By Austin Williams, 5th Virginia
Few holidays have the emotional resonance in American society as Christmas—it is a cherished time to be among friends and family. For four long years, the men of the Stonewall Brigade’s 2nd, 4th, 5th, 27th, and 33rd Virginia regiments celebrated Christmas apart from their families. Their letters and diaries covering each holiday season are poignant, hopeful, and occasionally humorous. How they lived and what they thought of during these periods sheds some light on how they endured the titanic ordeal of the American Civil War.
For many of the men of the Stonewall Brigade, December 1861 brought the first Christmas they had spent away from home. They were not far from home, however, as the Brigade had been shifted from Centerville to Winchester in early November, giving those men from the lower valley the hope of visiting friends and family. General Jackson, however, kept them busy. The Brigade was dispatched on a mid-December expedition west of Williamsport to destroy Dam No. 5, capturing eight Federal soldiers and suffering only one wounded. The weather was already cold enough for sleeping in tents to be uncomfortable; the men were without even that protection and were forbidden to make fires, but Sergeant John Garibaldi of the 27th Virginia (Company C) reported that they had good overcoats and ample blankets to keep from freezing.
A second expedition resulted in the death of Joshua Parks from the 27h Virginia’s Rockbridge Rifles, although Thomas Smiley of the 5th Virginia (Company D though it was strange that more men did not fall, as “bombs were bursting around us the whole time some of our company picked up peices of shell that fell close to them… after we had been in the dam an hour I went to the top to look around and in the moonlight they could see me when they opened fire upon us the first balls whistled over my head and after that I got out of the way when they opened a perfect shower of balls upon us but we were prety well protected and fortunately no one was hurt.” The bombardment had been fierce enough, however, to convince William Brand of the 5th Virginia (Company E) to renounce cards, although he assured his sister that “it was very seldom that I ever played; when I played it was for mear amusement.” Sergeant Garibaldi informed his wife that the shooting was constant, but that it was not similar to the large battle the Brigade had fought at Manassas: “those that wanted to fight could go and take up a position on this side of the river and fire away as much as they wanted. The general came by one evening and… said pitch in boys it is a free fight. We killed a good many Yankees and they only killed one of us.”
Christmas day in the Shenandoah Valley was beautiful in the opinion of Private Smiley. He was in high spirits, as a package from his sister had just arrived with food and warm clothes. In his return letter, Smiley enclosed a Christmas gift of his own; a button he had taken off the coat of a dead Union soldier at the First Battle of Manassas. The turkey dinner consumed by Private Brand’s unit must have taken some time to cook, as he assured his sister that she would laugh if she say the men cooking for “everyone must have something to say how such & such a thing ought to be done.”
The celebration in the 27th Virginia was livelier, as Sergeant Garibaldi recounted: We have had right merry Christmas, we had plenty to eat such as it was and plenty to drink, pretty near the whole of Holloway’s company was drunk. The Captain bought about 10 or 15 gallons of liquor and gave it to the company, he was right merry himself. The whole of the 27 regiment was almost drunk even the Colonels, they were drunk too.”
Christmas was particularly difficult for Major Elisha Paxton of the 27th Virginia. He received news on December 12th that his wife had given birth to a son. His application for a leave of absence, however, was declined and he longed to “give a kiss and a greeting to the little fellow who has such strong claims upon my love and care.” He cautioned his wife to not be startled if she heard a knock at the door, for it would signal his return rather than a burglar breaking in. He wrote:
“I hope you all may have a happy Christmas, and wish I had the means of sending some nuts and candy for Matthew and Galla. Many who spent last Christmas with wife and children at home will be missing this time — perhaps to join the happy group in merry Christmas never again. But let us be hopeful — at least share the effort to merit fulfilment and fruition of the hopes we cherish so fondly. Now, dearest, good-bye till I see you again, or write. A kiss to the children as my Christmas gift.”
