxiety about the future, and yet Christmas and New Year's remained very much as they had been in the antebellum era. Charleston in 1860 emerged resplendent. As scholar Suzannah Smith Miles wrote, "Charleston shimmered with wealth and prosperity. The city was at the zenith of antebellum splendor. Here was the Victorian Era in all its exaggerated affecta-tions, with ladies in lace-frilled hoop skirts and dandies in top hats carrying gold-knobbed walking sticks. Home interiors with their heavy mahogany furniture were dressed with decor-ations. "Turkey" carpets covered highly polished floors. From the great mansions along the Battery to stately single houses in Wraggsboro, front doors were bedecked in greenery for the holidays. Inside, the cedar tree was trimmed and its tallow candles ready for lighting on Christmas Eve." King Street's store windows brimmed with holiday cheer, with shops offering everything from Christmas confections and children's toys to "bonnets, flowers and feathers."
So it was across the south, blacks and whites continued their antebellum traditions as did free blacks and whites in the North. Holiday celebrations changed very little until the fall of Fort Sumter in April of 1861. As men enlisted and left for the front, holiday celebrations on the homefront and on the battlefield diverged in meaning and utility. Gone were the cheery and optimistic decorations, replaced instead with the black of mourning. Southern newspapers often lamented such losses. An 1861 editorial in an unnamed North Carolina paper stated "This day, Christmas again greets us and our readers. We could wish them, one and all, a merry Christmas but we are reminded that many a home in the state is deserted by the strong and the young men, who are off on the battlefield. . . were our people to indulge in the usual festivities, they might in the midst of their gaiety receive the unwelcome tidings that a father, a son, or a brother were weltering in gore on the blood field." Yet Christmas of 1861, also revealed some optimism as the Trent Affair was unfolding. It seemed a previous neutral Britain might enter the war on the Confederate side, sealing their independence. Some Southerners continued as in the prewar era. The shops of Richmond remained full of goods, of candies and toys and silks. Some even displayed French champagnes and perfumes, smuggled through the blockade. Plantation mistress Gertrude Thomas recalled gifting her daughter "a wood tea set, a China set, and some parlor furniture." Mary Chesnutt threw a magnificent feast of "mince pies and plum puddings and drew on 'everything. . . that a hundred years or more of unlimited wealth could accumulate as to silver, China, glass, damask." Newspapers remained prolific during the holidays to instill meaning into the cause. Despite losing on the battlefields, Southern newspapers often "insinuated that the very way Southerners commemorated the annual holiday of Christ's birth - so warmly as compared to how descendants of cold-hearted Puritans in the northern states observe it - was cause to keep fighting for Independence."
Such editorials clearly and purposely ignored how slaves spent the wartime Christmas holidays for it did not fit their narrative. As the War progressed, slaves not surprisingly fled the plantations some to Union lines. Some continued to be sold and others remained on plantations, but gone where the Christmases of yore. Plantation mistresses and those remaining as masters found it increasingly difficult to supply the customary Christmas gifts to their slaves. As time passed, things grew even more unimaginably bleaker. An editorial in an unnamed Southern paper, wrote in January of 1865, "the warm blood from the heart of many a strong man and bright-eyed boy no doubt reddens the soil. The whole nation is a vast house of mourning. Christmas, once so merry and joyous, now finds the widow and her little ones clustered together in grief. Carnage, blood, fiendish malignity, devilish hate, ail the horrors of hell, seem to rise uppermost and turn the land into a vast slaughter pen."
Yet even as the bodies stacked up and the blood soaked the ground, Christmas took on an idealized version of home and hearth which has remained. Soldiers pined for it and a sense of normalcy. "On the battlefield, men on both sides tried to celebrate Christmas by giving gifts, eating, and drinking, and taking time off. In his memoir, James A. Wright, a sergeant in the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment, recalls eating beef soup and greeting his fellow soldiers on Christmas in camp. "The men had been allowed as much liberty as was consistent with discipline and were 'circulating around' among their acquaintances in other regiments," he recalled, "I was frequently invited to 'smile,'" or take a drink. In 1863, a Confederate soldier from North Carolina wrote to his mother asking for a bottle of brandy and some sugar so he could make eggnog for his fellow soldiers" Alfred Bellard of the 5th New Jersey noted, "In order to make it look as much like Christmas as possible, a small tree was stuck up in front of our tent, decked off with hard tack and pork, in lieu of cakes and oranges, etc." John Haley, of the 17th Maine, wrote in his diary on Christmas Eve that, "It is rumored that there are sundry boxes and mysterious parcels over at Stoneman's Station directed to us. We retire to sleep with feelings akin to those of children expecting Santa Claus." A Confederate prisoner related how the realities of war intruded on his Christmas celebrations. "A friend had sent me in a package a bottle of old brandy. On Christmas morning I quietly called several comrades up to my bunk to taste the precious fluid of…DISAPPOINTMENT! The bottle had been opened outside, the brandy taken and replaced with water…and sent in. I hope the Yankee who played that practical joke lived to repent it and was shot before the war ended." For the people of Savannah, Christmas saved them and the city. In 1864, fresh from his march from Atlanta, Sherman famously "gloated" in a dispatch to Lincoln that he was giving him "as a Christmas gift" the City of Savannah.
