Sesquicentennial of Christmas 1863

Date Published: 
December 20, 2013

In early December, “Christmas 1863” was the theme of the historic Homer House’s commemoration in Belmont, Mass., of the holiday season 150 years ago. It exhibited the famous Civil War artist Winslow Homer’s wintertime and Civil War illustrations for Harper’s Weekly.

Similarly, in December 2013, at historic Joanna Furnace in Geigertown, Pa., visitors enjoyed a reenactment of the celebration of the Christmas of 1863, when the family gave thanks that the ironmaster’s three sons were back home from the war. Events like these preserve the past for present generations.

When Christmas Day arrived in 1863, many of the men who fought during the Civil War had been away from home for the better part of two years. They missed their families and yearned for an end to the bloodshed that had cost the lives of so many of their comrades.

Yet, these men would not be denied the celebration of Christmas, which to them was a sacred and joyful time of the year. As reported in the Martha’s Vineyard Times, a young man nicknamed “Charlie Mac” from Edgartown, Mass., said in a letter from Folly Island, S.C., that he had “been extremely busy preparing for Christmas.”

Charlie Mac’s company had to build “a good eating house” in time for the holiday. Using their “wits” despite a lack of tools, they somehow fabricated a building “23 feet long, 20 feet broad, 10 foot rafter, with a little portico in the front.”

Consequently, these men were able to enjoy “a big dinner … best I have seen since I entered the service of Uncle Sam.” It included roast beef, turnips, potatoes, tomatoes, and all the “fixin’s.” For desert “a great plum pudding, and mince pies.” The well-fed soldier sentimentally noted that “Christmas 1863 will always be reckoned as an era in my army experience.”

The 4th Delaware Regiment’s Lt. Henry Gawthrop was lucky to receive orders to go home to Wilmington on recruiting duty during the Christmas holidays. Justin Carisio’s biography about Gawthrop states he found time to “attend a lecture, a fair, [and] visited Philadelphia and a theater with [his brother] Alfred.”

Down South, however, in what Douglas Southall Freeman labeled “A Sacrificed Christmas,” Gen. Robert E. Lee did not consider this a happy time of the year. Months after his defeat at Gettysburg, the Confederate leader’s state of mind was troubled.

Lee was concerned about his son “Rooney” who languished in a Yankee prison after being wounded in battle and captured. Lee also prayed for the recovery of his daughter-in-law, Rooney’s wife, Charlotte, who was ill; but, sadly, she passed away the day after Christmas.

President Abraham Lincoln also experienced a melancholy Christmas in 1863. As pointed out by Michael Novak in an online article, there was growing criticism and unrest in the North over the immense loss of life during the prolonged conflict.

This resulted in Lincoln looking for one or two generals who shared his “determination to secure nothing less than victory.” His primary goal was “the preservation of the Union,” and despite darkness on the horizon, the president had faith “that the God who gave us liberty … [would not] in the end disregard the sacrifices of so many.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow mirrored the distress found across the land when, on that very day, he penned these verses in a mournful, yet optimistic, poem titled “Christmas 1863”:

I hear the bells on Christmas day

The old familiar carols play,

Of peace on earth, good-will to men.

Then from each black, accursed mouth

The cannon thundered in the South;

And with that sound

The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep;

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail,

The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.

Our country is at peace during this sesquicentennial of Christmas 1863, despite serious threats around the world. These sentiments expressed about the internal struggle that existed 150 years ago are a reminder that practicing good will toward others will help to insure that peace will prevail.

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War.” Contact him at