On New Year’s Day, Jackson directed his forces to march towards the town of Bath. The campaign was short, but the men fought frigid temperatures, mountainous roads, and several inches of snow. Private Smiley wrote to his sister that “we marched on a solid sheet of ice the wagons runing on the road packed down the snow and it got so icy a person could hardly stand on his feet the horses falling down wagons sliding off the road and breaking to pieces there was several men slipped down and broke their legs and arms there was a great many horses killed and crippled.” Private James McCutchan of Company D, 5th Virginia, judged the toils of the campaign not worth the prize. “There are a few pretty girls there,” he wrote, “some of were very kind to me & others were more ‘union than secesh’ I think.” The land the Brigade had crossed was extremely mountainous and McCuthcan joked that “the people of some places can look up the chimney & see the sheep & goats on the hill side above. There are some children out there that never saw the sun.”
Looking forward to the next year, Major Paxton was not optimistic. He felt that many men would not reenlist and saw no enthusiastic volunteers to take their place. He successfully predicted the Confederacy’s eventual decision to resort to conscription, but he stated “My judgment dictates to me to pursue the path which I believe to be right, and to trust that the good deed may meet with its just reward. Nothing else could induce me to bear this sad separation from my darling wife and dear little children.” In another letter drafted after New Years, he wrote “The storm may pass away, and, living happily together in after years, it will be a source of pride and happiness to us that the duty patriotism exacts of me now has been faithfully discharged, and the pleasure and comfort of home for the time foregone.”
The Stonewall Brigade was only lightly engaged at the Battle of Fredericksburg in early December 1862, with only 74 causalities out of 1100 men present for duty (four killed, 69 wounded, one missing). The Brigade formed a second line behind Gregg’s Brigade of A.P. Hill’s Division and to the left of Ewell’s Division. Union troops under General George Meade exploited some boggy woods to the front Confederate soldiers during the Bath-RomneyCampaign of Greg’s Brigade to pierce the Confederate line and newly promoted Brigade commander General Elisha Paxton ordered the Brigade forward to fill the gap. The 2nd Virginia, on the right flank of the Brigade, came under fire as they advanced. By the time other units of the Brigade could be maneuvered to support the regiment, the fire of the 2nd Virginia, commanded by Captain John Nadenbusch, had repulsed the enemy’s assault. In Nadenbusch’s report, he was happy to state that his men had done “their duty as only veterans know how” and that “there were but few men in the regiment who disgraced the name of soldier.” After the battle General Paxton applauded the men’s conduct in battle, proclaiming “Your line, as it moved after long hours of weary suspense to the support of your comrades in front, exhibiting the spirit and determination of soldiers resolved to conquer or die.”
Following the battle, the Brigade moved approximately fifteen miles below Fredericksburg to the winter quarters, where they began building shanties. The weather was cold and supplies were short. Paxton wrote to his wife that “Everything in camp stopped except the axes, which run all night and all day, Sunday included. With the soldiers it is, ‘Keep the axes going or freeze.’ They are the substitutes for tents, blankets, shoes, and everything once regarded as necessary for comfort. The misfortune is that even axes are scarce; the army is short of everything, and I fear soon to be destitute of everything.” Thomas Smiley had completed his quarters by January 4th, reporting that “We are now fixed upp prety well having a little tent fixed upp & a chimney in it in which we do our cooking.” Spirits were high and wood plentiful, although William Brand of the 5th Virginia (Company E) informed his wife that the water was bad. He reported high morale, however and stated “the picture of our confederacy is brightning and I hope before long we will be a free and independant people.” Sergeant Garibaldi agreed with Brand’s predictions for victory; “There is a heap talk of peace now in the north, but I wouldn’t put no dependence in them. But after [a]while I think they’ll get tire[d] to get whipt and they will then give us up for a bad joke but that may not be for a good while.”
Thomas Smiley told his sister that Christmas 1862 was a quiet one for the Brigade. “We had a great variety on the table for our christmas dinner, the breakfast consisted of beeff steak & bread, dinner was bread & Roast Beef, & supper out of what was left at breakfast.” Treats such as gingerbread cakes, dried apple pies, and sausages could be had, but for a steep price. Those hoping for liquid celebration were disappointed, with Smiley noting that “there was but few of the men that could afford to get drunk this Christmas as Whiskey is selling at fifteen dollars a quart.”
