Happy Holidays in Civil War St Louis

“Happy” Holidays in Civil War St. Louis

by D. H. Rule

If it hasn’t been terribly clear from the other pages on this website so far, your webmasters–Deb & Geo Rule–are extremely fond of the strange, and sometimes bitter, historical ironies that are threaded throughout the history of the Civil War in St. Louis, such as the fervent abolitionists who joined the Confederacy, and the powerful Unionists who were adamant slaveowners, and so on.

Here, then, are accounts of Christmas and Thanksgiving holidays in a city at war reflecting that sense of irony… May your own holidays be happier!

Thanksgiving, 1861:On Thanksgiving Day of 1861, a secession family, living next door to me, determined to cheer some of their disloyal friends shut up in the Gratiot Street prison, by setting before them an abundant and delicious dinner. Their neighbors of like political views threw themselves with ardor into the scheme. Early in the day baskets full of appetizing food were brought from every direction, until these parcels, piled one upon another, quite covered the floor of their front hall. Then a covered wagon appeared at the door. Into it all these tempting viands were hastily packed and harried to the military prison. Those in charge of them asked the officer of the day, if they could give the prisoners a Thanksgiving dinner. He assured them that it would give him great pleasure to receive the food that had been so thoughtfully and kindly provided, but since it was contrary to orders to allow any outsiders to enter the prison, he would himself distribute the contents of the baskets and be careful that the most needy should not be overlooked. Two Iowa regiments that had just arrived had been sent down to Gratiot Street to do guard duty. They were weary, cold and hungry. The officer who had received the food, sent by devoted secession women, deeming these newly arrived soldiers to be the most needy, gave to them the roast turkey, fried chicken, mince pies, cranberry sauce, roast pig and apple sauce, and kept the disloyal within the prison walls on wholesome, but coarser, diet. While that commanding officer told no explicit lie, the ethics of his act will hardly bear very close inspection. He may have justified his deception by the fact that we were in a state of war, and have erroneously thought that war excuses “a multitude of sins.”

from “The Story of a Border City During the Civil War,” by Galusha Anderson1908

(available on Missouri Civil War Reader Vol. 1)

Christmas 1861:

DECEMBER, 25, 1861.—To-day is what we used to call Christmas at home, sweet home, where my wife and baby are. “Do they miss me at home, do they miss me?” God bless them and give them “Merry Christmas.” They little imagine how we pass our holiday Christmas!

Capt. Griffin Frost

Christmas 1863:

Another week of prison life, has dragged its long length slowly by, taking a joyous Christmas in its train. Tuesday was a day of perfect stagnation. The Feds thought of no new method of cmelty, and we submitted to all the plans in operation. Old Gratiot was like a ship becalmed in Southern seas. Wednesday a little breeze sprung up on the admission of a citizen prisoner, a Mr. O’Neal, from Herman, Gasconade county, arrested for speaking disloyally. He seems somewhat uneasy, and well he may if there is any prospect of his being shipped east. We see in an old copy of the Columbus Crisis, which an underground accident threw in our way, that political prisoners at Camp Chase fare even worse than prisoners of war do here. The following is the article in full, which we copy for future reference—it bears date December 24, 1862.

“We speak wholly of the political prison, of the State, as we know nothing whatever of what occurs in the prison where “rebels taken in arms” are kept—that is, “the prisoner of war.”…

