Baptists and the American Civil War: December 25, 1864

Civil War States MapThis is a Christmas day unlike any other.

The image of the modern, portly Santa Claus as drawn by Thomas Nast is less than two years old.

Baptists do not yet celebrate Christmas in a religious sense, as the holiday is considered popish and paganish. Nor is the day celebrated publicly en masse. For some the day is a normal, albeit quieter, workday. Many Americans on the home front spend the day quietly with family, the occasion marked by special foods and, in some instances, music and dancing. Empty chairs, however, are commonplace, their missing occupants serving in the military or killed in the line of duty. In such homes, there is little, if any, joy.

In various ways, albeit typically focused on a special meal, the day is observed in many Union army camps. Hospitalized soldiers fare the best in terms of food and, often, the company of ladies from nearby communities. For those engaged in marching or maneuvers or skirmishing, however, the day is as any other.

Aside from the usual family gatherings and observances among soldiers, Savannah is what makes this Christmas different on a national scale than in previous years.

In the North, the day is one of joy, thanks to Savannah. Sherman declared the captured port city to be a gift to president Lincoln, and many Northerners also celebrate the victory, a triumph that surely signifies the war is drawing to a close. At the same time, most black Savannans enjoy their first Christmas as free persons, giving praise to God and Sherman and Lincoln. Freedmen elsewhere also are grateful to God and Lincoln this day.

Meanwhile, Christmas in the white South is of even greater scarcity than have been previous war-time Christmases. In the Confederate capital of Richmond food is hard to come by. President Jefferson Davis and wife Varina attend a “starvation party” in which there are no refreshments. Likewise, rations are short in the Confederate Army.

In the heart of the Confederacy, the South Caroline Confederate Baptist says of this day:

The superstitions, with which this festival has been encumbered, have produced, perhaps, too great a recoil in the minds of Protestants, and led them, in some cases, to ignore the day, altogether, for fear of appearing to sympathize with the desecrations of Anti-Christ. But the occasion has its profitable uses, and should be made conducive to piety, by its association with the rich blessings, which attend the reign of the Prince of Peace. The manger of Bethlehem can never lose its interest to the devout mind, and even they who are content to reap only the temporal advantages, which our holy religion has conferred upon the nations, may well revert, with gratitude and reverence, to that great centre of light and grace. Christianity is, unquestionably, the greatest boon of Heaven to man. In spite of all the wrongs, which have been perpetuated in its holy name, the tortures of papal Inquisition, the fires of persecuting rage, and the crusades of fanaticism, the world has been vastly, immeasurably, benefited by its influence. The evil which has followed its march, has been wrought by man; all the good has come from God; and the good has been so great, that the day which commemorates the advent of its Divine Author may well elicit our grateful homage to the Giver of all good.

How readily the author lumps abolitionism (“fanaticism”) alongside the Inquisition and ancient persecution of Christians.

Mary Beckley Bristow, a Kentucky Baptist and Confederate supporter, at the end of this day reflects upon the evils visited upon the South by the Northern enemy, speaks of joy mixed with sadness, and voices questions asked by many other white Southerners.

Another Christmas Day has passed. We had my brother Anselm and family, Volney Dickerson and family, Nan Breckinridge & her daughter, Mary Jane Wilmot, and her little boy to eat their Christmas dinner with us, the last Christmas dinner they or I will ever eat in this house, according to human calculations. It was rather a sad day. Thoughts of the many, who in happier days would dine with us on this day that we shall meet no more in time and among those from whom we are separated by distance, would intrude. Several times I felt unbidden tears in my eyes, but, oh in the midst of it all, what great cause for gratitude have I. Fifty-six Christmas days have passed since I was born. Many very pleasant ones have I spent, but now my heart is sad. This desolating war that is ruining our country preys on my heart. Yet I acknowledge my great rebellion of heart against the rule of Omnipotent Wisdom, for I do know the Lord of Heaven and Earth can drive the invaders from our soil and give us peace and security at any time. Why should I be disheartened at the desolations being made in the South by the Northern Army? Will not the Lord God of the whole do right? Does He, who formed his creatures and many for whom the Savior lived and died, not see and hear their homeless, friendless, suffering condition? Is He not still the Eternal God, the refuge of His people. . .?

Sources: Thomas J. Ryan, “Civil War Profiles: Christmas and New Year’s 1864/1865: Yearning for Peace,” Coastal Point, December 23, 2014 (link); “Christmas,” Confederate Baptist, December 21, 1864; Mary Bristow Diary, December 25, 1864 (link)