General Paxton issued a General Order on the first of January, naming the Brigade’s winter quarters Camp Winder in honor of the Brigade commander lost that year at Cedar Mountain. He noted that the Brigade had lost 1220 men killed and wounded in 1862 –more men than were currently present for duty. Of the fifteen field officers elected in the spring, only four remained unscathed. “The eye moistens with an unbidden tear to find that many of the officers whom your free choice had appointed to lead you, of the messmates and comrades you loved, are missing now,” he wrote. In a letter home, Paxton wished his wife and children a happy Christmas and noted that “To many, in summing up and looking over their bereavements for the year, it will be sad enough. We have been more blessed, and should feel grateful for it. To the future I look, not in gloom and despondency, but with the calmness and composure of one who feels that his own destiny in a sea of troubles like this is not in any way under his control.” Paxton would not live to see another Christmas, as he would fall leading his men during the battle of Chancellorsville.
Shot and shell ushered in December 1863 for the Stonewall Brigade. The Battle of Mine Run (Payne’s Farm) does not rank among the great battles of the war, but was a fierce contest to the men who fought in it. Alexander Baird of the 2nd Virginia (Company G) wrote home that “our division was the only one engaged but we whipped a whole corps of Yankees.” After Union skirmishers ambushed the Confederate column, “General Walker immediately sent our regiment out as skirmishers and put us along a fence and told us that we must hold that ground at all hazards,” recounted Baird. “We fought them from twelve o’clock until night when the fighting ceased and a part of Rode’s Division relieved us.” Sergeant Garibaldi simply said “They found out that they couldn’t whip us and they went back over the river.” Among the dead that day was Corporal Samuel Lucas, described by his Sergeant, Thomas Smiley, as one of the best men in the unit. “He was shot in the mouth and killed instantly,” wrote Smiley, “At the time he was struck he was laughing, had his mouth open the ball entered without cutting his lips and ranged upwards.”
The Brigade soon settled into Camp Stonewall Brigade along the Rapidan River near Orange Court House and the men began the construction of winter quarters. Baird informed his mother that “we get tolerable good rations now and I do not think there is any danger of our starving” although these rations were further reduced in January. Daily rations were 18 ounces of flour and a quarter pound of bacon or three quarters of a pound of beef, with occasional issues of sugar, rice, coffee, and dried fruit. Sergeant Garibaldi wrote home requesting warm clothes and a pair of socks from his wife, as he reported just after Christmas that he had not had a pair for two months. He was barefoot as well, but hoped to be able to draw a pair of shoes soon. The men were promised six months of back pay the week or so after Christmas, but the prospect of furloughs home was slim, with only one man out of fifty being allowed to leave. Earl “Carson” Andis, 1st Lieutenant of Company F in the 4th Virginia, informed his wife that he spent a cold and lonesome Christmas, as he was on picket detail on Christmas day. He reported that construction of winter quarters was progressing, however, and that “we will have a snug place when we get it fixed up.”
In the summer of 1863, the prisoner exchange system that had previously meant relatively short confinement for captives had broken down due to Confederate refusal to exchange captured African-American troops. Some of the Brigade’s members therefore spent Christmas 1863 in northern prisons. One such prisoner was Marylander Henry Kyd Douglas, formerly of the 2nd Virginia (Company B) and then Jackson’s staff, who was captured at Gettysburg and sent to Johnson’s Island Prison in Ohio. He recounts Christmas 1863 as follows:
“There came a carload of boxes for the prisoners about Christmas which after reasonable inspection, they were allowed to receive. My box contained more cause for merriment and speculation as to its contents than satisfaction. It had received rough treatment on its way, and a bottle of catsup had broken and its contents very generally distributed through the box. Mince pie and fruit cake saturated with tomato catsup was about as palatable as “embalmed beef” of the Cuban memory; but there were other things. Then, too, a friend had sent me in a package a bottle of old brandy. On Christmas morning I quietly called several comrades up to my bunk to taste the precious fluid of…DISAPPOINTMENT! The bottle had been opened outside, the brandy taken and replaced with water, adroitly recorded, and sent in. I hope the Yankee who played that practical joke lived to repent it and was shot before the war ended.”
