With Gladness: Civil War Christmas

with-gladness-coverYes, With Gladness has a short story set in the American Civil War. Someday it will happen: I’ll write publish a book that doesn’t have a tie to the 1860’s. But it hasn’t happened yet, and probably won’t in the near future.

“The Christmas Sermon” pays tribute to the chaplains during the conflict and their role of serving and preaching to the soldiers in camps, on battlefields, and in hospitals. The main character is young and still learning his role as a minister, but his role highlights the dedication of faithful preachers during this era.

I don’t like to “play favorites” with my stories and writing, but “The Christmas Sermon” is consistently one that I enjoy reading. Today, I’m pleased to share some historical details and background from the story.

American Civil War

I’ll make this brief since there’s already a lot about the Civil War on Gazette665. Fought between 1861-1865, this American conflict pitted states, countrymen, and families against each other. Southern states had seceded, and Confederates glorified the principle of state’s rights. Northern states and Union soldiers defended unity of country and abolition. Four years of war resulted in massive casualties and political, social, economic, and cultural changes.

A large Civil War era hospital

A large Civil War era hospital

The Hospital Setting

The Christmas Sermon is set in December 1862. It was the second year of war, and an important year for military medical advancements. Jonathan Letterman had been appointed medical director of the Union Army of the Potomac and was experimenting with battlefield evacuation systems. Army Surgeon General William Hammond was also leading the charge for improvements. (Yes, the Confederates were making some advancements in the medical field too, but they aren’t as well documented.)

One crucial change in the American field of medicine was the acceptance of hospitals. Prior to the war, only poor people (politely called “charity cases” in 19th Century terms) went to a hospital for medical aid. Doctors usually visited the homes of wealthy or middle class families. There was a stigma against hospitals. That feeling began to change during the Civil War when hospitals were obviously the most practical and efficient way to care for large numbers of sick or injured soldiers. Base hospitals (like the one described in the story) were sometimes newly built or established in requisitioned buildings.

A crowded Civil War hospital ward (more like the setting in the story)

A crowded Civil War hospital ward (more like the setting in the story)

Hospital Sketches by Louisa May Alcott, soldiers’ letters, and medical staff’s recollections provide helpful insight to the chaotic, peaceful, horrifying, and heartwarming moments in a Civil War hospital. Though not specified, the story’s hospital was probably in Washington D.C. or another large city in the east; there were probably causalities from the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11-13, 1862) and sick soldiers from different camps.

Check out this blog post for information about the U.S. Christian Commission which sent many chaplains to the Union armies.

Civil War Christmas

There’s a lot to cover in historic Christmas celebrations in every year, and Civil War is no exception. Here’s a few highlights:

Christmas trees were starting to become a trend in America!

Traditional decorations – garlands, bouquets, wreaths, ribbons, and folded paper decorations – continued to be popular.

Santa Claus had been featured in newspapers a couple decades earlier; children were excited about his surprise gifts and often hung stockings.

Civil War Era Christmas Tree (Re-creation)

Civil War Era Christmas Tree (Re-creation)

Vacant chairs were sometimes set a the home tables to remember the men who were away with the army.

Attending church on Christmas Eve and/or Christmas Day was traditional and very common in this era.

Soldiers tried to celebrate Christmas in their winter encampments. Boxes of food and gifts were sent to the camps. Music, religious services, parties, or better food for a day were common ways to remember the holiday.

Featured In The Story

An except from “The Christmas Sermon”:

He’d always imagined he would preach his first holiday message in a small wooden church, lavishly decorated with pine, holly, boxwood, and gold ribbons. The congregation, in their winter finest, would listen with rapt attention to every word; the feathers on the ladies’ Christmas bonnets would bob as they nodded their agreement, and the gentlemen would enthusiastically say “amen.” And, perhaps, if he was very lucky, there would be a young lady with unforgettably bright eyes, and he’d know she was the girl he was going to court and marry in the coming year… Though, Daniel had only been at the hospital a few hours, he already knew he wouldn’t preach his first Christmas message in that picturesque little chapel and probably wouldn’t meet that charming little lady, but he still anticipated sharing and encouraging the soldiers.  (With Gladness, Page 52)

Your Historian & Authoress,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Want to experience some Civil War Christmas in Southern California? Drum Barracks in Wilmington is hosting a special event this weekend! (If you’re not California, search for Civil War Christmas events in your area or a historical home that’s decorated for the holiday.)

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, Holidays, With Gladness and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to With Gladness: Civil War Christmas

  1. Thomas Place Sr. says:

    we are creating a new exhibit at our learning center on chaplin’s { Echos Thru Time} like to get a copy of this . like your works .

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