To most soldiers coming home for the holidays is impossible. Great distances, and the call to duty separate the warrior from his and her home and family. Yet, no matter what the situation is, Christmas never fails to come.
This month I had hoped to share the Christmas experiences of local soldiers serving in the various wars that the United States was involved in, but unfortunately my research failed to locate too many examples; with one exception - the Civil War. A typical Christmas for a soldier fighting in the Civil War may have been spent in camp, marching on the too often muddy roads, or in a prisoner of war camp. The following are some examples of how soldiers from McHenry County spent their Christmases away from home.
In November of 1862, General US Grant’s army pushed south into Mississippi with the hopes of capturing Vicksburg. Alphonso Whipple, a private in the 15th Illinois, was part of the invading force. On December 20th, rebel General Earl Van Dorn sacked Grant’s supply depot at Holly Springs, Mississippi. This unforeseen event sent the bluecoats marching back north. On Christmas day the 15th made a relatively short march of two miles, and went into camp on the Tallahatchie River. Whipple closed his diary entry for that day describing his Christmas feast. “I took a Christmas supper of hardtack and raw pickled pork. Oh, how good it tasted! I wish our folks had some.”
By Christmas of 1863 Union forces had wrestled the control of Vicksburg out of the hands of the Confederates, and on the 25th of December the 95th Illinois found itself in camp at the hill city. Onley Andrus, a sergeant in the regiment, took time out of his New Year’s Day to pen a letter to his wife Molly. Andrus wrote, “I suppose Christmas was quite a day with you…” He then lamented, “If I was at home perhaps I too might have a little fun.” To Andrus, “Christmas came and went without remark,” and would have passed unnoticed if it hadn’t been for the regiment’s colonel who treated his soldier to “15 gall[on] s of [r]otgut whiskey.” Andrus described the inebriated bluecoats as some happy and some pugilistic, which resulted in a few having black eyes.
One year later, Private Will B. Smith of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Illinois Veteran Battalion awoke in the Andersonville prisoner of war camp to a grisly sight. Smith had been a guest of the Confederate government since October of 1864, when he was captured by the troops of General John Bell Hood. Smith was not from McHenry County, but a number of soldiers who were captured with him were from the Marengo-Union area. The prisoners had been afforded very little shelter, and only a blanket protected them from the Christmas Eve sleet
In 1892, Smith recorded the details of the misery he suffered twenty-eight years earlier. He wrote, “During this awful night of woe death reaped a rich harvest, and Christmas morning, which should have been the brightest and happiest of all the year, revealed the stiffened forms of those who perished during the night…”
During the day the thoughts and conversations of the starving Yankees turned to “the dear ones at home, filled stockings, rich presents, roasted turkeys, minced pies, and fruit-cakes…” In the afternoon the Confederates served the Union prisoners their Christmas feast which consisted of “three or four ounces of cold boiled beef and a chunk of coarse unsalted corn bread about two inches thick and some four inches square.”
These three stories provide only a small glimpse of the misery, hardship, loneliness, or sadness that soldiers away from home can experience not only on Christmas, but also every day. Many of us attach a special feeling and expectation to Christmas, and any psychological pain or discomfort that is experienced during the holidays can be significantly enhanced. This holiday season when you’re celebrating Christmas and the New Year with your family and friends, take a few minutes to think about the many American women and men who are separated from their families serving not only in the war zones, but also on the many military bases in the United States and around the world.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, or if you prefer - Happy Holidays!