The meaning of New Year's Day also changed during the war years. Prior to 1863, New Year's Day for whites was marked with nostalgic reflection backwards and optimism forward, by parades, fireworks, gunfire, and church bells. For slaves, "heartbreak day" destroyed lives as slaves were sold away or rented away from family. By January 1863, it became clear to Lincoln and the Union that slavery must be introduced as a war aim which would give the Union cause legitimacy in the eyes of Europe and disrupt the Confederacy. Freedom was already occurring at different times, in different ways, and in different parts of the Union and Confederacy. On January 1st 1863, Lincoln signalled the end of heartbreak day by implementing the Emancipation Proclamation, which symbolically at least freed some slaves. In the North, church pews filled with members of black communities to give thanks for Lincoln and emancipation. Freedom in the South changed freedom in the North. January 1st became known as Emancipation Day and it replaced August 1st, the date on which the British banned slavery, as a day of celebration. September 22nd joined January 1st as a day of celebration for it was on September 22nd 1862, that Lincoln announced his intention to issue the proclamation. After the Civil War, March 30th, the date of the passage of the 15th amendment which granted the franchise to black men, was briefly also celebrated in the North. As scholar Amber Bailey put it "Emancipation Day celebrations provided blacks . . . with forums to come together to bond as a community, fashion a distinct racial identity based on collective memory of slavery, and assert an equal place for themselves in civic and public life. . . Emancipation Day celebrations brought together the black community's rich and poor, old settlers and recent migrants, educated elites and common labourers, free-born men and women, and freedmen and freedwomen in communion to commemorate the dawn of freedom for the entire race. These celebrations continue to this day. Charleston South Carolina will celebrate the 156th Annual Emancipation Proclamation Day with a parade on January 1st 2021. Gay right's activist and Olympic silver medalist Raven Saunders will serve as the Grand Marshall.
Valentine's day which enjoyed a renaissance and a dramatic commercialization in the 1840s gained renewed meaning during the war. With supplies in short demand and lovers torn apart by war, women on the Homefront made valentines gifts, trinkets, and mementos to ship to their soldiers at the front and vice versa. "An ad in Chicago's Daily Tribune of January 22nd 1862 proclaimed, "Valentines for 1862: My stock for the approaching season will be entirely new, and will far surpass that of former years. Valentines, Single, from 1 cent to Twenty Dollar…. Comic and Sentimental Valentines Assorted Patriotic Comic Valentines, Envelopes, Cards, Writers, &c." Men in the field generally had to fall back on their own talents. Virginian Mollie Lyne received these lines of verse from a soldier on Valentine's Day 1863:
Mid all the trials and toils of war,
The clash of arms, the cannon's roar,
The many scenes of desolation and strife,
And varying fortunes which surround this life.
Naught else disturbs me, half so much,
As the nightly visions which haunt my couch.
But why should I not be happy?
Ah! Methinks that thou canst tell,
Thou hast me bound, as if by spell,
I love thee Mollie, with all my heart.
Others stuck to traditional love letters. Private Joseph C. Morris of the Phillips Legion [Georgia] Cavalry poured out his heart to Sylvanie Bremond of Stanardsville, Va., on February 14th 1865: "Moments appear days to me, and day an age-an age of misery and woe-when I cannot behold your beloved face….Why have we passion? If upon the first development of their genuine tenderness, they must be curbed and checked, by the arbitrary rules of war."
Especially in the Confederate States of America, war's deprivations made it increasingly difficult to celebrate Cupid's special day. The Daily Chronicle & Sentinel of Augusta, Ga., postulated on February 6th 1862: "When our Southern land shall again bask in the broad sunshine of peace and prosperity, mayhap the observance of Valentine's Day…will be general among us." Richmond's Whig of February 9th 1864, noted soberly, "Although public attention should be diverted from levity whilst the alarms of war are heard at our very doors, we believe that on the 14th February, many 'Valentines' will pass through the post office." Valentine's day remained an uninterrupted unofficial secular holiday. It was of course also a day of unrestrained mourning as cards went unsent and forever unreceived as men died for the cause.
