Monday, December 20, 2010
Christmas and the Civil War - Book Review #4 - Rawlings' "We Were Marching On Christmas Day"
To adapt the beginning lines of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol:
"Kevin Rawlings' We Were Marching On Christmas Day: A History and Chronicle of Christmas During the Civil War (Baltimore: Toomey Press, 1996) is the best book book of its kind, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that."
The book will delight the casual and the serious Civil War enthusiast - and anyone interested in mid-19th-century American life - in a number of ways.
The book is (unfortunately) out of print, but used copies - both hardcover and softcover - can be found at affordable prices from the usual outlets (Bookfinder, abebooks, amazon, etc).
The book is chronlogical in nature:
Chapter One - "Christmas Comes to America" - describes how American Christmas traditions grew from the influences of German, Dutch, and English settlers. He describes in great detail and over several pages the introduction of the Christmas tree into American homes, but also Saint Nick, carols, misletoe, the Yule log, Dickens A Christmas Carol, and other traditions.
The following chapters give a year-by-year account of the fortunes (and misfortunes) of war for both sides and how Christmas was experienced by soldiers in the field and civilians at home, both North and South. The year 1861 is interesting in that Christmas Day was a busy one for Lincoln and his cabinet as they struggled with how to reconcile the "Trent Affair." The Christmas season in 1862 was notable for two battles - Frederickburg in Virginia and Stone's River in Tennessee - that occurred just before an just after the holiday.
The final chapter - "Peace of Reunion, Goodwill Towards Former Foes" - describes the first peactime Christmas (1865) and concludes with an excellent summary of how soldiers and civilians remembered their wartime Christmases in post-war memoirs and also in fiction and of how the holiday became even more popular in American culture.
The book includes more than three dozen period engravings and photographs, many from the author's collection, and draws heavily on soldier and civilian correspondence, some from well-known sources and others - very happily - from unpublished/archival material, especially the United States Army Military History Institute in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The author provides excellent endnotes to help other interested readers and researchers trace the source of the many letters, etc., used throughout the text.
If there are any faults with the book - and there are precious few - they include scant (but some) attention to how Christmas was celebrated among enslaved African-Americans (and, likewise, freed slaves at war's end) and a tendency to a roll of quotations (sometimes long) from period correspondence, without much interpretation.