1863: “The Last Day Of The Eventful Year”

December 31, 1863

This is the last day of the eventful year and a general despondency prevails among us. Many are talking of the good old times we used to have at home about this time, or in camp. Story telling among us occupies the dark lonely hours from 6 to 10 p.m. A sickening feeling comes over us as we realizes that we are prisoners with no immediate prospects of being released by exchange….

The Rebel guard say that the “Yankees are dying right smart now at the hospitals.” We learned that they were buried in trenches out back of Libby Hill, which is next to Church Hill, east of us. So we die like dogs, and are buried like dogs! The Rebels furnished us with 300 sheets of coarse paper and brown paper envelopes so that we could write home today. We are limited to twenty words, envelopes to be left unsealed so that Turner may read them first before posting. We advise those to whom we write to enclose a 10 cent silver piece by return mail if they answer our letters or they would not be received over the Rebel lines. Pieces of lead pencil were furnished us also to write with. Very few of us wrote at all. Many had forgotten the addresses. Others would not let their friends or relations know how they were suffering. Nothing could be sent us by our friends, for the Rebels would appropriate the things to their own use. And, knowing that Turner would inspect and read every letter, many would not give him the grim satisfaction of doing so. Walsh, Halley, Rhineheart, and myself wrote home. We just said that we were captured by Mosby 27th November last at headquarters General French at Brandy Station, and that we were all well and in good heart looking for an early exchange….

Private Robert Knox Sneden, journal entry for December 31, 1863

John Mosby

Captured By Mosby

1863 had been a particularly good for Confederate Major John Mosby. Early in the year, he had got permission to create an independent group of partisans which was allowed to operate separate from the other cavalry commands in Virginia. Company A, 43rd Virginia Cavalry had its share of secretive and successful missions; they captured Union generals, regularly raided supply lines, and caused a lot of trouble for the Yankees.

Private Robert Knox Sneden was one of the unfortunates Yankees captured by Mosby during a raid on General French’s headquarters. A thirty-one year old Canadian who had moved to New York City a decade before the Civil War, Sneden had worked as an architect and then joined the 40th New York Infantry. During the war, he moved around, serving as a cartographer or working in logistics for several Union generals. Sneden had been assigned to William H. French’s staff during the Mine Run Campaign and on November 27th got captured when the Confederate partisans arrived.

Robert Knox Sneden

In Prison

Sneden spent his first months of captivity in Richmond, lodged in a tobacco warehouse turned prison that stood beside the infamous Libby Prison. His guards’ comments about dying Yankees would have been especially troublesome since he was fighting typhoid fever. In February 1864, Sneden would be moved south to a new prison camp called Andersonville. Ten months later, he would be exchanged.

One of the remarkable things about Sneden was his determination to create a record of his experiences. While some soldiers wrote detailed accounts (primary sources), Snowden went a step farther. He created illustrations. He sketched battles, camps, and prisons – and later – after the war, he turned the sketches into watercolor images. His journal and illustrations survived and are preserved and published, giving researchers a glimpse into scenes of historic importance through a soldier’s eyes. Even in Richmond’s prison and Andersonville, he created sketches and adding to the knowledge and memory of those places.

Virginia Historical Society and Library of Congress have preserved Sneden’s illustrations and the collection has been called “the largest collection of Civil War soldier art ever produced.” If you want to see the sketches, his maps are available here and some of the sketches here.

Historical Musings

For the Union soldiers in Confederate prisons, New Year’s Eve was not a joyous time. Still, they spent some time talking over the past year – something many of us will do at some point today. That part of the account really stood out to me because it’s a reminder that no matter where we are, no matter how rough or amazing the year may have been, it’s important to review the happenings and be thankful for the good times.

