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Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011 10:37 am

A soldier’s Christmas in the Civil War

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Soldiers from the 84th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, Company B.
PHOTO COURTESY ABRAHAM LINCOLN PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY AND MUSEUM.

Since this year marks the sesquicentennial of the Civil War’s beginning, it seems appropriate to look back at how some of those soldiers spent their holidays.

We begin with the accounts of two men in the 84th Illinois Volunteer Infantry who wrote about their experiences in the fall and winter of 1863. It had been a tough time for the group. They had spent September through November in battles.

First they had fought at Chickamauga, Tenn., which was the war’s second deadliest battle. The Union was trying to repel Confederates, but lost and retreated to Chattanooga. The Confederates attacked them there and battled for two months. The south nearly encircled the Union troops and shut off their supply lines, so the Union’s leader halved his soldiers’ rations.

Then the 84th fought the Confederates up Tennessee’s Lookout Mountain, only to lose again.

James P. Suiter, a private with the 84th from Eldorado, recounts the rest of the story, which is chronicled in his diaries that are now in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library (ALPL).

On Nov. 30, with just a few days’ rest after the Lookout Mountain loss, Suiter’s brigade started marching 10 miles back to Chickamauga “to bury the dead who had lain there for more than two months without burial…The battlefield was a sad spectacle and burying the remains of our dead was the most melancholly [sic] duty I ever performed.”

On Dec. 2, Suiter’s group marched to camp at Whiteside Station, Tenn., where they remained until May. There his days became a monotonous blur of “going on picket,” regimental inspection, reading, letter writing, and “usual duties.” Christmas Day was no different.

“December 25 – Cloudy day – Dull. Christmas – Dined on bean soup, pork and ‘Hard Crackers’ at noon.” (“Hard crackers” were likely the ubiquitous “hardtack” crackers that were a staple of soldiers’ diets. Unfortunately, the crackers were often months old and as a result were hard as a – yes, tack.)

Three days after Christmas, Suiter received what might have been holiday gifts from home: one pair of socks and 13 postage stamps.

Hiram P. Roberts was a chaplain for Company E of the 84th. Six days before Christmas he wrote his daughter, Nellie, back in Quincy, for her birthday. He told her that he was looking at photographs of her and her mother as he wrote.

On Christmas Day, he wrote again: “Darling Nellie…Did Kris Kringle bring you anything last night? I don’t believe he comes down this way at all for I haven’t heard anything about him. I haven’t any thing to send you for a Christmas present so I will put in 25 cents and you may get what you want or what mama thinks is best…A Merry Christmas to you from Papa.”

He wrote a separate letter to his wife:

“A Merry Christmas to you dear wife. Since I cannot wish it you by word of mouth, I will by word of pen and paper. No doubt you are enjoying yourself finely to day with the abundance of good things which are so plenty and so cheap in the peaceful north.

“A few extras would not go badly in this region to day but as they are not comestible we content ourselves with what we have and by tomorrow no doubt we shall feel as well as though we had stuffed ourselves full of roast turkey and plum pludding.

“I’ll tell you what we – that is Capt. Gasternicht and myself, propose to have to day for dinner. First the universal ‘sowbelly’ (bacon) and coffee, then boiled beans with bread and butter. This last is an extra, the result of the captain’s foraging expedition outside of the picket lines yesterday. He succeeded in getting about 3/4ths of a pound of white stuff they called butter and a canteen of milk all for the small sum of 50 cents and had to go three miles for that….”

A year later, Albert J. Blackford from Clinton was resting in camp near Columbia, Tenn. He was a captain with Company F of the 107th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, which mustered out of Camp Butler near Springfield. His regiment had been battling the Confederates throughout Tennessee. On Christmas he wrote to his wife. His letter is also at the ALPL.

“When I look back over the last year and think of the danger I have passed through, the many hardships and privations I have endured, I wonder that I am living today, for I have seen so many good men shot down, so many die of sickness. I have seen so many, very many fresh covered graves, that I feel I have indeed been fortunate.”

All three men were fortunate; each survived the war.

Contact Tara McAndrew at tmcand22@aol.com.

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