By Christmas 1864, the Stonewall Brigade was officially no longer in existence, having been decimated during the desperate fight for the Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania and then consolidated with other under-strength units to form Terry’s Brigade, which numbered 1291 men in December. But the remaining men still clung to their identity as one of the Confederacy’s most celebrated units; Private John Dull of the Fifth Virginia (Company D), instructed his wife in December 1864 to direct her letters to the camp of the Stonewall Brigade, Gordon’s Division. The Brigade shifted position in early December to man the trenches south of Petersburg in Dinwiddie County protecting the Southside Railroad. They briefly occupied winter quarters constructed by other Confederate troops who had been ordered farther west, but by December 22nd, Dull informed his wife that they had moved their camp and were building cabins of their own upon pine timbered land belonging to B.F. Hurt along the Boydton Plank Road. The weather was cold and snow had already begun to fall, and, as Dull noted, “a good shelter would be very acceptable.” The work was slowed by lack of axes and tools, but was nearly complete soon after Christmas.
An inspector’s report from December noted that the condition of clothing for Terry’s Brigade was poor, with the exception of the former men of the Stonewall Brigade, who had received recent issues of “excellent clothing” as well as shoes and blankets. These were likely imported uniforms from England, as George Slifer of the 2nd Virginia (Company G) reassured his uncle that he had just drawn “a new inglish suit, so you can see I want nothing but piece and our independence.” Surprisingly, the Brigade was mostly armed with .69 caliber smoothbores during this period, with only some rifled muskets in the command. Not until the end of January had all of the smoothbores been replaced.
A lucky member of Company D was preparing to return home on furlough and Dull asked his wife to give the man food to bring back with him. Acknowledging the shortages plaguing the home front as well as the army, Dull instructed his wife to “send me some meet and flour some dried frute then I can have some pies made hear also some dry [y]east to make raised bred and what ever elce you think best also you may send me twenty or thirty Dollars in money I now it will bee trubblesom to you to send this barrel but it will bee good to me.” He closed his letter with the following line: “Well I must stop for this time hoping the Lord may bless you with a happy Chrismas though I am not with you.” Dull must have passed a pleasant holiday, since his next letter home, dated January 11th, informed his wife that Dull and his five messmates had more food than they could eat, including ham, cabbage, potatoes, beans, dried and fresh apples, flour, cornmeal, pies, cheese, bread, cakes, sausages, dried beef, chicken, dried cherries, jam, butter, molasses, onions… as he said “evrey thing that house ceepers generaley have excep[t] wimon an[d] children .” Although the South’s fortunes were dwindling, Dull remained optimistic. Peace, he wrote, would not come unless the South surrendered and the South would never surrender so long as they maintained an army in the field.
Much of the Brigade celebrated Christmas that year from within Union prison camps. Thomas Read, of the 33rd Virginia’s Company I, wrote to his father a few days before Christmas. He and the other prisoners at Point Lookout were doing well and receiving regular rations. Vegetables, though, were in short supply, and Read requested that his father send money as even just fifty or seventy-five cents would be helpful. But the prisoners otherwise passed their time well and Read mentioned that he spent much of his time reading from his company’s library. Read received a late present near the end of January; the difficulty of passing mail between the lines meant that he received letters his wife had written back in October and November only on January 25th. But she had enclosed in one a lock of her hair, something Read must have cherished as a reminder of those he had left behind and to whom he hoped to soon return.
Douglas, Henry Kyd. I Rode With Stonewall: Being Chiefly the War Experiences of the Youngest Member of Jackson’s Staff from John Brown’s Raid to the Hanging of Mrs. Surratt (Durham: University of NorthCarolina Press, 1968).