We weren’t captured by John Mosby and we aren’t sitting in a Richmond prison. But we have freedoms because those soldiers did. Maybe this primary source will add some perspective and new things to consider as we look back on our own experiences in 2018…just as the soldiers remembered 1863.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

1863: “Only Five Pairs Of Stockings Over The Fireplace Tonight”

December 24, 1863

…Tonight got the children washed and put to bed and after they went to sleep filled the stockings and boiled some molasses for taffy. Father attempted to attend to the boiling but after waiting till ten o’clock he gave it up in despair and left Grandma, Ma and me alone in our glory. Did not get through till after twelve o’clock. Poor children! I contrast their limited means of enjoyment now with our former happy life and it makes me sad. 

Ah! Dear, tomorrow will be a lonely, dreary day for me with none of the dear ones we were expecting – not even Nellie and Laura. There are only five pairs of stockings over the fireplace tonight and there are five of our house circle absent – five hearts no doubt turning longingly this way tonight. God bless them! One of the very loneliest nights I ever saw.

December 25, 1863

Children up very early. A lovely day clear and bright. Helped the children with the contents of their stockings and then proceeded to clean up. Dressed after breakfast and went off upstairs to take a good cry for my heart was full of sad and pleasant thoughts and memories and I was so lonely – missed the dear absentees. Felt better after crying awhile and went downstairs with Ma and Grandma. Uncle Newton sick. Father went out to see him. Charlie Buck spent an hour or so with us. Cheery boy that he is – tried to play and sing for him but had to give over the attempts in despair. Then Uncle John came. He was not well and lay down. Then Uncle Tom who remained to eat our orthodox turkey and mince pies. Wonder where the poor boys got their Christmas dinners this year or if they had any poor fellows?…

Miss Lucy Rebecca Buck, journal excerpts December 24 and 25, 1863

Lucy Rebecca Buck (image from FindAGrave)

Lucy Rebecca

Twenty-one years old in 1863, Lucy Rebecca Buck lived with her family at their large home, Bel Air, near Front Royal, Virginia. Front Royal sits in the Shenandoah Valley – southeast of Winchester at the entrance to the smaller Luray Valley. In 1863, both Union and Confederate infantry and cavalry had maneuvered through the area and passed Bel Air, giving Lucy Rebecca a firsthand look at campaigning and war.

As the third oldest of thirteen children, she had many responsibilities – especially after the enslaved people decided to run to freedom, leaving her wondering why freedom was important. Despite this insensitivity, Lucy Rebecca was generally a caring person – spending much of her time looking after younger siblings, visiting family and friends in the area, and writing to loved ones in the military. Her Christian faith supported her through the war and is often evident in her journaling.

Lucy Rebecca survived the Civil War, but her journal entries became less frequent in 1864 as she “lost heart” during the final Union campaign in the autumn and struggled through the daily confrontations with Yankees. Fortunately, her journal survived, was transcribed and published by a descendant, and offers a look at a young woman’s war experience in Front Royal.

A sketch of the family home, Bel Air. Originally published in the first edition of Lucy’s journal.

Christmas 1863

For Lucy Rebecca, Christmas 1863 brought a wave of memories. Her two brothers – Alvin and Irving – were absent with the Confederate army and she constantly worried about their safety. Her cousin, Walter, had been killed in the war and her remembrances of him and his death saddened her; during 1863, Cousin Walter’s “empty chair” is the one most significant to her and she was still grieving his loss.

However, even with the worry and the sadness, Lucy Rebecca made a sincere effort to make a happy Christmas for the children. They would have their stockings and little presents, molasses taffy, and dinner with turkey and mince pies. Still, the festivities of the day compared to celebrations in previous years made her weary and disheartened. And in the end, she still had to wonder if her absent brothers had any sort of Christmas dinner.

Her Christmas entries are similar to many written by Southern women during Christmas 1863. War’s difficulties had increased and the absences of family members caused strain in relationships or continued grief. But, like Lucy Rebecca, most prepared to be as cheerful as possible and have a little celebration to make the day special for soldiers or little ones.

Historical Musings

Christmas brings thoughts of home to those who are absent, a longing to be there or somewhere filled with warmth, love, and laughter. Christmas also brings memories – good and difficult. As I’ve read various letters and journal entries penned during December 1863, I’ve been reminded that through the time of celebration there is also a need for quiet.