Friday was Christmas day—I cannot speak for those jamming and crowding around in their rags in the lower quarters, nor for those in the lock-ups whose heavy balls and chains are eating into their ankles, while the still more deadly iron of despair is cankering in their souls, their Christmas enjoyments are best known to themselves, but as a specimen from our quarters, decidedly the best in Gratiot, I will chronicle the events of my holiday operations, commencing at six o’clock in the morning, when I arose and answered to roll call, then breakfast—pickled pork, bread and coffee; went out in the hall and peeped from the window awhile, then went back to our room and warmed, from thence to the window again—in and warmed, and out again; this time saw some Feds starting off; also saw several lady friends; went in again and watched the boys play cards, which is the only amusement they have; got tired of that and returned to the window; stood there and wished for the privilege of being out where I could enjoy myself with my friends, but wishing was all I could do, so I yawned and sighed and went into the pickled pork dinner. Frank Noel declared he would not insult his stomach with the cod livery stuff, and so confined himself to a limited supply of baker’s bread and coffee. Frank has not been here long—he will come to it yet—he ought to sojourn in the lower quarters, if he wants the kinks taken out of his stomach, there is not much turning up of noses down there I guess, no matter what is set before them. After dinner a fellow prisoner sent me a pear, I don’t know how he obtained it, but I regarded it as a most acceptable Christmas gift, appreciating it for its own intrinsic sweetness, as well as the generous refinement which actuated the donor. Fine fruits are not so plentiful in Gratiot as to be given away without self sacrifice. We did not tarry unusually long at the festal board, but sought the more inviting precincts of the hall window; saw some ladies pass—did not “throw kisses or wave my handkerchief,” but I thought “as long as I have the spirit of a man I will peep.” I won’t say the ladies didn’t peep some too. They looked at our gloomy walls as though they would like to have Aladdin’s Lamp, and make the Genii spirit us off, prison and all, into some far country where they could have opened our doors, and feasted us in the most royal manner, but their wishes were no more effectual than mine. I gazed for awhile longer at the paving stones, imagined they had a hard hearted appearance, lying there watching us; went back to my room, picked up the romance of “Zaidee,” read an hour or two, and—went back to the window for a last look, stood some ten or fifteen minutes, saw nothing of interest and left; went to the lamp room, brought up our lamp, pulled out the table, and played cards till time to go to bed, and thus ended Christmas day 1863, in the officer’s quarters, Gratiot street Military Prison, St. Louis, Mo. Not much after the style in vogue in the palmy days of old Dr. McDowell and his Medical College. Wonder how that gentleman would feel to walk around his premises and take a view of the students now gathered in the institution together with the faculty presiding over the establishment. His remarks on such an occasion would be rich beyond a doubt. More than one Yank would burn beneath the touch of his caustic wit.—Christmas day passed off dull enough, and we stole to our beds as quietly as chained dogs to their kennels. Slept till midnight, when a militia horse thief from the lower quarters, came running up and informed the prison officers that the lock-up prisoners were about to make their escape. Of course the whole gang were out in a minute, they went down and discovered that a hole had been cut through the floor of Clifford’s and Carlin’s room, through which they proposed to let themselves down by blankets, when they would be joined by a lot from the lower quarters, and all make a rush on the guards and as many escape as possible. It would have been a perfect success if it had not been for the coward who reported. The next day Clifford was thrown into a solitary dungeon, the darkest pit in the prison; and Carlin, Sebring and one other, were taken down into the yard, and hand-cuffed and chained to a post—after they had stood there for several hours, a second squad was brought down and chained to another post, where they could be seen from a Southern residence across the street. They were kept there until late at night, although the weather was extremely cold; they stamped, shouted, and sung to keep from freezing; we could hear them after we went to bed, thumping the pavement, and singing “Hard times.” The same thing was repeated yesterday and to-day, except Carlin had a post to himself, and the weather much colder; we find it difficult to keep comfortable by the fire, and yet we hear “Hard times come again no more” pealing out on the frozen air. They unchain them and take them in to eat their meals. While passing near the kitchen one of them struck an old fellow over the head and “made the blood flow” pretty freely, it was the father of the horse thief who reported on them, and said to be the cause of his son’s doing so. Desperate measures will cook desperation. I guess they would have killed the old sinner if they could. While they are chained at the post, old Masterson goes out and stands and scolds as long as he can endure the cold, then he comes in and takes an easy chair, smacks his lips, and admires his own bravery; chuckling over the big things he said to them. Had another letter from John, and one from home, the latter reads:

“I have a bid to a Christmas dinner, but do not expect to go, for I could not enjoy myself and you in prison. All the pleasure I expect to see is when Annie gets her doll, which I have been dressing to-day. Dear little creature, she is more company for me than all the rest. She talks a great deal about “Old Kris,” and what she expects him to bring her. I would like to send you a turkey, but know it would be useless.”

Capt. Griffin Frost, 1863

Christmas 1863:About two P.M.. on Christmas eve, 1863, as I was going down an outside stairway to get water from the hydrant, a prisoner (whom I knew) was standing at a window that opened on the stairway. He handed me a note which said: ‘Ten of its have procured an ax and some other useful tools and Dave planned to break out tonight; if your men in Room No. 3 can manage to get down in lower room by ten o’clock we will have our plans in operation and you can join us.’ I read the note to the boys in my room, No. 3, and we decided we would join them; it would be a little relief from the monotony and give us some exercise whether we succeeded in escaping or not.

