CLAYSVILLE – “Today we're going to try to take you back to what it would have been like here in this place, this area and this tiny building during the Civil War,” said Mineral County Historical Society vice president Ed McDonald as he narrated the annual Christmas service at the historic Claysville Church.
By Ronda Wertman
CLAYSVILLE – “Today we’re going to try to take you back to what it would have been like here in this place, this area and this tiny building during the Civil War,” said Mineral County Historical Society vice president Ed McDonald as he narrated the annual Christmas service at the historic Claysville Church.
“Before the Civil War, Christmas was not an official holiday in the United States. Nor was it celebrated uniformly across the country,” said McDonald noting that in early New England it was a day of strict fasts and rituals.
By the mid-19th century the holiday was starting to grow as the song “Jingle Bells” and the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” spurred a secular holiday of gift giving, food and drink.
Built in 1850, the Claysville Church served both confederate and union soldiers during the war.
“The Christmas of 1860 had its festivities, but it was also a time of foreboding in both the north and south,” said McDonald. “People were fearful this Christmas would be the last before the outbreak of war.”
Based on historian Wanda Burch’s “A Civil War Christmas through Letters,” society members and historians described the suffering brought by the Civil War.
“We are not allowed to receive money, clothing or boxes of any kind and see quite a hard time generally,” said Cody Pancake as he read a letter from Henry Allen of the 9th Virginia Infantry to his wife. “I know you will think of the absent me while eating the Christmas dinner. I have nothing but dry bread for mine.”
Presenting the letter of a Yankee soldier, Frank Roleff recalled how a truce was called for Christmas.
“There’s no firing between the pickets now. It is forbidden by both armies,” he said, noting that “papers were exchanged.”
“Remember me to my friends and relatives, especially the McCartys and the Umstots,” he added.
“The soldiers in camp and their families back home drew comfort from the similar traditions,” said Dave Frederick, noting that some soldiers put up decorations and some had egg nog to drink and better food to eat.
“Most had to settle for only the basic rations of hard tack and salt pork. The hard tack was not the sweet hard candy we know of today, but rather a cracker made from flour, water and at times salt. The pork used was salt pork, which resembled bacon,” he added.
Leah Myers recalled a letter from her grandson Johnny, “I long for Christmas at home with you and Grandpa. Here, in order to make it look as much like Christmas as possible, a small tree was stuck up in the front of our tent, decked off with hard tack and pork, in lieu of cakes and oranges. Truly it is not like home, but we make the best of what we have.”
“In 1861 war was still a romantic adventure, a chance for dashing feats and excitement,” said Beverly Chaney. “Both sides were sure of a quick and glorious victory.” “Many soldiers’ thoughts on Christmas Day of 1862 turned to the familiar comforts of holiday food of celebrations gone by,” said Pam Williams. “But absent this year was the abundance of family feasts of years past; gone were even the improvised Christmas meals that soldiers had managed to put together the year before with gifts from home. Wartime shortages were beginning to tell.”
Carols for the service included “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” based on the poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of Christmas Day 1864, and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman.”
Visitors enjoyed the tree adorned with popcorn strings and ornaments of holly and cardinals as they sang “O Christmas Tree.”
The service concluded with the candle light ceremony as candles were lit from the candle in memory of Reeves Taylor and Muriel Hesse who passed away this year and with the singing of “Silent Night” accompanied by Karen McDonald.