Civil War Christmases (in Missouri and Kansas)

Civil War
Santa Claus with Soldiers. Courtesy of Harper’s Weekly magazine.
Santa Claus with Soldiers. Courtesy of Harper’s Weekly magazine.

As parking lots fill to capacity with frazzled shoppers during this holiday season, and lighted decorations appear in every corner, we may do well to remember that not so long ago Missouri and Kansas looked remarkably different, and Christmas provided an annual ray of hope for a nation torn apart during the Civil War. More than a dozen letters and diaries from era, unearthed and digitized for the Library’s forthcoming website, civilwaronthewesternborder.org, provide glimpses of locals’ varied experiences of Christmases in the Civil War years.

The first Christmas of the war, in December 1861, produced some of the more poignant letters in this collection, as soldiers and their families adjusted to the shocking new reality of a war that brought the fighting home to Missouri, even as it tore families apart. One experience of separation was recorded in a diary by A.H. Lewis, a resident of Saline County, Missouri and a member of the secessionist Missouri State Guard. On December 19, 1861, still early in the war, he was captured at the Battle of Blackwater River in central Missouri. He spent that Christmas at a military prison in St. Louis and recorded in his diary,

This is Christmas day: But how differently circumstanced from any other Christmas I ever before spent, a prisoner of war and guarded by soldiers on every hand. Our kind captors not yet having handed over to us our bedding and baggage which we left in the wagons at Sedalia.

Days later, he wrote,

This is New Years Day[.] But there is nothing surrounding us bearing evidence of the fact[,] closely guarded and kept inside of a crowded building[,] we are cut off from the outside world only as we look through windows upon our armored guards without[.]

Some weeks later, Lewis was transferred to more permanent facilities at Alton, Illinois. After obstinately and repeatedly refusing to take an oath of loyalty to the federal government to earn his release on probation, Lewis finally took the oath on March 14, 1862, but only after suffering from persistent respiratory illness, enduring bitter cold, and receiving numerous letters from his wife describing the difficulties his family faced in keeping food on the table.


Letter from Leigh R. Webber to
Mrs. Brown, Lexington, MO.
Courtesy of the Kansas Historical
Society.

Food, and particularly holiday meals at Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s, took on an increasingly important significance in the face of wartime struggles. Letters written to loved ones described meals in sumptuous detail, as did an 1861 letter from Daniel R. Anthony, who was in temporary command of 1,500 of Charles R. Jennison’s Union soldiers at Camp Johnson in Morristown, Missouri. Anthony described taking over a “secesh” (secessionist’s) household to serve as his headquarters, as well as belatedly celebrating Christmas on the 26th by dining on biscuits, coffee, roasted goose, chicken, butter, and molasses.

Most enlisted soldiers, of course, did not have such luxuries as stolen houses, plentiful food, and cooking utensils. Leigh R. Webber, another Union soldier, wrote from Lexington, Missouri about hardships and the poor discipline in his regiment, saying, “On Christmas eve and day [1861] most of the men and officers were drunk and riot and noise reigned triumphant.”

As the war dragged on, Missouri letter writers remained generally disheartened but sometimes resolute or eager to highlight joyful moments in their lives. Eugenia Bronaugh, a resident of Calhoun, Missouri, wrote frequent letters to her fiancé, John A. Bushnell, whose merchandise business had taken him to St. Louis during the war. In December 1863, she wrote:

This is Christmas week but persons do not seem to be enjoying it much -- last Sunday evening I believe it snowed faster & prettier than I ever saw it -- as I sat by the window I wished so much for you to be here -- to look at the large flakes that fell so silently, with me -- for somehow I felt sad & would like so much to have talked to you[.] Christmas day we had no company -- I frequently managed to be along, to think of the last Christmas that rainy day when you were here, & we read all day -- Do you remember it?

In his letters to Bronaugh, Bushnell, a former slave owner and a Southern sympathizer, commented that at Christmas, many of Missouri’s remaining slaves were allowed to visit their wives and families owned by other households. As was typical of Missouri’s small slaveholding farms, many slave families were divided across multiple owners and were occasionally allowed visits, particularly on holidays. For those slaves, any continuity of Christmas celebrations from before the war must have been bittersweet at best.

For many white civilians, though, moments that reminded them of previous Christmases tended to be happy memories. Eugenia Bronaugh thanked her fiancé for her Christmas gift in 1863, a portrait:

you could not have sent me a more lovely or acceptable Christmas gift[.] Please accept many thanks -- and -- I shall never look at this gift -- without thinking of the dear giver. I was reminded too of the last Christmas when that beautiful chain was placed around my neck by tender, loving hands. When I wear it, I think of the departed One, to whom it once belonged.

For some individuals then, including another Union soldier who wrote of picking wild mistletoe in Arkansas to bring home to his wife in Kansas in time for Christmas, even the smallest gifts could provide of a sense of normalcy and conjure up warm memories.

Fortunately, Kansans and Missourians do not face a prospect of another Civil War Christmas in 2012, but early in the New Year, those who want to read and reflect on the less-peaceful holidays of the past will be able to browse these testaments to the past.

About the Author

Dr. Jason Roe is a member of the Missouri Valley Special Collections department and a content manager and editor for the Library’s digitization and encyclopedia website project, The Missouri-Kansas Conflict: Civil War on the Western Border. He received his Ph.D. in U.S. History from the University of Kansas in May 2012 and is the author of the Library’s popular “This Week in Kansas City History” column.

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