Our large coal heating stove stood in one corner of our three-cornered room. The weather was quite warm but we built up a good fire in order to heat the two pokers we had red-hot. With these I burned a succession of holes in a circle, in this way removing a round block from the floor about fourteen inches in diameter. This hole was complete by ten o’clock. We then looked down into the lower room–where there were more than fifty prisoners–and right under the hole stood four guards waiting for us. They said: ‘Hello, boys, how are you?’ Come on down–we will help you !’ ‘Well, I guess not, we will put our trip off until later.’ After guying each other a while we stuck the block back in the hole and in a jolly manner discussed the episode. While I was burning the holes in the floor my six room-mates pulled our long pine table in a position that hid me from the guard who paced the hall past our grated window. The boys made all the noise they could with a game of cards. There was no investigation made of us or our room that night; not a word said by the officials. Next morning as soon as we had breakfast and cleaned up our room Sergt. Mike Welch said: ‘Gentlemen I have a little treat in store for you so get your hats and come with me.’ He took us down to the yard and to the porch of the old McDowell dwelling house and handcuffed three and three of us around the two posts. As Sam Clifford was the seventh man and there was no room at the posts for him he was placed in a dungeon at the south end of the house.

Next day the stunt was rehearsed; by the third morning a proposition was produced by old Mike that all who would promise not to try to escape would be permitted to remain in our room. Four of the boys gave the required promise. Sebring, Clifford and myself refused to accept any such terms and so we were reinstated. Clifford was put into the dungeon, Sebring and myself handcuffed around the post daily and we enjoyed the company and the hospitality of the Confederate officers.

Maj. Absalom Grimes, memoirs, 1911

Christmas 1861:The Medical College and the Collegians,–Active preparations are being made for the accommodation of the prisoners confined in McDowell’s College. The institution is in charge of Lient. Batterworth, and under his supervision cooking ranges and sleeping bunks are being constructed, and everything will soon be properly systemized. Until then, it will be impossible to obtain the names of the prisoners. The officers will be assigned separate apartments from the men. The building is capable of accommodating two thousand men. The room which was formerly used dissecting purposes is used as a dining room”

St. Louis Democrat, Dec. 27, 1861

Christmas 1861:Office of the Provost-Marshal General

of the Department of the Missouri

St. Louis, Mo., Dec. 20, 1861

You are herby notified that, pursuant to General Orders No. 23, from the headquarters of the Department of the Missouri, directing a levy upon the friends of the enemy for charitable purposes, you have been assessed the sum of ___ hundred dollars as your contribution in aid of the suffering families driven by the rebels from Southwestern Missouri.

You will, therefore, pay the amount so assessed, or its equivalent in clothing, provisions, or quarters, to me within five days after the service of this notice upon you, or, in default thereof, execution will be issued against your property for sufficient to satisfy the assessments, costs, and twenty-five percent penalty in addition. Should you elect to pay your assessment in clothing, provisions, or quarters, you will give notice of such intention to this office, accompanying the same with an inventory and description of the articles, or of the situation and value of the quarters tendered, which will be accepted the same with an inventory and description of the articles, or of the situation and value of the quarters tendered, which will be accepted, subject to an appraisement of the same by me.

Bernard G. Farrar, Provost-Marshal-General

(affidavits of loyalty were due to be filed on or before December 26, 1861)

Throughout December they poured in on the afflicted city, already overtaxed. All the way to Springfield the road was lined with remains of articles once dear —a child’s doll, a little rocking chair, a colored print that had hung in the best room, a Bible text.

Anne Brinsmade, driven by Nicodemus, went from house to house to solicit old clothes, and take them to the crowded place of detention. Christmas was drawing near —a sorry Christmas, in truth. And many of the wanderers were unclothed and unfed.

More battles had been fought; factions had arisen among Union men. Another general had come to St. Louis to take charge of the Department, and the other with his wondrous body guard was gone.

The most serious problem confronting the new general was —how to care for the refugees. A council of citizens was called at headquarters, and the verdict went forth in the never to be forgotten Orders No. 24. “Inasmuch,” said the General, “as the Secession army had driven these people from their homes, Secession sympathizers should be made to support them.” He added that the city was unquestionably full of these. Indignation was rife the day that order was published. Sixty prominent “disloyalists” were to be chosen and assessed to make up a sum of ten thousand dollars.

“They may sell my house over my head before I will pay a cent,” cried Mr. Russell. And he meant it. This was the way the others felt. Who were to be on this mysterious list of “Sixty”? That was the all absorbing question of the town. It was an easy matter to pick the conspicuous ones. Colonel Carvel was sure to be there, and Mr. Catherwood and Mr. Russell and Mr. James, and Mr. Worington the lawyer. Mrs. Addison Colfax lived for days in a fermented state of excitement which she declared would break her down; and which, despite her many cares and worries, gave her niece not a little amusement. For Virginia was human, and one morning she went to her aunt’s room to read this editorial from the newspaper:

“For the relief of many palpitating hearts it may be well to state that we understand only two ladies are on the ten thousand dollar list.”

