Hope for the Holidays: A Civil War Season in DC

Throughout the next months, the Smithsonian Institution Archives will feature posts related to the Smithsonian and the Civil War in honor of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War.

Smithsonian Institution Building, 1858
As the holidays approach, festive music and decorations spread the good feeling of holiday cheer. In Washington, DC, the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden Ice Rink  is filled with happy skaters and the National Christmas Tree stands brightly gleaming on the Ellipse lawn at the White House. But 150 years ago, residents of DC had a harder time getting into the holiday spirit. By December 1861, the Civil War had been raging for nearly nine months, and the effects of battles and hostilities pervaded the city. Some soldiers camped around Washington and others rested in hospitals, recalling the war to the minds of all in the city, but DC citizens tried to make the best of these hard times. Though dispirited by the anticipation of many more years of war to come, some hopefulness and comfort were evident during that 1861 holiday season.Christmas Among the Soldiers, The National Republican, December 28, 1861, page 1, courtesy of the Li

Along side accounts of battle and bloodshed, throughout December DC newspapers printed advertisements for holiday shopping and entertainment. There were special sales and performances, and much holiday activity in the city surrounded by war. One reporter for the National Republican described a Christmas Eve scene that he observed on a walk through Washington. He saw families shopping and couples strolling through the streets, writing  “Seventh street was alive with bright eyes and radiant faces […]” But this pleasant picture was not without reminders of the war: “Some boys had purchased a military outfit, and were making a litter of themselves, to convey ‘by neck and heels’ a wounded comrade home from Bull Run.”

Like those determined boys, no one could forget the Union soldiers encamped far from family and friends during the holiday. On Christmas Day, many visited the camps outside of DC and wrote of  joyful celebrations among the soldiers. Games were played and feasts were enjoyed as “the oridinary duties of daily drill were generally remitted, and a full license given for all amusements and socialities not subversive to discipline.” But just one hundred miles northwest of DC near Fort Frederick, Maryland, some combat occured despite the occasion. Other reminders of the conflict were heard in DC churches, where one reverend offered a sermon on the importance of peace, declaring “in regard to the unfortunate war from which we are now suffering, that peace could only be secured by fighting for it […]”

Mary Henry, Daughter of Secretary Henry
Joseph Henry, the Smithsonian Institution’s first Secretary, and his family spent their Christmas out of town. Upon arriving back to Washington and their home in the Smithsonian Institution Building, or “Castle,” Henry’s eldest daughter Mary remarked that they “found the city in a frightful condition,” with streets “dirty and torn up by the army wagons.” But in addition to those unfortunate signs of the war, she also saw pleasant reminders of support for the troops: “almost every other house on Penn. Avenue displays a soldier’s sign.”

Celebrations continued into New Year’s Day, as President Lincoln welcomed government officials, soldiers, and the public into the White HouseExcerpts from Mary Henry's diary, November 11, 1861 to January 1, 1862, Smithsonian Institution Arch for a New Year’s Reception. January 1, 1862, was a beautiful morning, but at the start of the new year there was still anticipation of the suffering of war to come. Mary Henry wrote,  “The sun has risen brightly on the new year. I wish we could think it a good omen but the sky was as free from clouds the day twelve months ago & sad have been the calamities that have visited the nation since then.” At the Castle, as in the rest of DC, the dawn of 1862 brought both happiness and sorrow:  “We have had a pleasant day but greatly missed the old familiar faces now separated from us […] by the insurmountable barrier raised by the cries of war.”

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