[Christmas Day was not even] a holiday, much less a Christmas. No, we had no Christmas, merely the 25th of December come and gone. No chimes of gladness at the recurring anniversary of the advent of the Prince of Peace – no outward recognition of the fact that anything was commemorated by the day – only incessant work of the army which brought in the regular routine of the day – a pause of only two hours with a better dinner than usual – a glance of surprise to see our table garnished with oysters & turkey – a hearty meal, a great joke & Christmas was gone, and we in camp watching the Yankees, and only anxious as to the duration of the war.
Alexander S. Pendleton to sister Mary, December 28, 1862
For the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia, the Battle of Fredericksburg was the last major military action in 1862. Almost as if the commanders and soldiers alike were horrified by the battle’s slaughter, they pulled back to their respective sides of the Rappahannock River and established winter quarters.
However, the casualties and emotions weren’t the only factor in the decision. Winter weather had started settling in. While the Confederate army still had their main leaders, Union General Burnside continued uncertainly in his leadership role, leading some to wonder how long he would remain in command.
Alexander (Sandie) Pendleton served on Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson’s staff. Jackson’s troops encamped south of Fredericksburg, establishing a picket line along the river to keep an eye on the enemy. The general and his staff officers set up headquarters at Moss Neck Plantation; the general used a hunting lodge, turned office building, as his “command room” and lodgings while the officers stayed in tents on the lawn. Jackson refused to inconvenience the civilian ladies of Moss Neck by staying in the large house.
A Consuming War
While many Civil War soldiers anticipated Christmas, others found their “celebrations” so different from the gatherings and festivities they knew at home that the day became somewhat depressing. Responsibilities didn’t cease with the holidays. Sentries still had to stand guard. Surgeons still had patients to look after. Staff officers still had paperwork and logistics to manage.
For Pendleton, a feast at dinner was the only bright spot in the holiday. As a minister’s son, he clearly noted – and seemed to regret – the lack of religious celebration and remembrance. The war had pulled him from safety and his family. The war had killed some of his friends. The war and his duties took the moment of celebration that so many anticipate in December.
This letter excerpt – with all its sad melancholy – is one of my favorite quotes for explaining two aspects of Civil War Christmases: duty and loneliness. Sure, there are happier accounts, but this one settles in the mind, emphasizing the closing scenes of 1862 – the gripping weariness and focus on all things military as both sides searched for an ever-elusive victory.
As I was re-reading the quote though, I realized it teaches a lesson beyond the 1862 context. To me, it’s a reminder to not let the Christmas season slip by, consumed with petty difficulties, diligent work, or focused study. A colleague said it well a few weeks ago, “There will always be history.” That’s true. History is past. The books and archives will still be there tomorrow. Take a little time to “live in the moment” and enjoy the Christmas festivities.
Don’t wake up on December 28th and realize Christmas is gone and you missed an opportunity to celebrate or create your own memories. It’s not always easy – I’ll admit that. With the loss of a family member and some disappointments, it might be easier if I let the holidays slide by unnoticed this year. But personally, I’m not going to do that; I’m thankful for the blessings and those around me, and I’m going to enjoy every minute and every special memory.
May you too find “gladness at the recurring anniversary of the adventure of the Prince of Peace”!