Civil War Christmas

Among the sacrifices made by Union troops during the Civil War, battle casualties rank highest. But being away from home and family in wartime conditions, especially during holidays, was also difficult for soldiers in the relatively young army — among them my ancestor Pvt. Arthur Bull of 6th New York Heavy Artillery Co. L.

Soldier's Rest, Alexandria, Va. (1864). My ancestor's 6th NYHA regiment spent a cold Christmas here in 1865 after their transport ship was frozen in at Alexandria harbor. Image: Library of Congress.
Soldier’s Rest, Alexandria, Va. (1864). My ancestor’s 6th NYHA regiment spent Christmas here in 1865 after their transport ship was frozen in at Alexandria harbor. Image: Library of Congress.

In late December 1864 — after traveling overnight in cold and snow on open rail cars from the Shenandoah Valley to Washington, D.C. — my great, great grandfather’s regiment boarded a steamer en route south to the front.

On 23 Dec. 1864 in Washington, D.C., Pvt. Orson L. Reynolds, of 6th NYHA Co. M, wrote to his wife about what happened next.

Well, yesterday morning we were crowded onto an open boat where not more than half could get under shelter…

[We] started for Petersburg or some southern port, but, on getting started, our boat ran into the ice and we could go no further. Consequently, we had to remain on the boat last night and were frozen in solid this morning so that we marched to the shore on the ice and back to this place….

We are now quartered in a building without any fire and the weather is cold, so cold that I can hardly write.

Sgt. William Thistleton, of 6th NYHA Co. I, wrote a more detailed account of the same events in his journal.

Dec. 22nd arrived in Washington 8 a.m. and marched to the foot of 6th Street and went on board the steamship George Weems. were detained at the wharf some three hours by the ice. At 1 p.m. swung around and got slowly away from our moorings and started for Alexandria…

[W]hen we had work (sic) our way through the accumulating ice about four miles we were forced to recognize the unpleasant reality that we were frozen up could go neither forward or return and around us were some twenty vessels in the same predicament

[I]t was a very cold night and the men on the upper deck suffered horrible more men were frostbitten how we were worried through that awful night is difficulty (sic) to imagine. 1100 men on a small steamer boat frozen up on the Potomac on a mid winter night with no fire and no room to walk about to keep up the circulation….Our suffering were (sic) intolerable.

Reading these accounts, I thought about my ancestor’s health. Arthur told pension  doctors he fell ill again around 10 Nov. 1864, but he was still “present” on company rolls when these events transpired. Again, from Sgt. Thiltleton’s journal:

Dec. 23rd Left the boat this morning about 7 o’clock crossed the ice to the shore formed a line and marched back to Washington. halted at the Soldier’s Rest and found the rest of the division there. men put into the barracks and remained there until the 26th inst. it was very cold

[S]pent our Christmas day very miserable, pork soft bread and coffee for dinner.

Whether Arthur traveled with his regiment, or was transported separately with other ill soldiers, he shared the sacrifices they all made 150 years ago — soldiering on through snow, ice and holidays far from home in the fight to end slavery and preserve the union.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.


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