“We Were Marching on Christmas Day” History, Food, and Civilian and Soldiers’ Celebrations: A Book Review

By John U. Rees

Published in Food History News, vol. XIII, no. 2 (50), 2, 7.


Several years ago while visiting the U.S.S Constellation in Baltimore, Maryland, I came away with more than I bargained for; browsing in the gift shop I discovered a wonderful work by Kevin Rawlings titled, We Were Marching on Christmas Day: A History and Chronicle of Christmas During the Civil War. I heartily recommend the work to anyone interested in the origin of our American Christmas celebration, the holiday’s historical antecedents, and, of course, Civil War history. And while the work contains something for almost everyone, from my particular point of view it is a treasure trove of information on period holiday and soldiers’ food.

As we all know, whenever human beings have cause for celebration, religious or secular, food plays an inherent part. And, no matter what time of year, food is always uppermost in soldiers’ thoughts. Mr. Rawlings gives us a slice of mid-19th century America, from slaves to soldiers, middle to upper class families, along with the variety of holiday comestibles served in peace and war. Here some chosen excerpts.

Southern slaves could expect a treat at Christmas time, sometimes a special feast. South Carolinian James Henry Hammond noted in his antebellum plantation records, “On that day [Christmas] a barbecue is given, beef or mutton and pork, coffee and bread being bountifully provided.” Another African-American remembered a bright spot in his former slave life, the “jolly Christmas times, dances before old massa’s door for the first drink of egg-nog …”(p. 27) In the Civil War eggnog was a recurrent theme for the holiday season, with Southern civilians and soldiers often lamenting its absence.

Christmastime 1861 was many soldiers’ first Yuletide away from home, and understandably a difficult one. James Williams, on the Alabama coast with the 21st Alabama Regiment, told his wife his desire, and how he and his comrades celebrated the holiday. “A Merry Christmas! I wish my darling! oh! that I had a furlough to share it with you tomorrow we would both get ‘tight’ on egg-nog wouldn’t we?” Williams continued, “Christmas began this morning before daylight … two glasses of eggnog came for each before we were out of bed, which took away our appetites for breakfast.” A raucous parade followed reveille, with soldiers following “the band all through the regiment singing and tin-panning to the tune of ‘Dixie’… I mustn’t close my letter without giving a little description of our Christmas dinner, Bob Weir who presides over the ‘last chance mess’ invited us to dine; and a grand dinner it was I tell you!” He then laid out the “Bill of Fare”

  • Cold Turkey
  • Roast Beef
  • Pigeon Pie
  • Rice
  • Salt
  • Pepper Sauce
  • Jelly Cake
  • Eggs
  • Bread
  • Mince Pie
  • One kind of Cake
  • Pepper
  • Turnips
  • Sugar
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Another Kind of Cake
  • Sugar-Topped Cake
  • Vinegar
  • Mustard
  • Port Wine
  • Sherry Wine

“Every one of the above dishes was there and more than I can eat and remember – then there were toast[s] all around …”(pp. 42-43) There would not be many soldiers’ dinners like it during the three ensuing years, particularly in the south.

Soldiers are resourceful if nothing else, improvising in difficult circumstances; this was especially true at holiday time when memories of home impelled them to mimic home-cooked fare. Kentucky soldier Johnny Green told of the efforts of he and his comrades near Murfeesboro, Tn., for Christmas of 1862.

A supply of liquor had been captured at Hartsville & from this source or some other those who wanted whiskey had it & some of the boys were good naturedly full I regret to say. I had gone to some farm houses … & bought some eggs & onions. I made a long hunt for a turkey but I was too late; all the turkey in the country had been sold, but I bought a goose & we proceeded to prepare mr goose. He was reported to be young but we were suspicious of his age so David Caruth who undertook to cook him first par boiled him, then stuffed him & roasted him. I made & cooked the biscuit & thought I was about to establish a reputation as a pastry cook for I made a pound cake which looked to be a complete success until I took it out of the oven & let it cool, then it sank in the centre & had a very depressing sadness in it, but we enjoyed it very much …(p. 63) 

Of course, soldiers’ Christmas meals were often only primitively cooked army rations, as when Colonel Charles Haydon, 2nd Michigan Regiment, wrote, “We made Christmas dinner on beef, hard tack & coffee. I had fortunately completed my meal when Moore made a discovery which checked him midway in his, viz that the hard tacks were full of bugs & worms. This was no uncommon thing of late but his wry face was the most laughable thing of the day.”(p. 73) A Union artilleryman recounted, “25th. [December] … I cooked a mess of baked beans. The second meal I ever cooked. Cooked them in a thin iron pan with a sheet of iron on top covered with coals (hot of course) …” (p. 65) As for the ever-desired egg-nog, Alabamian Samuel Pickens noted in 1862, “Ellison … was to bring us the materials for an Egg Nog – but he sorely disappointed us in that – about the first Christmas ever spent without nog …” (p. 70)

Other accounts tell of buying special treats from sutlers at exorbitant prices, receiving Christmas packages from home, often with the food contents plundered or smashed, holiday meals in prison camps, and the final Christmas celebration in the Confederate “White House” as told by Varina Davis, the Confederacy’s First Lady.

A quote from Pennsylvania major Frederick Hitchcock allows us to finish with a bit of soldiers’ humor:

… our bill of fare for Christmas dinner consisted of boiled rice and molasses, “Lobskous” and stewed dried apples. The etymology of the euphonious word “Lobskous” I am unable to give. The dish consisted of hardtack broken up and thoroughly soaked in water, then fried in pork fat … One of the boys, to show his appreciation of this extra fare for Christmas dinner, improvised the following blessing:

Good Lord of love
Look down from above
And see how a soldier’s grub has mended,-
Slushed rice, Lobskous, and shoat,
Where only hardtack and hog were intended. (p. 73)

Mr. Rawlings’ book also contains numerous illustrations and photos. Among them are the1848 Illustrated London News portrayal of the British royal family’s first Christmas tree, Civil War Christmas scenes from several American illustrated papers (including Thomas Nast’s first Santa Claus in the January 1863 Harper’s Weekly), and a photograph of a City Point. Va., hospital dining hall interior as it appeared when 1,400 soldiers were served a Christmas 1864 “sumptuous dinner of turkeys, pies, etc.” And don’t discard the dust cover with its wonderful photograph of the author in 1862 Thomas Nast Santa costume, surrounded by several waifs in period clothing.

One final, non-food-related note: the 1823 poem A Visit from Saint Nicholas, attributed to Clement Moore, receives much attention in the book and deservedly so. Let it be said that some think Moore claimed authorship for another’s work, New Yorker Henry Livingston Jr. usually being posited as the real author. Just goes to show that many people have a problem discerning whether it is in fact better to give than to receive. On the other hand, Kevin Rawlings’ book is his present to us, and it is my pleasure to bring it to your attention.


Kevin Rawlings, We Were Marching on Christmas Day: A History and Chronicle of Christmas During the Civil War (Baltimore, Md.: Toomey Press, 1996). 170 pages, index, illustrations. $24.95. Toomey Press, P.O. Box 122, Linthicum, Md., 21090; phone, (410) 850-0831.