Thursday, December 19, 2013

Christmas! A greased pig, a sack race, oysters for supper

Col. Edward E. Cross
The men of the 5th New Hampshire Volunteers were feeling pretty good about themselves in the days leading up to Christmas of 1861. They were settling in to their encampment on a hill near Alexandria, Va.

It was known as Camp California in honor of Gen. Bull Sumner, their division commander, who had come east from the Department of the Pacific to take command.. His division also included the Irish Brigade. In all, more than 10,000 men and officers gathered at Camp California.

By Christmas the 5th New Hampshire had been under arms for more than two months but had yet to see battle. Rations now included fresh bread, and the men were about to build warm, sturdy winter huts. On Christmas Eve, Private Charles N. Scott of Co. G, comprising men from Claremont and nearby towns, captured the regiment’s holiday spirits in a letter home.

“I am as fat as a possom and you would not know me if you saw me,” he wrote. “I think that the war is most done and i don’t think England will turn in and fite against the north, no way nor no shape. This afternoon i have been Chopping and driving two horses, drawing wood for the Cooks to Cook for the Company. Tomorrow is Christmas and we are goin to have a little funn.”

The move to Camp California had forced ol. Edward E. Cross’s to cancel a Thanksgiving celebration for the 5th. On Christmas the colonel decided to let “funn” rule the day.

Mark Travis, my co-author of My Brave Boys, a history of the 5th under Cross, wrote the chapter called “Winter Trials,” which included an account of the Christmas day festivities. Here it is:

James E. Larkin
“Drill was canceled on 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 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 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 Private 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 would like to be with you tonight,’ Lieutenant 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 song would be dated to this Christmas Day, twenty verses long and sung to the tune of ‘Camptown Races.’ One verse went like this:

Maj. William W. Cook
“Our colonel he’s a perfect brick, do da, do da,
And with him the boys are bound to stick, do da, do da day
Our major, too, his name is Cook, do da, do da.
Is a first rate man with an ugly look, do da, do 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.”

At Camp California Cross drilled and marched his men and imbued them with discipline and toughness, but the serious work of war was still remote on that happy, if strenuous, Christmas. One measure of the hard fighting the 5th would face beginning in 1862 is this brief recap of the careers of the men mentioned in this blogpost [ages given are from the fall of 1861, when the men signed up]:

Charles N. Scott, 25, was killed at Fair Oaks, the 5th’s first battle, on June 1, 1862.

William Moore, 20, of Littleton, N.H., was promoted to captain in November of 1862. He was killed at Fredericksburg on Dec. 13, 1862.

John McCrillis, 28, of Meredith, was wounded at Fredericksburg, wounded again at Chancellorsville and wounded severely at Ream’s Station. He made captain and survived to leave the army disabled in May of 1865.

Pat Rowan, or Rowen, 40, of Gilford, N.H., a native of Ireland, was wounded at Fair Oaks and never returned to arms.

James E. Larkin, 29, of Concord, eventually made lieutenant colonel and briefly commanded the regiment. But service took a huge toll on his health.

Col. Cross, 29, of Lancaster, was wounded at Fair Oaks, Antietam (slightly) and Fredericksburg and killed at Gettysburg.

William W. Cook, the major, was wounded at Fair Oaks and had to leave the regiment. 

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