Friday, December 20, 2013

A Civil War "Merry Christmas" Soldier's Letter from City Point Hospital, Virginia 1864

How do you bring a "Merry Christmas" to wounded soldiers convalescing in a hospital far from home?
Here is a letter from an unknown Union soldier sharing with his family his love for them back at home and also sharing how the U. S. Christian Commission delegates were doing all they could to encourage him and his comrades in City Point Hospital, Virginia during the winter of 1864.
[I've kept much of his creative spelling, but added some punctuation]

Dec. the 24th, 1864
Dear brother and sister I sit dow[n] to write a little again to you hoping [to] find you well.  I feel better this morning tho weak yet able to walk about to the Commission and meeting, there is a good meny soldiers converted here, the delegates of the christian Commission visit the hospittal and give a shirts, drawers, stockings, mittens, paper in [en]velopes and books in bundance, they are b[u]ilding a large house for a meeting house they intend to hold meeting in it Christmas wich is to marrow I shall try to go.  Well I must stop for it is most noon and here we have to go now to the eating room wich is about 2.00 [2 hundred] feet long with three tables, they say 7.00 hundred can eat to once, we have to stand up and take what it lad on our plates.
Sunday morning the 25th  well I did not get time to write till now so I wish you all a merry Christmas, this is a plesent frosty morning but no snow, I fell no the gane [gain?] yet rather week, I was to meeting last night and heard brother Marsh preach a good surmon today, I shall try to go to the new church at 10 oclock so I must write quick.
Edmund I think if my eyes was good I could lern to write yet but sum times they get so dim I have to do it almost by ges [guess] but I am thankful that I can do as well as I do.  I think I emprove sum well.  Edmund we have incourigeing nuse [encouraging news] yesterday from Shermon and Tommus [Thomas], if it is true and the nuse [news] came here last night and was cheared that the rebs had sent three congress men to Washington to make peice [peace], but the most of us dont believe it, it is also sid [said] that Jef Davis is dead.  Write and tell me sum of the tru nuse [news] you get. well  it is most meetin time, Edmund if this reached you before your box is sent I thought if you could send a pice of chees [piece of cheese] it is vry tasty to me.  I have bought sum at 50 cents a pound.  I have recived no pay for my service yet, but I hav a little mony yet, but you now [know] I do not buy all I see, sum have spent over a 1.00 [hundred] dollers once we came and now wen they have no money they find falt with there living. well direct [to the] U S Christian Commission, City Point Va.  I will send a book or two more for Christmas tho it is late the reading is just as good.  So good by for the present.  I forgot to say direct in care of J Marsh.

    Here is testimony from an anonymous soldier of how the US Christian Commission delegates were helping him to experience a Merry Christmas far away from home.  They gave practical gifts like clothing and books, they gave spiritual encouragement through the meetings and church services offered, and they offered the practical encouragement of helping these soldiers stay connected with family back home through the stationery and envelopes like this one the soldier used to write home on.  Because of the delegates' sacrificial giving of themselves and their resources, soldiers like this one saw the love of Christ in tangible ways that pleasantly frosty Christmas in 1864.  The Christian Commission did not predicate help on confirming if the soldier was a "Christian in good standing" before any assistance would be given.  No, they gave to all in need whatever gifts they had to share as they pointed those who would listen to the Savior Who is the "Reason for the Season".

Do not overlook the Letter Head details:
 United States Christian Commission.
Individual Relief Department.
The United States Christian Commission seeks to afford a sure and effective medium of communications between the wounded or sick soldier -- whether in the Camp or in Field or General Hospitals -- and his home friends.  This is done by furnishing facilities for writing and by writing for those who are not themselves able.  Soldiers, for who special inquiries are made of us, will be sought out, if possible, and relieved, and their condition made known to those asking.  All letters of this character should give the Corps, Division, Regiment, Company and Rank of the soldier, as also the Hospital in which he is supposed to be.  Also the name and post office address, in full, of the person desiring information.  Address, United States Christian Commission, 500 H Street, Washington, D.C.

