A Civil Christmas

Reprinted from PN December 2012

In the United States, a bloody conflict results in a new celebration.

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Usually during the Christmas season, I try to find a specific event in past military history that occurred on Dec. 25, Christmas Day. 

Normally, these stories are associated with one of the major military conflicts we were involved in overseas. This year, I decided to do a similar thing, but instead of going overseas, stay in the United States.

 The years 1861–1865 are officially recognized as the period of the American Civil War. It was one of modern history’s bloodiest wars that occurred with more than one million men killed and scores severely wounded. And yet, a unique event resulted from the war, which we still celebrate today. Strangely, it is not commonly known or historically discussed.

Despite battles and vicious encounters taking place between the opposing sides outside the east coast of the U.S., almost all the major battles occurred up and down the eastern section of the country.

This was also one of the first instances where both sides instituted “conscription”  — or what we more commonly know as the draft — which pulled men from all over the nation into serving in the military.

It is important to remember that during this period, travel was extremely limited and America was just moving into its expansion mode in the western part of the nation. Consequently, it was not uncommon for families to have multiple generations who had been born and stayed in the same place they originally settled.

As the result of this, there was little interchange of custom and habit among communities, and many (if any) holidays were similar to what they had celebrated prior to immigration or did not recognize at all. The Civil War changed all this.

While many Americans had adopted the customs of Victorian England in celebrating Christmas, others did little at all to celebrate it.

With bringing together men from all areas of the country to perform military duty, it was only natural for them to experience the traditions their comrades brought with them and did their best to continue even during wartime.

Christmas was one of these holidays that many soldiers saw for the first time or observed done in a different manner. It was only a matter of time before the Christmas tree made its way into military camps.

Alfred Bellard of the 5th New Jersey took note of the arrival of the newly-popular Christmas decoration to his camp along the lower Potomac River.

“In order to make it look as much like Christmas as possible, a small tree was stuck up in front of our tent, decked off with hard tack and pork, in lieu of cakes and oranges,” Bellard said.

With the end of the war, soldiers took their experiences home, and the celebration of Christmas was one that many began. Christmas trees that had previously been small trees sitting in the middle of a table became larger and more decorative.

Still, Christmas was not an official holiday or celebrated on a specifically recognized day.  All this changed in 1870, five years after the Civil War ended.

That year, a bill to make Christmas a holiday was introduced into the House of Representatives by Rep. Burton Chauncey Cook from Illinois. It was approved and passed to the Senate on June 24, 1870. When both houses had agreed on the wording, it was passed on to President Ulysses S. Grant, who signed it on June 28, 1870.

Out of one of the bloodiest conflicts fought in our nation’s history came one of the holiest days recognized by Christians of all faiths in the United States. It was also approved by a president who was also the commanding general who prevailed in a war that almost tore our nation apart.  

Regardless of your faith or the God you believe in, during this holy season we at PVA Publications wish you and yours the very best. 


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