Descriptions of the holiday season for soldiers during the U.S. Civil War give us pause for thought as we reside in safe, warm places, spending time with family and friends, and cheering in a new year this holiday season . . .
Oney Foster Sweet (far left) with companions from the 1st Pennsylvania Light Artillery, Battery F, 1864.
Private Oney F. Sweet, a Union soldier in the 1st Pennsylvannia Light Artillery, Battery F (aka: Ricketts’ Battery), describes, in letters and diary entries, how he and his fellow soldiers spent their Christmas and New Year’s days.
On January 3, 1863, while camped near White Oak Church, Virginia, he wrote to his mother:
Christmas and New Years passed off without anything unusual taking place. I would not know it from any other day. We have had most beautiful weather for two weeks passed and I hope it may continue so. I git the stamps all right. We was mustered for pay last Wednesday and we will get it in a few days or else we will have to wait two months longer. Some of the boys begin to think we are not agoing to get paid any more.
He also mentioned a recent battle with the Confederate forces in Virginia. He doesn’t name the encounter, but we now know it as the Battle of Fredericksburg.
We have a good camp and comfortable quarters here, but I think Burnside will make another move soon and I hope he will be more successful than he was before. The soldiers do not like him much, they want Mc Clellan to command them. Burnside made a very foolish move but it was not as bad as it was first thought to be. . . . We don’t hear anything only what we see in the papers. You know as much about our loss as we do. I think we lost about . . . 900 killed, 11,000 wounded and 1,000 prisoners. I believe our loss was a great deal heavier than theirs. Our men talked with some of the rebels and the rebels said they were tired of fighting and I know our men are tired of fighting and after a pay day there will be a great many desert.
If the rebel soldiers and our soldiers understood each other they would all go home and leave Jeff Davis and Lincoln [to] fight it out. Perhaps you may think by what I say that I am homesick but I am not. I am only tired to see the thing go on as it has been going.
Oney’s statistics were a bit off, but the Battle of Fredericksburg—fought on December 11-15, 1862, and one of the largest and deadliest battles of the War Between the States—officially left 9,000 killed, wounded or missing. Shortly afterward, President Abraham Lincoln relieved General Ambrose E. Burnside of his command of the Army of the Potomac.
Oney wrote about conditions in camp, including a reference to lice. In this case the word “lousy” refers to the parasite and should be pronouced with the “s” sound, not the “z” sound commonly heard today when the term is used in a generic sense of feeling unwell.
I have been lousy once or twice when I had to wear my clothes 3 weeks without changing them. That was at Bull Run, but I got rid of them very quick by throwing all of my clothes away and putting on new ones. Nearly every one in the Battery was lousy, but if you have a chance to wash you can easily keep clean. This company is a very clean company to what some are. I have seen officers and men sit down and pick them off. I have seen good shirts by the hundred thrown away, and they were alive with them.
On Friday, December 25, 1863, he wrote in his diary:
Christmas. A very pleasant day, but cold. Had a very good dinner. Some of the boys feel very gay.
Four days later, he wrote to his mother:
I spent my Christmas the same as every other day in camp. It was a fine pleasant day. Nearly all of our battery have reenlisted for three years more but I have not yet. There is only about 15 that have not reenlisted. I think this war cannot last much longer.
I worked very hard at putting up winter quarters and the day I finished my house I got a very sore hand. I had a gathering in it. I did not sleep for several nights. It is not well yet. But much better. I can write but I have not done any duty for two weeks. I got the shirts the day before my birthday.
Sweet had cut his hand while constructing winter quarters, and the wound had become infected. A “gathering” refers to an abscess.
A year later, notwithstanding his belief that the war could not last much longer—a belief he had held from the beginning—Oney Sweet wrote in his diary:
Saturday, December 24, 1864
Christmas Eve. Aplenty of whiskey in camp. A report that Savannah is captured and an attack been made on Wilmington.
Sunday, December 25, 1864
A warm, pleasant day. A Merry Christmas. . . . A report from Rebell sources that Savannah is captured with 25,000 bales of cotton, 150 pieces of artillery, locomotives, etc. A plenty of whiskey in camp. Got no papers or letters.
Sunday, January 1, 1865
New Years. A most beautiful day. A Happy New Year to all. Col. Hayard had a big time. Licour in abundance. Everybody gay and festive. . . . a N.Y. times.
These letters and diary entries will be published in the book What the Private Saw: The Civil War Letters and Diaries of Oney Foster Sweet.
The book—edited by Larry M. Edwards—will be released by Wigeon Publishing on April 9, 2015, the 150th anniversary of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, effectively ending the U.S. Civil War.
Read another excerpt: Civil War Thanksgiving: Nov. 26, 1863.
For more information about What the Private Saw and excerpts from the book, visit the website http://whattheprivatesaw.com . . .
Like the book on Facebook.
Other books from Wigeon Publishing:
Happy New Year!