Christmas Mourning, Confederate Widows, and the Aftermath of the Civil War

Christmas Mourning, Confederate Widows, and the Aftermath of the Civil War

“I have now spent ten difficult holidays without my late husband…so, why am I still surprised a decade later, when my mostly healed heart, breaks back open during the holidays like clockwork? Just what is it about the holidays that brings the pain of our loss back to the forefront of our hearts?” asked Rhonda O’Neill, author of The Other Side of Complicated Grief, in The Huffington Post this month.[1] For many like O’Neill, the onset of the holiday season brings bittersweet memories of holidays past. An old song, a cracked ornament, a smudged family recipe is often all it takes to transport a person back to an earlier time, when a parent was young, a child was new, or a loved one laughed alongside us. The absence of loved ones is particularly acute during the holiday season, a time when families are supposed to be together. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, as we work our way through Christmas present, we are often visited by the ghosts of Christmas past…and we realize that Christmas future will never be quite the same.[2]

Nineteenth century Americans also experienced these pressures of past, present, and future weighing heavily on them during the holiday season of the Civil War. Approximately 750,000 men died in the war. We know this number, know that it earns the distinction of being the bloodiest American war, but often we do not think about what this number meant, in terms of families changed, sons killed, women wearing black, buildings draped in crepe. For war wives and widows, the holidays were an especially emotional time, as women dealt with the absence of loved ones, whether temporarily or permanently, as a result of the war. Confederate widows, who struggled with armies marching through their towns, scarcity, and ultimately, losing a husband to a war that would also be lost, found the holidays to be particularly painful.[3]

“Christmas Eve,” Harper’s Weekly, January 3, 1863. Courtesy of the Missouri History Museum, St. Louis.
“Christmas Eve,” Harper’s Weekly, January 3, 1863. Courtesy of the Missouri History Museum, St. Louis.

Southern newspapers of the period broadcasted reminders of holiday loss. “This day, Christmas, again greets us and our readers. We could wish them, one and all a merry Christmas, but we are reminded that many a home in the state is deserted by the strong and the young men, who are off on the battle field,” printed one North Carolina editorial in 1861, continuing, “Were our people to indulge in the usual festivities, they might in the midst of their gaiety, receive the unwelcome tidings that a father, a son, or a brother were weltering in gore on the bloody field.” As time passed, holiday greetings grew even bleaker, as the same paper noted in January 1865, “whilst we write, the warm blood from the heart of many a strong man and bright eyed boy no doubt reddens the soil. The whole nation is a vast house of mourning. Christmas, once so merry and joyous, now finds the widow and her little ones clustered together in grief. Carnage, blood, fiendish malignity, devilish hate, ail the horrors of hell, seem to rise uppermost and turn the land into a vast slaughter-pen!”[4]

Even before the finality of death, couples missed one another during the war. In December 1861, William Gaston Delony, a Confederate officer, wished “a merry Christmas to all my treasures at home.” His wife responded, “I cannot wish you a Merry Christmas…I pray God that this day in the coming year will find us reunited.” “I hope the poor little things will enjoy Christmas,” she wrote of her children, but “I cannot feel ‘merry’ such times, [but] will kill my only turkey and dispose of a slice or so in consideration of the day, but that’s all. A long and rainy spell has begun.” William planned to be home for future Christmases, as his wife wished, but neither plans nor wishes came true. William died just after his 9th wedding anniversary in the fall of 1863, leaving behind three children and his pregnant wife for an even rainier holiday season.[5]

Families anticipated the difficulties of widows’ grief, especially during the holidays. In 1863, a soldier wrote his sister, Louisa, “I hope you may enjoy yourself this day and have a merry Christmas, but no doubt you could enjoy your self much more if dear Jimmy was alive.” Louisa was a recent war widow, celebrating her first Christmas without her husband. “My dear wife,” James Nixon had written back in August, “this is to inform you that my wound is still improving slowly…hope to be able to start home in a few days.” That was his last letter. Instead of being home for Christmas, James would leave a widow with four sons under the age of ten.[6]

“The Effect of the Rebellion on the Homes of Virginia,” Harper’s Weekly, December 24, 1864. Courtesy of the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia, Athens.
“The Effect of the Rebellion on the Homes of Virginia,” Harper’s Weekly, December 24, 1864. Courtesy of the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia, Athens.

