Civil War Profiles: Sesquicentennial of Christmas 1865


The first peacetime Christmas in four years was joyful in the state of Delaware. The gunfire had ceased, and the troops had come home.

George Alfred Townsend, a young journalist from Georgetown known for his intrepid reporting during the Civil War years, celebrated Christmas 1865 in fine style. According to his biographer, Ruthanna Hindes, on Dec. 21, he married Bessie Evans Rhodes of Philadelphia at St. Philip’s Protestant Episcopal Church.

Maj. Gen. James Harrison Wilson also had marriage on his mind this Christmas season. The man who Judge John P. Nields in a eulogy before Civil War veterans at the Wilmington Rotary Club labeled “Delaware’s greatest soldier,” had courted Ella Andrews while still a West Point cadet in the late 1850s.

Ella Andrews was the daughter of Col. John N. Andrews Sr., commander of the 1st Delaware Regiment. Thomas J. Reed wrote in “Delaware during the War Between the States” that Wilson married Ella Andrews on Jan. 3, 1866. Following his military service and career as a railroad executive, they settled in Wilmington.

In December 1865, Maj. Gen. Alfred T.A. Torbert, another Delaware Civil War hero, mustered out of volunteer service to the Union army. The general was also making plans to marry his romantic interest; but, because of his poor physical condition, required time for rest and recuperation.

Nonetheless, as A.D. Slade relates in his biography of Torbert, he married Mary Elizabeth Currey, the daughter of a prosperous businessman and leading citizen of Milford, at Christ Church on Jan. 17, 1866. At least initially, he pursued the life of a gentleman farmer, residing in Mary’s stately family residence at the corner of North Walnut and N.W. Second Streets in Milford.

Maj. Henry Gawthrop, whose service in the 4th Delaware Regiment had been exemplary, had a special reason to be grateful on Christmas 1865. On April 1, he had sustained a bullet wound at Five Forks, Va., just weeks before the war ended. The next day, army surgeons amputated his leg at a field hospital.

As Justin Carisio relates in his biography of Gawthrop, in September, he went to Palmer & Co. in Philadelphia to be fitted for a prosthetic. By December, he recorded in his diary, “My artificial leg does wonderfully well. I feel like a new man… No wonder I am in a good humor.”

There was little joy in the household of Sophie Madeleine DuPont that Christmas. Her husband, Adm. Samuel Francis DuPont had passed away in June, after nearly 32 years of marriage.

In his biography of the admiral, Kevin Weddle credited Sophie DuPont with gathering and arranging her husband’s collection of personal papers for future historians. She would outlive him by more than two decades.

A few days after Christmas Day 1865, Wilmington native Anna Ferris looked back on four years of national conflict. As noted in the April 1961 issue of “Delaware History,” she confided in her diary, “We are thankful that the blood red pages of war are closed, and that the coming chapters of our history are to record the victories of peace and justice and liberty that the hope of the nations, and the ages is to be fulfilled.”

Reconciliation between the states that had been under way since the end of the Civil War in June 1865 was demonstrated at Christmastime by the relationship between a Fort Delaware prisoner, Burton Harrison, and the prison commander, Brig. Gen. Albin Schoepf. At the time of his capture on May 10, Harrison was private secretary to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Despite their political differences, Schoepf became close friends with Harrison during his incarceration. He was pleased in late 1865 when authorities decided to release Harrison. In a reflection of their friendship, the former prison commander later named one of his sons Burton Harrison Schoepf.

The sesquicentennial of Christmas 1865 is an opportunity to reflect on the current bond between the states in this country. Survival of the Union over the past 150 years, subsequent to a great upheaval, gives cause for joyful gratitude and hope for the future during this Yuletide season.

Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” a History Book Club selection available at Bethany Beach Books or on Amazon. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com, or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.