    I initially bought the above letter years ago so I could make up a reproduction of the USCC letter head.  The seller warned me that it wasn't a highly valuable letter since the soldier couldn't be traced out and it didn't have much battle content [but he still expected a good price on it].  I smiled and bought it anyway after a quick read, and have not regretted the money invested.  Its a revealing description of the delegates activities to help the recovering soldiers, along with additional insights into some of the tensions and hopes the wounded men faced that Christmas.  While the Christian Commission could not meet every need of the recovering soldiers as evidenced by this soldier's hope that a personal care package might come from his family, the delegate's involvement clearly said "you are not forgotten" by people back home.
    Additionally beyond this one soldier's testimony of how he was personally helped, the Letter Head demonstrates the USCC delegates also tried to do what they could to help the families far from the battlefield.  In a situation when communications was sporadic and slow, the USCC tried to help bring whatever comfort of knowledge could be found to families living in uncertainty about their beloved soldier's fate.  To me, this gives great insight into how seriously the delegates took their mission of being God's hands, feet & voice in that sad time for our nation.
    Vicki & I and our kids have considered it a privilege for the past 20+yrs to help reenactors and spectators alike better understand the gracious love those Civil War USCC delegates showered on men in need like this unknown soldier at City Point Hospital in that winter of 1864.
     It is our wish that you, dear reader, might have a Merry Christmas!  May you look beyond the "shirts, drawers, stockings, mittens, paper in [en]velopes and books in bundance" that our present day culture seems preoccupied with gathering and see Jesus Who is the reason for the season.  To all of our fellow reenactors remember, if you see us in the encampment, you are always welcome at our USCC tent: "God's love is free and so it this food, come on in soldier."

    Your comments and insights on this letter and my post are most welcome.

Friday, December 13, 2013

"Airmail" in the Civil War -- Creative communications between North & South

    When the Civil War disrupted communications between North and South, people got creative.  The Washington "Republican" gives the following account of people in lower Maryland communicating with friends in Virginia across the Potomac:

Civil War Maryland Patriotic Cover
    "A large kite is made, covered with oiled silk to render it impervious to sea water.  Folded letters and newspapers are tied in loops along the tail.  When the tail is as heavy as can conveniently be carried aloft, a cord long enough to reach two-thirds of the way across the river is attached, and the kite is flown.  After the kite had exhausted the string, the cord is cut and the kite is allowed to be borne by the wind the remainder of the distance, and descends on the Virginia shore, where people are waiting for the load.  With the first favorable wind, back comes the kite to Maryland."  (quoted in Civil War Times Illustrated, May 1964 p.37)

    Wouldn't this type of kite mail delivery would make an interesting living history reenactment!?!
Civil War Virginia Patriotic Cover
    The above quote from the Civil War Times is from my printed edition of the Civil War Stationery Journal 2004 1:1 that I used to mail out.  Sorry I don't know where the original CWT magazine so that I could give more details like the date on the original article for your information in this post.  What I do remember is that when I read about the kite mail delivery system, I marveled at the creative determination of people back then to keep in touch with each other.  We should include this attitude of determination to keep in touch with loved ones in our living history presentations about the 1860s people we are portraying to spectators.
    When I'm talking to spectators, especially kids, I emphasize how much the soldiers valued getting letters from home, and how much they enjoyed sharing what was happening to them as they were so far away from home.  I often say something like  "just think, there was no phones or emails or Facebook back then;  it took weeks, even months to hear news from home."  I enjoy watching that concept of 'having to wait to talk to someone far away' percolate down into their understanding.  I often followup by asking how they would feel is they had to leave home and not being able to talk to their parents for a long time.  (Now with teenagers this line of questioning produces a smile of 'wouldn't that be nice'.)
    If we say we do reenacting to help people today learn about the past, then let's find ways to help bridge the gap of understanding the challenges they faced in the 1860s that are foreign to us today.
Civil War Maryland Patriotic Cover