“Jinny,” she cried, “how can you be so cruel as to read me that, when you know that I am in a state of frenzy now? How does that relieve me? It makes it an absolute certainty that Madame Jules and I will have to pay. We are the only women of importance in the city.” That afternoon she made good her much uttered threat, and drove to Bellegarde. Only the Colonel and Virginia and Mammy Easter and Ned were left in the big house. Rosetta and Uncle Ben and Jackson had been hired out, and the horses sold —all save old Dick, who was running, long haired, in the fields at Glencoe.

Christmas eve was a steel gray day, and the sleet froze as it fell. Since morning Colonel Carvel had sat poking the sitting room fire, or pacing the floor restlessly. His occupation was gone. He was observed night and day by Federal detectives. Virginia strove to arouse him, to conceal her anxiety as she watched him. Well she knew that but for her he would long since have fled southward, and often in the bitterness of the night time she blamed herself for not telling him to go. Ten years had seemed to pass over him since the war had begun.

All day long she had been striving to put away from her the memory of Christmas eves past and gone; of her father’s early home coming from the store, a mysterious smile on his face; of Captain Lige stamping noisily into the house, exchanging uproarious jests with Ned and Jackson. The Captain had always carried under his arm a shapeless bundle which he would confide to Ned with a knowing wink. And then the house would be lighted from top to bottom, and Mr. Russell and Mr. Catherwood and Mr. Brinsmade came in for a long evening with Mr. Carvel over great bowls of apple toddy and eggnog. And Virginia would have her own friends in the big parlor. That parlor was shut up now, and icy cold.

Then there was Judge Whipple, the joyous event of whose year was his Christmas dinner at Colonel Carvel’s house. Virginia pictured him this year at Mrs. Brice’s little table, and wondered whether he would miss them as much as they missed him. War may break friendships, but it cannot take away the sacredness of memories.

The somber daylight was drawing to an early close as the two stood looking out of the sitting room window. A man’s figure muffled in a greatcoat slanting carefully across the street caught their eyes. Virginia started. It was the same United States deputy marshal she had seen the day before at Mr. Russell’s house.

“Pa,” she cried, “do you think he is coming here?”

“I reckon so, honey.”

“The brute! Are you going to pay?”

“No, Jinny.”

“Then they will take away the furniture.”

“I reckon they will.”

“Pa, you must promise me to take down the mahogany bed in your room. It —it was mother’s. I could not bear to see them take that. Let me put it in the garret.”

The Colonel was distressed, but he spoke without a tremor.

“No, Jinny. We must leave this house just as it is.” Then he added, strangely enough for him, “God’s will be done.”

The bell rang sharply. And Ned, who was cook and housemaid, came in with his apron on.

“Does you want to see folks, Marse Comyn?”

The Colonel rose, and went to the door himself. He was an imposing figure as he stood in the windy vestibule, confronting the deputy. Virginia’s first impulse was to shrink under the stairs. Then she came out and stood beside her father.

“Are you Colonel Carvel?”

“I reckon I am. Will you come in?”

The officer took off his cap. He was a young man with a smooth face, and a frank brown eye which paid its tribute to Virginia. He did not appear to relish the duty thrust upon him. He fumbled in his coat and drew from his inner pocket a paper.

“Colonel Carvel,” said he, “by order of Major General Halleck, I serve you with this notice to pay the sum of three hundred and fifty dollars for the benefit of the destitute families which the Rebels have driven from their homes. In default of payment within a reasonable time such personal articles will be seized and sold at public auction as will satisfy the demand against you.”

The Colonel took the paper. “Very well, sir,” he said. “You may tell the General that the articles may be seized. That I will not, while in my right mind, be forced to support persons who have no claim upon me.”

It was said in the tone in which he might have refused an invitation to dinner. The deputy marveled. He had gone into many houses that week; had seen indignation, hysterics, frenzy. He had even heard men and women whose sons and brothers were in the army of secession proclaim their loyalty to the Union. But this dignity, and the quiet scorn of the girl who had stood silent beside them, were new. He bowed, and casting his eyes to the vestibule, was glad to escape from the house.

The Colonel shut the door. Then he turned toward Virginia, thoughtfully pulled his goatee, and laughed gently.

“Lordy, we haven’t got three hundred and fifty dollars to our names,” said he.

fictional account from “The Crisis,” by Winston Churchill, 1901

(available on Missouri Civil War Reader Vol. 1)