Richmond 1863: Christmas & New Years in the Confederacy

When 1863 came to a close, the Civil War still continued. Citizens in Richmond, Virginia – Capital of the Confederacy – reflected on the losses and few victories of the year while bracing for another year of conflict.

Today, I’ve rounded up some primary sources to give a glimpse into the happenings in Richmond that chilly December and these sources reflect the citizen morale of the time. 

“Candy is $8 per pound”

Hopeful Children

J.B. Jones who kept a detailed diary of through Richmond’s war years, wrote on December 25, 1863. His entry illustrates the sadness and semi-depression experienced by adults, but the joy children found in the holiday season. Many children remained firmly convinced that Santa Claus would run through the Yankee Blockade and bring them Christmas delights.

It is a sad Christmas; cold, and threatening snow. My two youngest children, however, have decked the parlor with evergreens, crosses, stars, etc. They have a cedar Christmas-tree, but it is not burdened [with gifts]. Candy is held at $8 per pound. My two sons rose at 5 a.m. and repaired to the canal to meet their sister Anne, who has been teaching Latin and French in the country; but she was not among the passengers, and this has cast a shade of disappointment over the family.

A few pistols and crackers are fired by the boys in the streets—and only a few. I am alone; all the rest being at church. It would not be safe to leave the house unoccupied. Robberies and murders are daily perpetrated.

I shall have no turkey to-day, and do not covet one. It is no time for feasting.

Godey’s Lady’s Book (Fashion plate from 1863)

Starvation Parties

Young civilians and soldiers wanted to socialize! But with prices rising and food supply limited in Richmond, they created a new fashion type of party: “Starvation Party.” A Charleston newspaper reported in February 1864 on these gatherings which grew in popularity during the winter of 1863-64:

…they have in Richmond what are called “starvation parties.” These are now all the rage. There are no wines, or game, or confectionaries, or fruits; but there are bright eyes and happy faces. The rooms are filled with ladies who wear their old dresses, but who do not talk through their noses, and whose voices sound “low and sweet.” I do not believe there is one of these who would not feel insulted by a proposal to exchange places with Mrs. President Lincoln, albeit arrayed in all her diamonds and paraphernalia. They are the same ladies who for three years past have ministered at the hospitals upon the wounded or dying soldier, and brought comfort by their thoughtful care even to the bed of death.

Never was there a greater mistake than for the Federals to imagine that the South is even beginning to be depressed, and to despair of success. On the contrary, there has been a visible improvement in the temper of the people, and the simplest observer cannot fail to note that there is a fiercer determination to sacrifice all for independence than there was even six months ago, or has been since the struggle began. The campaign of next spring will open on the part of the Confederates with undiminished armies and a sure faith in final success. The atmosphere of illusion on this subject, in which the Federals are now living, will be dissipated by the shock of arms, and not improbably by the invasion of their own soil. The South is quietly getting ready for a long war, and nourishes no dreams of peace on any terms save independence and a separate nationality. 

The Coming Year

Richmond resident Sallie B. Putnam wrote about her feelings at the end of 1863:

“When such a multitude of striking events are compressed into a brief space, time appears much longer, and of more importance than in the ordinary routine of every-day existence. The years seemed now very long to us, and not the less that our hearts were burdened with present and prospective sorrows consequent upon the time and place of our existence, and upon the mighty events which were daily occurring before our eyes – the most mighty, the most remarkable in the history of our country. We stood once more upon the threshold of a new year, and as the mind is prone to run forward, and wonder, and anticipate, and peer into the misty mazes of dim futurity, and longs to draw aside the veil that hides coming events from present scrutiny, more than ever at this time, when the future held within its remorseless grasp, the destiny of our infant nation, our spirits grew restive and impatient, and we would fain have spurred on the fiery coursers that drew the chariot of time, to take us to the goal more speedily.”

Conclusion

The sunset over the spires and roofs of Richmond on that final day in 1863. The war was not over. The hospitals were still full of sick and wounded soldiers. Sixteen months of conflict lay ahead before this city’s streets saw broken chains, raging fires, Yankees, and the end of the fighting.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, 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.
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