Wishing you a “Merry Christmas” from a “one-horse town”

 

Union soldiers greet Santa Claus as he visits an infantry camp on Christmas Day. Santa has been busy dispensing to individual soldiers wooden boxes containing socks and other items of clothing. (Library of Congress)

Union soldiers greet Santa Claus as he visits an infantry camp on Christmas Day. Santa has been busy dispensing to individual soldiers wooden boxes containing socks and other items of clothing. (Library of Congress)

Burping politely into his fisted hand, a well-fed 25th Maine Infantry soldier extended a heart-felt “Merry Christmas” to Portland Daily Press readers on Christmas Day, 1862.

He had much for which to be thankful, especially the fact that he was not lying in a grave 50 miles south at Fredericksburg, where many other Maine boys had died on December 13.

The 25th Maine was a so-called “nine month” regiment, among many formed in the loyal states during autumn 1862. Given the carnage of Shiloh, the Peninsula Campaign, Second Manassas, and Antietam, recruiting efforts had slowed in the North; figuring that men reluctant to enlist for “three years or the duration” might join up for nine months, the Lincoln Administration authorized the creation of some nine-month regiments.

Mustering at Portland on September 29, the 25th Maine Infantry headed to Washington, D.C. under the command of Col. Francis Fessenden, the brother of Maine Sen. William P. Fessenden. The regiment helped guard the capital, as the letter writer identified only as “Jacksonian” revealed.

And on Thursday, December 25, this particular Maine elf clad in Union blue was safe from all harm.

“Dear Press,” he began his holiday letter at Camp “Tom Casey” in Arlington, Va. The 25th Maine had arrived in this camp “gracing the southwestern slope of Arlington Heights” two months earlier.

While other Maine regiments tramped to Fredericksburg, the 25th Maine boys had been busy with military matters. To whip their inexperienced men into shape, the officers had them march to and fro with heavily loaded knapsacks; no out-of-shape warriors would hinder the regiment’s departure to “some other less attractive field of operations, Jacksonian explained.

In preparation for winter, the Maine lads had constructed log cabins probably roofed with shelter tents. Men sealed the cracks between the logs with mud, and “to add still more to the neatness of the outward portions (walls) of the cabins, they are being covered with a solution of lime and water,” noted Jacksonian. This was done to prevent “the acclimation of vermin said to be abundant in the camps of our enemies.”

And while the enlisted men whitewashed their rude cabins, some officers were resigning due to a “self-imposed incompetency or other reasons best known to themselves,” Jacksonian told the Daily Press readers.

He identified two lieutenants and a captain who already vanished from camp and a third lieutenant with one foot out the front gate. Fortunately, talented second lieutenants and an experienced sergeant major had stepped up to the plate to lead the four companies affected by the resignations.

In 1861, Matthew Brady photographed the soldiers of the 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery Regiment inside Fort Richardson in Arlington, Va. The 25th Maine Infantry arrived in that "one-horse town" in October 1862 and helped protect the approaches to Washington, D.C. (Library of Congress)

In 1861, Matthew Brady photographed the soldiers of the 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery Regiment inside Fort Richardson in Arlington, Va. The 25th Maine Infantry arrived in that “one-horse town” in October 1862 and helped protect the approaches to Washington, D.C. (Library of Congress)

“Christmas has at last arrived,” he noted. “Very many members of the different companies were forewarned of its coming by the arrival of a well packed box of edibles from some relative” of a soldier.

Families often stuffed wooden boxes with almost every imaginable item that a soldier could use — and food was always in high demand. When he received such a care package, a solider would likely share its contents with his immediate comrades; sometimes his circle of acquaintances grew rapidly, depending on the box’s contents.

The 25th Maine boys receiving care packages by the 25th shared some goodies, and Jacksonian apparently ate well that Thursday. Other Maine men were “destined to content themselves with [a Christmas dinner consisting of] nothing but an every day ration of beef and bread, washed down by a dipper of coffee or water.”

So after chow, the 25th Maine boys brushed their uniforms and polished their brogans. Although today was Christmas, Fessenden wanted his men looking sharp for a regimental review. “Every garment is brushed, every boot is polished, and a finer set of men it is hard to find, especially those in appearance more neat,” Jacksonian wrote.

Fifty miles away, the battle-tested men of other Maine infantry regiments struggled to keep warm in the army camps surrounding Falmouth, located slightly upriver from Fredericksburg. Clad in worn uniforms and scuffed brogans, these warriors would have traded places with Jacksonian and his comrades in a heartbeat.

Another 25th Maine correspondent wrote the Daily Press from Camp Tom Casey on December 28. “This [letter] leaves the 25th [Maine] in the same old ‘one-horse town’ of Arlington, doing the same daily routine of duties as heretofore,—marching through turnpike road to Long Bridge, and back through turnpike road to camp,” penned a soldier known only as “A.”

Fessenden had just been promoted to “Acting Brigadier General,” the 25th was now “the nucleus of a new brigade,” and the regiment was “daily subjected to ‘knapsack drill,’ that the men may acquire the strength necessary to ‘tote’ their packs upon a march,” A spread the latest gossip and news.

One vacant second lieutenant’s slot had been filled with the promotion of Sgt. Maj. G.O. Goss of Portland. He “is peculiarly and naturally a soldier; cool, deliberate and unimpassioned; he certainly possesses every qualification to lead and to control men.”

The chaplain was doing a good job, especially in ministering to the Maine lads felled by colds and other respiratory ailments. By the way, “the weather for the past week has been of a cheerful spring-like nature, revivifying to all, in fact too warm.

“Think of that, ye shivering souls of Maine,” A commented. “Why, our boys would like to experience a touch below zero, if only to make their blankets feel warm.

“Wishing you, gentlemen, and your host of readers, a ‘Happy New Year,’ A signed off.

These letters appeared respectively in the Portland Daily Press on Friday, Jan. 2, 1863 and Saturday, Jan. 3, 1863.

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.