St. Patrick's Day remained an important day of celebrations for the Irish on the home front and on the battlefields. While the home front celebrated with toned down parades, church services, and orations, the war functioned on a schedule, indifferent to holidays. On March 17th 1863, a cavalry battle unfolded at Kelly's Ford in Culpepper County Virginia. Brigadier General Fitz Hugh Lee and his calvary came under attack by Union Brigadier General Willian Averell and his Union Calvary. Averell "forced a crossing at Kelly's Ford, 25 miles upstream from Fredericksburg." He failed to crush Lee and retreated across the river setting the stage for Brandy Station. 89 men lay dead including Confederate Major John Pelham, 135 men lay wounded, 22 missing and 34 captured.
Yet in other arenas of the war, St. Patrick's Day was a cause for celebrations, a break in the War if you will. Such was the scene in 1864 as recounted by Kingston's own Francis Wafer. Writing from Stoney Mountain, Virginia, Wafer revealed that at his camp "the gaiety of the" day had rather increased . . . as numerous Irish officers of the Corps, especially the gallant Irish Brigade, were busy getting up amusements for the day. "A gay party of ladies and officers attended the events" which included horse races, footraces and the soapy of a pig. This pig in Wafer's opinion was "a very poor representative of his race." The soaped pig failed to escape the hoards of soldiers who pounced, amongst much laughter, on the creature. The day concluded with the "soul stirring strains of St Patrick's Day in the morning." Such scenes replicated themselves throughout the war.
Celebrating the Fourth of July proved more complicated during the War for a divided Union. While Lincoln maintained the Union was indivisible Fourth of July celebrations show otherwise. White Northerners, flushed with triumph from their military victories, celebrated the day with pomp and circumstance, renewed dedication to the Union and a commitment to a "new birth of freedom". Some white southerners abandoned the day. No white celebrations graced Vicksburg in 1863 or for much of the rest of the 20th century.
For African Americans, the hypocrisy of the Fourth gave way to celebration. An 1863 parade in Louisville, Kentucky, reportedly consisted of 10,000 newly freed people, celebrating liberty and emancipation. The same year freed people in Cincinnati Ohio, spend the day picnicking and recruiting black soldier for the Union cause. In 1864, former slaves celebrated on the grounds of Jefferson Davis's Mississippi mansion. For African Americans, the Fourth of July joined Emancipation Day as a true holiday of freedom. For white Southerners, the Fourth of July and Africa American celebrations and ownership of it represented a tragedy of epic potions. African American enthusiasm for the day resulted in white fear and resentment.
As the War dragged into 1864, Fourth of July celebrations became even spottier and more divergent. In Washington DC, whites did not publically marked the day, while African Americans held a fund-raising celebration to raise money to erect a monument to Lincoln. For Union soldiers dug in around Petersburg Virginia, the day passed as any other day did. Likewise in Augusta Georgia, and Richmond Virginia, little fanfare greeted the day. For many Southerners, the 1864 Fourth of July reminded them not of the American Revolution or Confederate Independence but instead of the devastating and humiliating losses at Vicksburg and Gettysburg the year before.
Southern celebrations of the Fourth of July continued to decline as Confederate victory seemed less and less likely. Silence and mourning increasingly replaced the celebratory parades and parties of the past. In Southern areas under Northern occupation, celebrations of the Fourth emerged. In New Orleans, the Daily Picayune acknowledged the likelihood of Confederate defeat and called for reconciliation, a call which fell mostly on deaf Southern ears.
Northerners and many Westerners celebrated the Fourth of July from 1865 well into the 1870s as a representation of the triumph of the Northern legacy of the American Revolution, as articulated through the union victory in the Civil War. For Southerners, it represented the painful collapse of Confederate Independence and the struggle for reconciliation. For African Americans, the Fourth represented liberty, freedom, citizen-ship, and the hope of equality.
