Pioneer History by Richard C. Schmal

The Civil War
Christmas, 1863

(from the Dec. 26, 1990, Lowell Tribune, page 8)

Some of the U.S. Civil War soldiers, sons of Lake County pioneers, could have witnessed the celebration of Christmas in the southern states after President Abraham Lincoln enforced the final Proclamation of Emancipation in January 1863.

It was understood that Christmas was the grand holiday among the slaves on the southern plantations, and a letter received from Port Royal, Carolina, told about the unusual zest with which the slaves had celebrated that Christmas.

The celebration was at General Drayton's plantation, when at eleven o'clock on Christmas Eve a bell was rung, and at exactly midnight a pine fire was kindled in front of the cabin where the meeting was held. The festival was called "Serenade to Jesus."

One of the three leaders was dressed in a fancy red coat with brass buttons, and he wore white gloves. Their ladies wore turbans made of cotton handkerchiefs. All ages were in attendance, from a child of one to an elder of 90 years.

The first event of the evening was the singing of songs and spirituals that included "Salvation, O Joyful Sound," "Come Humble Sinner, In Whose Breast," "Oh, Poor Sinner," and a Christmas medley of anything the leader could suggest.

The writer in the 1860's marveled at the correctness of their words, though none could read. Their Scripture quotations were also correct and appropriate, with even the Chapter and Verse named.

After the singing, a prayer meeting was held, and when it was mentioned that the soldiers of the north came from their distant home to save them, bringing them "good tidings of great joy," shouts went up that were heard by the Union pickets in the surrounding pine trees.

The letter writer was told by the former slaves that they could quote the Bible so well because they "had ears" and listened well when the preacher gave out his texts, remembered them, and repeated them over and over until they were memorized. "That's the way we poor people learns the Word of God," he was told.

Under a blazing pine torch, the speaking and singing continued until two in the morning when a recess was declared, and all were invited to partake of coffee, purchased with money obtained from the United States soldiers in payment for vegetables and poultry.

After recess, the shouting exercise began, led by a small group which began to beat the time with their feet. Then all formed a circle, jumping and singing to the tune of "Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Me On Canaan's Happy Shore?" This went on until most were exhausted, but never had they celebrated a Christmas Eve under such circumstances -- as free people.

Another letter received from the south in 1863 related the story of the Christmas celebration of the soldiers of the Ninth Louisiana Regiment, Corps d'Afrique, and told how they met and gave expressions of their feelings on Christmas Day, their first free Christmas.

After a prayer and speeches were completed, one of their members rose and spoke something like the following: "Fellow soldiers of the Regiment, I am mighty glad to enjoy this opportunity for this first free Christmas in this world what we live in. A year ago, where was we? We was down in the dark world of slavery, and now, where are we? We are free men now, and soldiers of the United States, and what have we to do? We have to fight the rebels so that we never more be slaves.

"When the day of battle comes, what will we do? I speak for myself, I go and fight till the last man die; and if I be the last man, I hold up the flags and if I die I go to my grave 'consified' for doing my duty. The President of the United States is one great man who has done more good than any other man ever borned. I bless the Lord we fight for so good a commander. I have no more to say, now, and evermore. Amen."

These Christmas stories of the Civil War came from the book The Civil War in Song and Story, 1860-1865, published in 1889, and loaned to us by Harold and Annabelle Lappie of Lowell.

Last updated on July 24, 2001.

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