Tuesday, December 22, 2020

The Christmas Truce of 1863

"Christmas Eve," an illustration by Thomas Nast for Harper's Weekly, January 3, 1863
Christmas on the Rappahannock

The story below is from the Civil War. It was published in Harper’s Weekly in 1886 by Rev. John Paxton who himself served as a Union soldier with the 140th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. His story takes place on Christmas Day just after the Union defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg. 

While on patrol, his unit came upon a group of Confederate soldiers standing across the Rappahannock River. It is said that instead of fighting, they declared a pause, an unofficial truce, in the fighting for Christmas. Then they met to share the Christmas spirit.

Christmas on the Rappahannock
Story by Rev. John R. Paxton, D.D.

“Gentlemen, the chair of the Professor of the Mathematics is vacant in this college; permit me to introduce to you, Captain Fraser.” Rah! rah! rah! and away we went and enlisted – to go to Richmond. It took us three years to get there. No wonder; there were so many Longstreets to make our way through; so many Hills to climb; so many Stonewalls to batter down; so many Picketts to clear out of the way. It was as hard as a road to travel as the steep and stony one to heaven.

No preaching, sir! Can’t you forget the shop? Don’t you know that you have squeezed yourself into that faded, jacket, and are squirming, with a flushed face and short breaths, behind that sword belt, which had caused a rebellion in media res?

I started for Richmond in July 1862, a lad eighteen years old, a junior in college, and chafing to be at it, – to double-quick it after John Brown’s soul, which, since it did not require a knapsack or three days’ rations or a canteen or a halt during the night for sleep, was always marching on. 

On the night before Christmas, 1862, I was a dejected young patriot, wishing I hadn’t done it, shivering in the open weather a mile back of the Rappahannock, on the reserve picket and exposed to a wet snowstorm. There was not a stick of wood within five miles of us; all cut down, down, even the roots of trees, and burned up. We lay down on our rubber blankets, pulled our woolen blankets over us, spooned it as close as we could to get to steal warmth from our comrades, and tried not to cry.

Next morning the snow lay heavy and deep, and the men, when I wakened and looked about me, reminded me of a church graveyard in winter. “Fall in for picket duty. There, come, Moore, McMeaus, Paxton, Perrine, Pollock, fall in.” We fell in, of course, No breakfast; chilled to the marrow; snow a foot deep. We tightened our belts on our empty stomachs, seized our rifles, and marched to the river to take our six hours on duty.

It was Christmas Day, 1862. “And so this is war,” my old me said to himself while he paced in the snow his two hours on the river’s brink. “And I am out here to shoot that lean, lank, coughing, cadaverous-looking butternut fellow over the river. So this is war; this is being a soldier; this is the genuine article; this is H. Greely’s ‘On to Richmond.’ Well, I wish he were here in my place, running to keep warm, pounding his arms and breast to make the chilled blood circulate. So this is war, tramping up and down this river my fifty yards with wet feet, empty stomach, swollen nose.”

Alas, when lying under the trees in the college campus last June, war meant to me martial music, gorgeous brigadiers in blue and gold, tall young men in line, shining in brass. War meant to me tumultuous memories of Bunker Hill, Caesar’s Tenth Legion, the Charge of the Six Hundred, – anything but this. 

Pshaw, I wish I were home. Let me see. Home? God’s country. A tear? Yes, it is a tear. What are they doing at home? This is Christmas Day. Home? Well, stockings on the wall, candy, turkey, fun, merry Christmas, and the face of the girl I left behind. Another tear? Yes, I couldn’t help it. I was only eighteen, and there was such a contrast between Christmas, 1862, on the Rappahannock and other Christmases. Yes, there was a girl, too, – such sweet eyes, such long lashes, such a low tender voice.

“Come, move quicker. Who goes there?” Shift the rifle from one aching shoulder to the other.

“Hello, Johnny, what are you up to?” The river was narrow, but deep and swift. It was a wet cold, not a freezing cold. There was no ice, too swift for that.

“Yank, with no overcoat, shoes full of holes, nothing to eat but parched corn and tabacco, and with this darned Yankee snow a foot deep, there’s nothin’ left, nothin’ but to get up a cough by way of protestin’ against this infernal ill-treatment of the body. We uns, Yank, all have a cough over here, and there’s no sayin’ which will run us to hole first, the cough or your bullets.”

