Civil War Profiles: Christmas and New Year’s 1864/1865: Yearning for peace

“I beg to present you as a Christmas-gift the city of Savannah...” With these words, Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman announced to President Abraham Lincoln on Dec. 22, 1864, that he had successfully completed his audacious march to the sea across Georgia from Atlanta.

As David Herbert Donald points out in “Lincoln,” with regard to the war, the jubilant president could now “see a great light” at the end of the tunnel.

In Richmond, at the Confederate White House, shortages caused by the ongoing war had created austere conditions. President Jefferson Davis and his wife, Varina, did the best they could to celebrate during the Christmas holidays.

Varina Davis described Christmas night at a neighboring house where they attended a “starvation party” with no refreshments. The rooms were lighted “as well as practicable,” and someone played the piano allowing the young men and girls to dance (

Gen. Robert E. Lee’s wife, Mary, who at the beginning of the war had to abandon her beloved home, Arlington, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., was a refugee in Richmond. In his biography of Mary Lee, John Perry explained that she had a grateful heart on Christmas Day. Although Gen. Lee was with his army, she gave thanks that her children were alive and safe, and that they were blessed with a simple but ample holiday meal.

A comical scene took place during the Christmas holidays when Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s teenage son Fred decided to go duck hunting in a rowboat down the James River with a black servant.

At the time, Grant held Lee’s army under siege around Petersburg and Richmond. Union naval pickets stopped Fred Grant and his companion, and arrested them as spies. In her biography of Julia Grant, Ishbel Ross related that Fred Grant pleaded his case by saying that his father “will be very angry if I am killed.”

During the winter season in Virginia, as John E. Pickett recorded in a regimental history, the former 1st and 2nd Delaware Regiments had combined into the 1st Delaware Veteran Volunteer Regiment after sustaining numerous casualties in battles over the past year. Enjoying a respite from active campaigning, the unit spent Christmas and New Year’s Day in camp.

Out in the Shenandoah Valley, however, Brig. Gen. Alfred T.A. Torbert, a native of Georgetown, Del., led his cavalry divisions on an expedition through the Blue Ridge Mountains to break up the railroad toward Gordonsville, Va.

As A.D. Slade describes in a biography of Torbert, in bitter cold weather on Christmas Day, many of the horses were weak from hunger and had to be abandoned. The troopers continued on foot, some wearing only socks, because their shoes were worn out.

We read in “The Civil War Day” by Day by E. B. Long that the Confederates won a victory at Fort Fisher at the mouth of the Cape Fear River near Wilmington, Va. on Christmas Day. This came about when Rebel troops blocked Union forces that landed from ships two miles north of the fort. The Northerners withdrew, rather than pay a heavy price in lives attempting to storm the fort.

At the DuPont Powder Mills along Brandywine Creek, preparations for the Christmas season ended in tragedy for a number of the powdermen’s families, when an explosion in Hagley Yard killed 10 workers, with the surnames Dougherty, O’Donnell, Hennessy, Deary (two), Carr, Hassett, Collins, Gill and O’Neal. Nearby mills and the DuPont mansion on the hill were badly damaged (Delaware History, October 1965).

At Tilton Hospital in Wilmington, Del., the wards and dining room were decorated with flags and evergreens for the Christmas celebration. Soldiers recovering from wounds and illnesses sat at tables “tastefully arranged and glistening with white linen and sparkling glassware.” They enjoyed turkeys, chickens, ducks, pies, puddings and pastries prepared by ladies from the surrounding community.

Anna M. Ferris, a Wilmington resident, noted in her diary on Jan. 1, 1865, “The rain and clouds all drifted away in the night and the New Year begins in sunshine and blue skies. The national horizon is bright with the splendor of victory, and beyond it appears the faint dawn of peace, the promise of a more beautiful day” (Delaware History, April 1961).

This was the last Christmas and New Year to take place during the Civil War. The yearning for peace after four years of fratricidal conflict would soon be realized.

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War” (available at Bethany Beach Books). Contact him at, or visit his website at