Not everyone needs a blaring “Merry Christmas.” Sometimes, folks are going through sad or rough times. Or maybe memories of an absent loved one are filling their holidays. Sometimes, they need a peaceful and quiet wish and gathering – a chance to celebration without feeling the ache caused by over-much holiday hilarity.

As I read Lucy Rebecca’s entries, I wish someone had been there to give her a hug. While I understand the need the privacy and solitude, I wish she had not had to cry alone in her room. I’ve been there. It’s been six years now, but I still remember the Christmas after I lost one of my teachers and best friends. I needed quiet, I needed someone to try to understand, I needed someone to say “Merry Christmas” softly.

I realize that’s quite personal to share on a history blog. But it’s been on my mind these last few days. I didn’t write this to made anyone feel bad, but I’m trying to say that if you’re struggling this Christmas with situations or memories I just want to whisper “Merry Christmas.” Hang the stockings by the fireplace, boil the molasses taffy, and know that it’s alright to have mixed feelings. The important thing – and we see this in Lucy Rebecca’s writing – is to hold to strengthening faith and remember the reasons for Christmas in the best way that we can.

[whispered] Merry Christmas…

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

1863: “The Sight Of The Stars & Stripes Were Very Cheering”

December 8, 1863

Weather still cold, tho’ it has moderated a little. President Lincoln yesterday issued a proclamation recommending that all loyal persons should assemble at their place of worship & render especial homage and gratitude to Almighty God for his great advancement of the National cause. Reliable information being rec’d that the insurgent force is retreating from East Tennessee under circumstances rendering it probable that the Union forces cannot hereafter be dislodged from that important position. Gen. Grant has captured during the war 472 cannons & 90,000 prisoners, having been more successful than any other of our generals. Would that they could follow his example, and have that military skill which is so necessary. Continue reading

1863: “We Have Outlived The Old Union”

December 4, 1863

But we are not to be saved by the captain this time, but by the crew. We are not to be saved by Abraham Lincoln, but by that power behind the throne, greater than the throne itself. You and I and all of us have this matter in hand.

Men talk about saving the Union, and restoring the Union as it was. They delude themselves with the miserable idea that that old Union can be brought to life again. That old Union, whose canonized bones we so quietly inurned under the shattered walls of Sumter, can never come to life again. It is dead, and you cannot put life into it. The first shot fired at the walls of Sumter caused it to fall as dead as the body of Julius Caesar when stabbed by Brutus. We do not want it again. We have outlived the old Union. Continue reading

1863: “One Of Our Flags Seems To Be Moving”

It’s double blog post Monday at Gazette665… Find the civilian words from earlier in the day here.

Note: This primary source excerpt is significantly longer than our usual features, but if shortened it any further would lose its historical importance.

Chattanooga, Dec. 7, 1863.

Dear wife:

….When the fog rose, about ten o’clock in the morning [of November 25th], Sherman attempted to carry the summit of the [Missionary] Ridge but was repulsed; again he tried it but was again repulsed, still again he tried it and was repulsed… Sherman, after terrible fighting, had been repulsed in three successive efforts to crush the enemy’s right on the top of the Ridge, and an order came for our Division to move up the river to his support. We started. The enemy could see us from the top of the Ridge, and quickly understood (or thought they did) our design, so they commenced shelling us, as our long line of 20 regiments filed along, but we moved along until we came to where a thin strip of woodland intervened between us and the Ridge. Sheridan’s Division followed us and did the same. Continue reading

1863: “Then No Yankee Can Hear Me”

November 28, 1863

It has been gloomy all day. About 11 o’clock Ma thought it was too cold to rain and as it was very necessary that we should got to town we went, but it was very muddy and disagreeable. It rained very hard for about 2 hours and then stopped but it turned to freezing, and as we came home the ground was fast freezing.

We did what shopping we could and then went to Mrs. Crutcher’s. By half-past 2 it quit raining entirely.  Continue reading