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Neighbors Growing Together | Nov 26, 2014

Christmas was much different in Henry County 150 years ago

Dec 27, 2012
Photo by: Submitted photo Celebrating 150 Years of the Image of Santa: Thomas Nast’s depiction of Santa Claus on the Jan. 3, 1863, cover of Harper’s Weekly would serve at the beginning of the modern-day depiction of Santa Claus.

Editor’s note: As part of the nation’s 150-year anniversary of the Civil War, the Henry County Civil War Sesquicentennial Task Force will be publishing a monthly column, written by Henry County historians. The research for the articles comes from Henry County newspapers published between 1861-1865, as well as diaries, journals and letters written by Henry County Civil War soldiers and their families.

By Joy Lynn Conwell

As Christmas approached in 1862, Henry County, Iowa, seemed almost oblivious to the day of celebration. Local newspapers did not proclaim upcoming holiday events nor were there advertisements tantalizing shoppers. Houses and businesses both seem to reflect the effects of almost two years of war. There were empty chairs at the tables…local men who had gone to war and would never return. Letters from the front were the treasured gift of the season as it meant the father, son, brother or friend had survived the latest battle and renewed the hope that they would be home for the holidays next year.

The Home Journal, the local Mt. Pleasant paper, carried the news of the Battle of Fredericksburg, Major-General Ambrose Burnside’s assault against well-placed Confederate defenders. Begun on December 11, the four-day battle would account for 12,600 Union casualties. On Christmas Day, those Union soldiers who were wounded and survived would be spread throughout 46 hospitals in the Washington D.C. area.

It was reported that on Christmas Day, the mood in Washington was gloomy, President Abraham Lincoln and his family, who had hosted a lavish Christmas party at the White House in 1861, confined their celebration to visiting the sick and wounded and distributing food to the soldiers. Of Lincoln, who was visibly shaken by the outcome of the battle of Fredericksburg, his outside demeanor aging; it was reported that he stated to his friend, Governor Andrew G. Curtin of Pennsylvania, “If there is a worse place than Hell, I am in it.”

The Christmas of 1862 was difficult for the South also. Celebrations were cut short by reports of General William T. Sherman marching toward Mississippi, threatening Vicksburg. Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, came back to his home state of Mississippi for the first time since the beginning of the war. He stated, “After an absence of nearly two years, I again find myself among who have ever been the trusted object of my affection.” General Robert E. Lee, fresh from the victory of Fredericksburg, wrote in a letter to his family, “What a cruel thing this war. To separate and destroy families and friends and mar the purest joy and happiness God has granted us in this world…. I pray that on this when ‘peace and good will’ are preached to all mankind that better thoughts will fill the hearts of our enemies and turn them to peace.”

It truly was a difficult time. The reality of war was lying heavy on the hearts of both the North and the South. Yet, within this setting a great cultural icon would rise up. The 1862 Christmas season saw the emergence of the modern image of Santa Claus. The 1862 printing of Clement Clark Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas, illustrated by Felix Octavius Carr Darley featured Santa as a plump man with a pipe. But it would be editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast who would be given the credit for defining the modern Santa Claus.

While the Harper’s Weekly Christmas issue (actually published on January 3, 1863) center-fold memorialized the family sacrifices of the war. It’s front cover featured “Santa Claus in Camp,” an image drawn by Nast which depicted a kindly jolly old man bearing gifts to Union soldiers. Nast, a German immigrant influenced by the tradition of Saint Nicholas, a fourth century bishop known for his kindness, and mixed with Nast’s love of the German folklore of elves, drew the image which is recognized today as the perfect-likeness of Santa Claus.

So this year, as we reflect upon the 150th commemoration of the Civil War, let us also remember that out of the great sadness of the war came also moments of hope, of kindness and a defined dream of peace. Eight years later in 1870, the General in Chief of the Union Army that Christmas Day in 1862 would forever impact our celebration of Christmas. Ulysses S. Grant, now President of the United States, would sign an act which made December 25 officially Christmas Day. Grant’s action was motivated by his understanding of a nation still deeply divided in the aftermath of the Civil War and viewed the declaration of a national holiday as a symbol of healing and unity.

And now during the Christmas season, let us all remember those whose homes hold empty chairs awaiting their love ones to come home from military service and let us recall the actions and words of two Civil War generals….a Northern General who declared a national holiday as a hope of healing and unity….and a Southern General who simply wrote, “I pray that on this when ‘peace and good will’ are preached to all mankind that better thoughts will fill the hearts of our enemies and turn them to peace.”

 

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