Christmas on the Rappahannock

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

There was no worse time to be a soldier than the dead of winter. Far from home and freezing cold, the enlisted men of the Union and Confederate armies often struggled to perform their duties, or even just survive, in the harsh weather. Thousands of men died from exposure or disease throughout the war, to say nothing of the horses or mules that could make life just that much more difficult for the survivors. Fed up with the conditions on the front, many turned their thoughts to home, and failing to return to their families via desertion, tried to replicate what they could with their comrades to keep back the melancholy and drudgery of winter, if only for a while.

The following is a story from the Civil War published in Harper’s Weekly in 1886 by Reverend John Paxton, a veteran from the 140th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Paxton’s account takes place on Christmas Day, just after the Union failure at the Battle of Fredericksburg, while performing the often-miserable duty of watch patrol. While on patrol, Paxton and his comrades come upon a group of Confederate soldiers standing across the Rappahannock River, and instead of fighting, the two sides show each other signs of Christmas cheer.

This would not be the last so-called “Christmas Truce” between the North and the South, and such truces would not be contained to the 19th century. The famous Truce on Christmas Day between British, French and German soldiers during WWI is one example. It should also be noted that all of these truces were entirely unofficial: soldiers that exchanged gifts on one day would fire on each other the next. But these stories can give us a lesson about the importance of empathy to one’s enemies, and Peace and Goodwill towards Man.


Christmas on the Rappahannock

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 ot 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 derned 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 hears were lighter of it, and our shivering bodes were not quite so cold.

                –Christmas Number, Harper’s Weekly, 1886.

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