Civil War took no holiday

One hundred and fifty years ago, it was Christmas week 1863, the third Christmas of the Civil War. The usual joys of celebration of years gone by were severely quieted by the realities of a war that continued to drag on with no real end in sight.

Although no major engagements occurred this Christmas week, lively skirmishes abounded on every front from Virginia to Indian Territory in today’s Oklahoma to Fort Gaston, Calif.

On Christmas Day, Federal gunboats operated in the Stono River in South Carolina while Confederate field and siege guns severely damaged the U.S.S. Marblehead in the same theatre. The Marblehead received 20 direct hits before withdrawing from battle. But in the process, the Marblehead managed to capture two enemy 8-inch coastal howitzers.

Four of its sailors received the Medal of Honor for valor that day. One, Robert Blake, was a contraband former slave that had enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

Also on Christmas Day, there was fighting at Fort Brooke, Fla., and Federals destroyed a Confederate salt works near Bear Inlet, N.C.

Union Cavalry under Gen. William Averill was in the midst of the West Virginia campaign and reached Beverly, W.Va. Federals skirmished with Indians at Fort Gaston, Calif., and scouted from Vienna to Leesburg, Va., for three days. Confederate shore batteries and the U.S.S. Pawnee dueled at John’s Island near Charleston, S.C.

One Trumbull County unit, the 125th OVI, a.k.a., The Yankee Tigers, endured a particularly uncomfortable Christmas. It had fought with distinction on Nov. 25 at the Battle of Missionary Ridge, the final chapter in the victorious Union Chattanooga campaign.

No sooner had the “smoke of battle” cleared the Chattanooga Valley when the 125th, as part of two divisions under Gen. Gordon Granger, was ordered to make a forced march northward to relieve the besieged troops of Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside at Knoxville, Tenn. After the battle of Chickamauga in September, Gen. James Longstreet, the author of the Confederate victory at that site, had hurried northward to try to capture Burnside’s army at Knoxville.

The 125th’s mission was to get to Knoxville in the shortest possible time. That meant the troops had to travel with the least amount of supplies in spite of the fact that winter was about to set in.

Ralsa C. Rice, the 125th historian, reported, “When within a few miles of Knoxville, we learned that the enemy had raised the siege (after two unsuccessful assaults on the city that Burnside had made impregnable) and decamped, going easterly (to Greenville, Tenn.).

”We hoped and expected that we would now return to our camp at Chattanooga. Winter was at hand. Cold blasts began to be felt and our shelter tents were of little protection in such weather. Again, our shoes were nearly worn out and stockings likewise. … We had been ordered … to leave all surplus baggage in our old camp. Supposing from this that our absence would be but temporary, our overcoats and all extra clothing were left behind.”

The 125th was ordered to encamp at a place called Strawberry Plains, a few miles northeast of Knoxville. Here it would spend a dreary Christmas. Rice went on to further describe their plight:

“Camp was pitched with but little to construct a windbreak. Then, too, there were no rations coming. Foraging, living off the land over which the enemy had recently passed, was dull, dry picking. Our foraging expeditions were often compelled to go out a day’s journey before anything edible was found. Hunger and cold do not work well, taken collectively.”

The 125th’s brigade commander, Col. Emerson Opdycke of Warren, on the other hand had a quite a pleasant Christmas Day per his letter of Dec. 27, 1863, to wife Lucy:

“On the 24th, Genl. Cox (Jacob Cox of Warren) came over and asked me to eat Christmas dinner with him. I accepted the invitation gladly; and at 1 p.m. Christmas Day, I sat down with the good general, my old acquaintance Gen. Hascall (Brig. Gen. Milo S. Hascall) and Gen. C’s (Cox’s) staff. We had oyster soup, roast turkey, roast chicken, roast mutton, potatoes, bread hardtack, a kind of field bread, pepper sauce jelly coffee with coffee sugar in it and a pudding. It was excellent! Eaten from white dishes, too.

”The general and his staff mess together and I was much pleased to see them feel as if they all belonged to the same family and the general the rightful head of it. One thing I especially noticed the emulation the staff seems to have for Gen. C’s temperance habits. No liquors of any kind to be seen about Corps Hd Qurs (headquarters). This is probably without parallel in the armies of the United States; an example of which if it had been followed by all from the beginning of the war, would have saved thousands of valuable lives and would in all probability have given us a just peace before now.”

In spite of Opdycke’s lament, the control of alcohol consumption during the Civil War was a constant and practically insoluble problem, given that alcohol was a pervasive part of U.S. culture.

Compiled by members of the CW150 Committee of Warren’s Sutliff Museum.