Even those who had not lost husbands recognized the heaviness of the wartime holiday season. In 1861, Sallie Brock Putnam of Virginia reflected, “never before had so sad a Christmas dawned upon us,” for “the friendly congratulations of the seasons were followed by anxious inquiries for dear boys in the fields, or husbands or fathers.” By Christmas 1864, those uncertain inquiries were replaced by certain deaths. Sallie believed the sacrifices for the Confederacy “could all have been borne bravely, cheerfully, heroically – it is almost too trifling to notice, had not the vacant place recalled the memory of one or more, whose bones were bleaching somewhere on the field made red with the mingled blood of friend and foe.”[7]

Most widows never forgot that “vacant place” Sallie referenced. Though Tivie Stephens’ marriage lasted just four years, she mourned her husband’s death for the rest of her life. In her journal, she systematically reminded herself of her losses. On the anniversaries of significant dates until her death in 1908, she noted the absence of her husband, an absence that tinged holidays with grief. Christmas 1864 was “a sad instead of a merry one.” Christmas 1866 was also “a quiet and sad one to me, though the children happy.” For some families, the wartime holiday season was not simply marked with death, but it permanently altered the future.[8]

Unidentified woman, in mourning dress and brooch showing a Confederate soldier, holding a young boy wearing a kepi. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Unidentified woman, in mourning dress and brooch showing a Confederate soldier, holding a young boy wearing a kepi. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The war, of course, would ultimately end with the surrender of the Confederacy in 1865, and finally, for the first time in four years, Americans would experience a Christmas without war. But even after the formal conclusion of the war, many white Southerners continued to struggle with the celebration of Christmas. In December 1865, a book reading took place in Virginia. “Not during the war, nor since the war, have we seen such an audience assembled at Liberty Hall, last night, to hear Dickens’ Christmas Carol,” reported the local paper. Charles Dickens’ words were “a fitting preface to the holiday season,” enjoyed late into the night. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, who had just woken from a terrible series of nightmares to a new morning, many Americans also woke to new possibilities in 1865. But for widows, across time and generation, Christmas mourning is not nearly so bright. As Rhonda O’Neill wrote a couple weeks ago, “I am finally coming to the conclusion that the holidays will always be difficult, whether one year, ten years, or two decades after my loved ones died. This is the reality we must learn to live with. We will always miss them.”[9]

[1] Rhonda O’Neill, “The Fog of Grief During the Holidays,” HuffingtonPost, accessed December 6, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/getting-through-the-fog-of-grief-during-the-holidays_us_5846caf2e4b0707e4c81724b.

[2] Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843), grew in popularity over the decades, rising to greatest fame in America after the war. Even so, Americans were familiar with the book before the war; for example, the New Orleans Daily Crescent newspaper published the text within their newspaper on December 25, 1852.

[3] Penne L. Restad, Christmas in America: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 136-137; J. David Hacker argues that approximately 750,000 men lost their lives in the Civil War, and that if 28% of the men who died in the war were married, 200,000 widows would be created. J. David Hacker, “A Census-Based Count of the Civil War Dead” Civil War History 57, no. 4 (2011): 311.

[4] “Christmas,” Weekly Standard, Raleigh, North Carolina, December 25, 1861, accessed December 18, 2016, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045706/1861-12-25/ed-1/seq-3/; Semi-Weekly Standard, Raleigh, North Carolina, January 24, 1865, accessed December 18, 2016, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045450/1865-01-24/ed-1/seq-2/.

[5] Will Delony to Rosa Delony, December 20, 1861; Rosa to Will Delony, December 21, 1861; Rosa to Will Delony, December 22, 1861; all from William Gaston Deloney Family Papers, Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia.

[6] Dallas Wood to Louisa A. Nixon, December 25, 1863; James J. Nixon to Louisa A. Nixon, August 8, 1863, both from James J. Nixon Letters, 1861-1863, Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida, Gainesville (GSL-UF).

[7] Sallie Brock Putnam, Richmond during the War: Four Years of Personal Observation, ed. Virginia Scharff (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996), 89, 267-9.

[8] Octavia Stephens Diary, December 25, 1864, December 25, 1866, Stephens-Bryant Family Papers, GSL-UF.

[9] “The Reading Last Night,” Alexandria Gazette, Alexandria, Virginia, December 23, 1865, accessed via http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85025007/1865-12-23/ed-1/seq-1/ (accessed December 18, 2016); Rhonda O’Neill, “The Fog of Grief During the Holidays.”

Angela Esco Elder

Angela Esco Elder is an assistant professor of history at Converse College. She earned her doctorate at the University of Georgia, and the following year she was the 2016-2017 Virginia Center for Civil War Studies postdoctoral fellow at Virginia Tech. Her research explores gender, emotion, family, and trauma in the Civil War Era South. She is the co-editor of Practical Strangers: The Courtship Correspondence of Nathaniel Dawson and Elodie Todd, Sister of Mary Todd Lincoln.

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