Americans also struggled with the idea of and the meaning of Thanksgiving during the War. During the first several years of the war, there was no set Thanksgiving national holiday. Lincoln and Davis issued multiple calls for national days of thanksgiving and prayer. Lincoln issued one following the Union's defeat at the Battle of Bull Run; the last Thursday of September 1861 was designed to steel the resolve of the people as Lincoln put it to "bow in humble submission to God's chastisements; to confess and deplore their sins and transgressions." Lincoln, it seems tied the Union defeat to "the hand of God", pointing out the faults and crimes of the Union "as a nation and as individuals." This was the cause of the Union defeat. For Davis and the South, God was a Confederate and had ensured victory. The day was a celebration and "an offer unto Him the tribute of thanksgiving and praise." Davis set "apart Thursday, the 18th of September. as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God", the Almighty who would guide "our country safely through the perils which surround us to the attainment of the blessing of peace and security." By 1863, the Union was winning the war but at a terrible cost. Davis, continuing his call for fasting, humility, and prayer, believed that God had turned against the South due to the sins of the people.
In late 1863, President Lincoln accidentally launched an American tradition, having received a turkey for the family's first holiday meal. Lincoln's son Tad became enamoured with the creature and begged his father to spare the bird. Ever the indulgent Dad, Lincoln pulled out a piece of paper and wrote out a presidential pardon: a practice that continues as this year, President Biden spared two turkeys named Peanut Butter and Jelly. 1863 was a brutalizing year. Now in its third year, the War had ripped apart the fabric of the nation, destroyed families and created "bitter division not just between North and South but also within the Union itself." Lincoln, driven to create some forum for greater unity within the Union and, spurred on by Sarah Josepha Hale, issued a declaration on Oct. 3rd 1863. He declared Thanksgiving a national celebration and fixed it on the last Thursday in November for "a day of reflection and prayer": a day when Americans "as with one heart and one voice," would thank God for "the blessing of fruitful fields and healthful skies" and pray that God "heal the wounds of the nation and . . . restore it as soon as maybe consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and Union." In some ways, Lincoln achieved the opposite of his goal. This national holiday further fractionalized the Union. Many Democrats and Peace advocates refused to acknowledge the president's proclamation to extend the war or worse yet as "an attempt to impose a particular brand of New England fanaticism on the whole country." Many Republicans embraced the president's message and view on the holiday. The Confederate defeat seemed to suggest to many that Lincoln's Thanksgiving had pleased God. As the post-war period unfolded, Reconstruction gave Southerners little to be thankful for. Crushed under the military occupation, economic despair, grief, and a rapidly changing social order, Thanksgiving remained a Yankee holiday aimed at celebrating, as Fourth of July did, Union victories. Lincoln's Thanksgiving, with few exceptions, would endure as The Thanksgiving Day until 1939.
In 1939, Franklin D. Roosevelt departed from tradition by declaring November 23rd, the next to last Thursday that year, as Thanksgiving Day. Considerable controversy surrounded this deviation, and some Americans refused to honor Roosevelt's declaration. He changed it, the argument goes, because that Thanksgiving in 1939 fell on November 30th and would not leave enough time for Christmas shopping. In essence, this was an economic measure. For the next two years, Roosevelt repeated the unpopular proclamation. It took on the colloquial name of Franksgiving. On December 26th 1941, he admitted his mistake and signed a bill into law officially making the fourth Thursday in November the national holiday of Thanksgiving Day.
The Civil War certainly changed the meanings, understanding and celebrations of holidays just as it altered every single aspect of American society. The Civil War also birthed new national and sectional holidays. 750,000 Americans perished in the Civil War. Dignified burials were few. In the aftermath of the war, Northerners and Southerners set out to honor the dead. The origins of Decoration Day, later Memorial Day, are murky. Some scholars claim the women of Columbus, Mississippi laid flowers on graves as early as April of 1866 and started Memorial Day. David Blight in his 2001 book, Race and Reunion, locates the origins of this new holiday; it would become official only in 1971, in Charleston, Southern Carolina on May 1st 1865. A planter's racetrack had served as a prison during the war. 257 Union soldiers died there and were buried in unmarked graves. On May 1st 1865, a group of black Charle-stonians decided these men deserved to be honored and given a proper burial. The New York Tribune described the tribute as "a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before." The gravesites looked like a "one mass of flowers" and "the breeze wafted the sweet perfumes from them" and "tears of joy" were shed. This tribute, "gave birth to an American tradition," Blight wrote in Race and Reunion: "The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration."