The snow still fell, the keen wind, raw and fierce, cut to the bone. It was God’s worst weather, in God’s forlornest, bleakest spot of ground, that Christmas Day of ’62 on the Rappahannock, a half-mile below the town of Fredericksburg. But come, pick up your prostrate pluck, you shivering private. Surely there is enough dampness around without your adding to it your tears.

“Let’s laugh, boys.”

“Hello, Johnny.”

“Hello, yourself, Yank.”

“Merry Christmas, Johnny.”

“Same to you, Yank.”

“Say, Johnny, got anything to trade?”

“Say, Johnny, got anything to trade?”

“Parched corn and tabacco, – the size of our Christmas, Yank.”

“All right; you shall have some of our coffee and sugar and pork. Boys, find the boats.”

Such boats! I see the children sailing them on small lakes in our Central park. Some Yankee, desperately hungry for tobacco, invented them for trading with the Johnnies. They were hid away under the backs of the river for successive relays of pickets.

We got out the boats. An old handkerchief answered for a sail. We loaded them with coffee, sugar, pork, and set the sail and watched them slowly creep to the other shore. And the Johnnies? To see them crowd the bank and push and scramble to be the first to seize the boats, going into the water and stretching out their long arms. Then, when they pulled the boats ashore, and stood in a group over the cargo, and to hear their exclamations, “Hurrah for hog.” “Say, that’s not roasted rye, but genuine coffee. Smell it, you’uns.” “And sugar, too!”

Then they divided the consignment. They laughed and shouted, “Reckon you’uns been good to we’uns this Christmas Day, Yanks.” Then they put parched corn, tobacco, ripe persimmons, into the boats and sent them back to us. And we chewed the parched corn, smoked real Virginia leaf, ate persimmons, which if they weren’t very filling at least contracted our stomachs to the size of our Christmas dinner. 

And so the day passed. We shouted, “Merry Christmas, Johnny.” They shouted, “Same to you, Yank.” And we forgot the biting wind, the chilling cold; we forgot those men over there were our enemies, whom it might be our duty to shoot before evening.

We had bridged the river, spanned the bloody chasm. We were brothers, not goes, waving salutations of good-will in the name of the Babe of Bethlehem, on Christmas Day in ’62. At the very front of the opposing armies, the Christ Child struck a truce of us, broke down the wall of partition, became our peace. We exchanged gifts. We shouted greetings back and forth. We kept Christmas and our hearts were lighter of it, and our shivering bodes were not quite so cold.

-- end of article, Christmas Number, Harper’s Weekly, 1886.

I did not correct most of the misspellings or punctuation mistakes in the Harper's Weekly article above. Other than a coma or two, it appears above as it did in 1886.

The Civil War was a time of valor and tremendous sacrifice on both sides, but also great sorrow. During the summer months, the heat was horrible -- especially on those who lay wounded and dying on the battlefield. While that was the case, it is said that there was no worse time to be a soldier in either army than that of the dead of winter. 

The freezing cold, the mud, the dung, the lack of food and sanitation, the sickness, and of course the dead. Both Union and Confederate troops had it tough and struggled to do their duty because simple survival in the freezing cold took more of a priority than that of duty in many cases. Just the fight to survive the harsh winter weather alone killed thousands of troops. Thousands died from exposure and disease throughout the war. More died of diseases in the Civil War than gunshot wounds. 

As with troops in every war since time and memorial, horrid conditions spur thoughts of home and loved ones. Troops have always tried to bring a little Christmas spirit, that which they yearned for, into their time underarms. To fight the loss and sorrow, fellowship and camaraderie serve to help fight the melancholy that sets in during the Christmas season away from home.

The "Christmas Truce" of 1863 would not be the last unofficial truce between Union and Confederate troops. It is certainly not as famous as the Christmas Day Truce between British, French, and German soldiers during World War I. Such things were discouraged by high ranking officers. They always have been. No, there was nothing official of any of those truces during the Civil War or that famous one later during War World I. 

Truces spring up when the exchange of gunfire and cannon stops. They happened entirely unofficially when soldiers decide on their own that for that moment and time, peace and goodwill towards their fellow man should prevail for at least a few minutes. 

Tom Correa

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