Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Christmas to remember

Good news sometimes arrives during the holiday season in Our War: homecoming for a soldier blinded in battle and imprisoned at Andersonville, the return of a prisoner of war who walked hundreds of miles through enemy territory, kisses and sweet nothings (at last!) for a couple who had fallen in love by mail.

Col. Edward E. Cross
But my favorite story about Christmas during the war involves a party in the camp of the Fifth New Hampshire regiment in 1861. The Fifth had yet to fight a battle and was living in an already desolate patch near Alexandria, Va., known as Camp California. The timing of the move there had spoiled the men’s plans to celebrate Thanksgiving, but for Christmas their colonel, Edward E. Cross, renewed and enhanced the celebration plans.

Mark Travis, my co-author of My Brave Boys, wrote the scene. He is more recently the author of Pliney Fiske, a novel based on the Fifth’s experiences. Here is the way he described the 1861 Christmas festivities in his “Winter’s trials” chapter of My Brave Boys:

Drill was canceled for Christmas Day, and Cross ordered athletic entertainment in its place. It was the regiment’s first day off duty since gathering in Concord. At ten o’clock, there was a five-hundred-yard footrace, with a first prize of four dollars and a second of two. A wrestling match followed, with prizes of its own. Dinner was oysters and bread, followed by a visit from the Fourth Rhode Island, which produced a contest, too. “The R.I. Regiment gave us a treat of fun in the shape of a ‘Race in a Bag,’ ” Lieutenant [William] Moore wrote his father. “Five men from each wing of their Regiment were placed in a large bag which was made fast around their necks. – Taking their places in line, they started for the goal. Some went to the ground, ‘heels over head,’ to the amusement of all present. Only two reached the goal and were declared worthy of prizes.”

At three o’clock, the Fifth formed for the day’s main event: the chase for a greased pig, provided by the colonel himself. “We formed in a square,” wrote Sergeant John McCrillis, “and poor piggy was let loose. After a few minutes he was seized by Pat Rowan, but escaped. Soon he was seized and carried away by a member of Company I.” A jumping contest concluded the day.

It was difficult to be so far from home on a holiday – “Oh, how I should like to be with you tonight,” Lieutenant [James] Larkin wrote his wife Jenny – but this was a Christmas that drew the Fifth together. Moore approved because the men never got out of hand. “There were no drunken broils or fights so common among a large concourse of men,” he wrote home. The regiment’s camp song would be dated to this Christmas Day, twenty verses long and sung to the tune of “Camptown Races.” One verse went like this:

Our Colonel, he’s a perfect brick, du da, du da,
And with him the boys are bound to stick, du da du da day
Our major, too, his name is Cook, du da, du da,
Is a first rate man with an ugly look, du da du da day.

We’re bound to march all night,
We’re bound to march all day,
We’re the boys from the Granite State,
Some hundred miles away.


  1. I like the chorus to the song, but the verses need some work.
    Were there teams of five in the bag? Or was it five individuals in five different bags? I wouldn't be so fond of having a bag tied around my neck...

  2. The way Moore described it, it is a bit ambiguous whether the contestants from the Rhode Island regiment were in two bags or ten (two teams of five). My interpretation, especially with the bag being tied around the neck and some men falling "heels over head," is that each man was put in a bag. If not, you're talking about some mighty big bags.