Memoir and Memorials: Elisha Franklin Paxton, Brigadier-General, C.S.A.; Composed of his Letters from Camp and Field While an Officer in the Confederate Army, with an Introductory and Connecting Narrative Collected and Arranged by his Son, John Gallatin Paxton (Available fromhttps://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/paxton/paxton.html).
Records of the Adjutant & Inspector General’s Department, NARA, microcopy M935 (Available from https://www.blueandgraymarching.com/second-corps/terrys-brigade-va.html and https://www.blueandgraymarching.com/second-corps/gordons-division.html).
“Report of Brig. Gen. B. F. Paxton, commanding First (Paxton’s) Brigade”, The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Chapter XXXIII, No. 328.
“Report of Capt. J. Q. A. Nadenbousch, Second Virginia Infantry,” The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Chapter XXXIII, No. 330.
Transcript of Alexander S. Baird Letter to his Mother, December 14, 1863 (Available from https://www.stonewallbrigade.com/paynesfarm_history_csa_person_accounts.html).
Transcript of Earl Carson Andis Letter to his wife, December 25, 1863 (Available from https://www.stonewallbrigade.com/wythegrays/history_2.html).
Transcript of James Beard Diary (Available from https://valley.lib.virginia.edu/papers/AD1008).
Transcript of James R. McCutchan Letter to Rachel Ann McCutchan, January 28, 1862 (Available from https://valley.lib.virginia.edu/papers/A0308).
Transcript of John P. Dull letter to Giney Dull, January 11, 1865. (Available from https://valley.lib.virginia.edu/papers/A6131).
Transcript of John P. Dull letter to Giney Dull, December 1, 1864. (Available from https://valley.lib.virginia.edu/papers/A6127).
Transcript of John P. Dull letter to Giney Dull, December 12, 1864. (Available from https://valley.lib.virginia.edu/papers/A6128).
Transcript of John P. Dull letter to Giney Dull, December 22, 1864. (Available from https://valley.lib.virginia.edu/papers/A6129).
Transcript of John Garibaldi Letter to Sarah Poor, December 30, 1861 (Available from https://www.vmi.edu/archives.aspx?id=5153).
Transcript of John Garibaldi Letter to Sarah Garibaldi, January 4, 1863 (Available from https://www.vmi.edu/archives.aspx?id=5153).
Transcript of John Garibaldi Letter to Sarah Garibaldi, December 5, 1863 (Available from https://www.vmi.edu/archives.aspx?id=5153).
Transcript of John Garibaldi Letter to Sarah Garibaldi, December 16, 1863 (Available from https://www.vmi.edu/archives.aspx?id=5153).
Transcript of John Garibaldi Letter to Sarah Garibaldi, January 9, 1863 (Available from https://www.vmi.edu/archives.aspx?id=5153).
Transcript of George L. Slifer Letter to his Uncle, January 7, 1865 (Available from https://www.stonewallbrigade.com/articles_english_supply.html).
Transcript of Thomas Griffin Read letter to Thomas Read, December 19, 1864. (Available from https://www.rarebooks.nd.edu/digital/civil_war/letters/read/5015-28.shtml).
Transcript of Thomas Griffin Read letter to Martha White Read, January 25, 1865. (Available from https://www.rarebooks.nd.edu/digital/civil_war/letters/read/5015-30.shtml).
Transcript of Thomas M. Smiley Letter to His Sister, December 26, 1861 (Available fromhttps://valley.lib.virginia.edu/papers/A6066).
Transcript of Thomas M. Smiley Letter to His Sister, January 10, 1862 (Available from https://valley.lib.virginia.edu/papers/A6028).
Transcript of Thomas M. Smiley Letter to His Sister, January 4, 1863 (Available from https://valley.lib.virginia.edu/papers/A6069).
Transcript of Thomas M. Smiley letter to His Aunt, December 8, 1863. (Available from https://valley.lib.virginia.edu/papers/A6078).
Transcript of William Francis Brand letter to his wife, January 2, 1863. (Available from https://etext.virginia.edu/civilwar/brand/trans.html).