- Nov 26, 2016
- central NC
I always enjoy living history events, especially those offered around the holidays. In searching out offerings for this holiday season, I came across an article that offered some insight into what General Lee, as well as some others, was doing on Christmas Day in 1861. I thought you might enjoy a look too. Keep in mind it had been a year and five days since South Carolina had seceded, and ten months since the formation of the Confederate States of America. The mood in the South was festive this Christmas because their new country had sustained any attacks put forth by the Northern armies. In the North, however, the mood was less so because they had not been able to put an end to the rebellion.
General Robert E. Lee was inland at his headquarters at Coosawatchie, South Carolina and thus separated from his family for Christmas in 1861. He had been sent there to see to the coastal defenses. He wrote his wife Mary, “I cannot let this day of graceful rejoicing pass without some communication with you. I am thankful for the many among the past that I have passed with you, and the remembrance of them fills me with pleasure. For those on which we have been separated we must not repine. Now we must be content with the many blessings we receive.” In this letter, General Lee also expressed sadness over the seizure of their home in Arlington and the precious items they had lost. He wrote, “They cannot take away the remembrance of the spot, and the memories of those that to us rendered it sacred. That will remain to us as long as life will last, and that we can preserve.”
President Jefferson Davis spent Christmas in Richmond with his wife Varina. They were celebrating a new addition to their family. William Howell “Billy” Davis had been born in the Confederate White House less than three weeks earlier. Christmas time was likely quite special for this couple, since they had first met in 1843 during the holidays at Jefferson’s brother’s home.
General James Longstreet also spent the holiday in Richmond with his family. Little did he know that this would be his last Christmas with his three youngest children. Mary Ann, James Jr. and Augustus Baldwin fell ill with scarlet fever soon after the holiday. Mary Ann succumbed on January 25. Within a week, all three were dead. General Longstreet never appeared to fully recover from his grief.
President Lincoln spent much of Christmas day meeting with his Cabinet and debating the developing crisis known as the Trent Affair. He and Mary Todd Lincoln hosted a dinner for two dozen guests that evening. The Lincoln children spent Christmas day at the home of U.S. Patent Office clerk Horatio Nelson Taft. Taft wrote in his diary, “It has been quite a noisey day about the house. Our three boys and the Two Lincoln boys have been very busy fireing off Crackers & Pistols. Willie & Thomas Lincoln staid to Dinner at 4 o’clock.” Days later young Willie Lincoln fell ill with typhus and died in February. I wonder if President Lincoln lamented not spending the past Christmas day with his boys, particularly Willie.
For these men and all the people, both North and South, this would be their last “peaceful” Christmas for several years to come. Even now thinking about that makes me feel a little sad.
Source: “The Rites of Innocence” by James S. Robbins