In 1867, the federal government established national cemeteries but only for the Union dead. The Confederate dead and their burial grounds were largely forgotten and neglected by the Federal government. Local people, mostly women, tended those graves and the former Confederacy established its own Memorial Day. In June of 1866 in Winchester Virginia, Major Uriel Wright noted that "the mothers and daughters of Virginia are the chief mourners and actors in these touching" memorializations and all over the Old Confederacy, Ladies Memorial Associations sprung up and created and supported local Memorial Days. Confederate Memorial Day grew for localized events in the immediate aftermath of the war into widely popular and acknowledged holidays in the 1880s. In 1900, the Confederated Southern Memorial Association established Jefferson Davis's Birthday as Confederate Memorial Day. At these services, as you can imagine, they would sing Dixie. Veterans sported their old uniforms. Battle flags were displayed, and the Confederacy praised. Confederate Memorial Day is very much alive even today. In 2000, in a bid to remove the Confederate flag from the top of the South Carolina State House in Columbia, a deal was struck. The flag would be removed, and Martin Luther King Day honored if and only if Confederate Veterans Day which was set as May 10th was a declared a state holiday. This was 2000. It is an official state holiday in South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi and acknowledged in Kentucky, Florida, North Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, Louisiana and Virginia. Yet Memorial Day also exists and itself remains wrapped the tatters of the War. President Obama's laying a wreath on Memorial Day on the Confederate Monument, ostensibly a symbol of white nationalism, on Memorial Day highlighted that the legacy of the War remains. Obama then went on to send a wreath across the river to be lauded at an African American monument to the Civil War dead, acknowledging the 200,000 African Americans who served the Union and their dead.
The post war era saw a flurry of new regional holidays spring up - few caught on in the north - Grant Day and Haymarket Fire Day simply didn't catch on but, in the South, we see, and continue to see, the memorialization of purely Confederate holidays. The February 23rd Journal of Education reveals that Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Alabama celebrated Lee's Birthday on January 19th, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi celebrated Confederate Memorial Day on April 30th while North Carolina and South Carolina celebrated on May 10th. The second Friday of May was Confederate Day in Tennessee. May 30th, Decoration Day, was celebrated in all states and territories and the District of Columbia except Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas. In Virginia, it was known as Confederate Memorial Day. June 3rd saw Florida, Georgia, and Alabama celebrate Jefferson Davis' birthday, while Louisiana celebrated Confederate Day. Indeed, if one happens to be in San Paulo Brazil in April, Confederate Day and celebrations of Robert E. Lee's birthday are alive and well. These Confederate- based holidays, Robert E Lee Day, Stonewall Jackson Day, Confederate history months and the like have come, and rightly so, under sharp criticism after the massacre at Mother Emmanuel and the events at Charlottesville. The rift created by the Civil War and stimulated through the creation of these sectional holidays remain.
To perhaps combat the white nationalism of Confederate holidays, Juneteenth has emerged as the newest national holiday. Freedom came unevenly and contingent on place, time, and knowledge. On June 19th 1865, Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas and declared the slaves free. Juneteenth began as a regional unofficial holiday in Texas, Southeast Oklahoma, southwest Arkansas, and in parts of Louisiana. Parades, BBQs, speeches, and celebrations accompanied the day. Junteenth spread by the mid-20th century celebrations were held in states like Minnesota, Michigan, New York, and California. Texas made it a state holiday in 1980 and Biden made it a Federal holiday in 2021 yet, as with any legacy of the Civil War, this is a complicated one. The Federal holiday known as Juneteenth National Independence Day is problematic. First, it speaks to the fractionalization of a National holiday after the War as well as the need for new inclusive holidays. The larger problem with this holiday is that it is designed to acknowledge the day the slaves were free. It doesn't apply to the slaves held in Indian Territory; they were not freed with the emancipation proclamation, Juneteenth, or the 13th amendment. Because the Indian nations who fought against the Union were not states, separate treaties, harsher ones in some ways, had to be negotiated with the Federal government. Slaves held by the Cherokee nation were freed the day after the 14th amendment passed.
The Civil War, I would argue, was the defining event in American history. While more remained the same than different after the American Revolution, the American Civil War touched and changed every aspect of American life. It continues to define the United States in ways obvious with the rise of white nationalism and the debates over Confederate monuments and holidays and flags and in more subtle ways like the celebration of Thanksgiving.
Author: Dr. Cheryl Wells
From the Desk of the Secretary
Civil War Books: Our collection has been sold to Military Antiques Toronto, for the grand sum of $250. This amount will be held until our annual collection for the American Battlefield Trust and will be earmarked for a particular campaign to be designated in the Spring. We didn't collect last year but we sure hope to this year.
We have 31 paid-up members. I think our record pre-pandemic was 39, so we are not where we have been, but we are pleased with where we are! Thank you and, to any of you not yet paid for 2021-22, please take your $25 dues to this meeting or mail to our treasurer: Lloyd Therien, 1641 Grouse Ln., Kingston ON K7L 4V3.
June is still open for a presentation. Here's your chance: Pres. Bill Cookman, our Program Chair.