For as long as we have been a country, American fighting men (and now women) have found themselves far from home on Christmas. Please enjoy this piece about Americans serving their country in wartime during the Christmas Holiday.


The War of Independence

Fall, 1777. General George Washington and the ragtag remnants of the Continental Army are camped at the small village of Valley Forge, some 25 miles from British controlled Philidelphia. The rebellion is going badly. The Continental Congress has fled from the city and is in hiding. Washington is reduced to just about 3,000 men facing a British force five times larger. He’s short of everything, food, powder, shot, medicine, blankets. His men are dying of dysentery and the elements. One day, a British loyalist farmer named Henry Potts came upon Washington alone in the woods. Washington was on his knees and praying for God’s intervention and protection for his men. As Potts later remembered it, “We never thought a man could be a soldier and a Christian, but if there is one in the world, it is Washington… We thought it was the cause of God, and America could prevail.”

And prevail she did.


The Civil War

Drawing by Thomas Nast (Wikimedia)

Less than 100 years later, America was being torn apart by a great Civil War which would test whether a “government of the People, by the People and for the People” might endure. The cartoon above was drawn by Thomas Nast in 1863. Nast is widely held by historians to have been the first to depict Santa Claus as we know him today, elderly, jolly, and fat. A white beard, sleeping cap, and suit fringed with white fur. Christmas did not bring any pause to hostilities during the Civil War. Skirmishes and captured blockade runners featured on Christmas Day in 1861. Confederate John Morgan raided Kentucky on Christmas Day, 1862. December 25, 1863, marked the day Union troops destroyed a large Confederate salt works in North Carolina, while the Union Navy had artillery duels with Southern garrisons near Charleston. Christmas Day, 1864 saw the Confederates maul and repel a Union assault of some 60 vessels attacking Fort Fisher in NC.

Soldiers on both sides, not actively campaigning, used hardtack and salt pork to decorate Christmas trees, and received special meals of turkey, oysters, and apple pies. Yet, some units were not allowed to celebrate Christmas at all. For the children of these American soldiers fighting brother against brother, privation meant a Christmas with very few presents. Some children in the South took to drawing maps for Santa on how to avoid the Union blockade and find their home.