Letters Home at Christmas Time

Below are letters from soldiers to their families during the holidays. The letters themselves may not always portray the holiday spirit itself. During the American Revolution, December the 25th, while celebrated was not celebrated in the American Colonies they way it may have been celebrated in Europe. On Christmas 1776, Continental Troops took advantage of the holiday to execute a sneak attack against Hessian mercenaries fighting on the British side.

This letter is from Thomas Rodney to his brother Caesar, written in Allen’s Town, New Jersey, December 30, 1776.

Sir—I wrote you a long letter on the 24th, which I had no opportunity of sending, and left it in my trunk at Mr. Coxe’s, two miles from Bristol; it contains the news to that time, which I cannot repeat here. On the 25th inst. in the evening, we received orders to be at Shamony ferry as soon as possible. We were there according to orders in two hours, and met the riflemen, who were the first from Bristol; we were ordered from thence to Dunk’s ferry, on the Delaware, and the whole army of about 2000 men followed, as soon as the artillery got up. The three companies of Philadelphia infantry and mine were formed into a body, under the command of captain Henry, (myself second in command) which were embarked immediately to cover the landing of the troops. We landed with great difficulty through the ice, and formed on the ferry shore, about 200 yards from the river. It was as severe a night as ever I saw, and after two battalions were landed, the storm increased so much, and the river was so full of ice, that it was impossible to get the artillery over; for we had to walk 100 yards on the ice to get on shore. Gen. Cadwallader therefore ordered the whole to retreat again, and we had to stand at least six hours under arms—first to cover the landing and till all the rest had retreated again—and, by this time, the storm of wind, hail, rain and snow, with the ice, was so bad, that some of the infantry could not get back till next day. This design was to have surprised the enemy at Black Horse and Mount Holley, at the same time that Washington surprised them at Trenton; and had we succeeded in getting over, we should have finished all our troubles. Washington took 910 prisoners, with 6 pieces of fine artillery, and all their baggage in Trenton. The next night I received orders to be in Bristol before day; we were there accordingly, and about 9 o’clock began to embark one mile above Bristol, and about 3 o’clock in the afternoon got all our troops and artillery over, consisting of about 3000 men, and began our march to Burlington—the infantry, flanked by the riflemen, making the advanced guard. We got there about 9 o’clock and took possession of the town, but found the enemy had made precipitate retreat the day before, bad as the weather was, in a great panic. The whole infantry and riflemen were then ordered to set out that night and make a forced march to Bordentown, (which was about 11 miles), which they did, and took possession of the town about 9 o’clock, with a large quantity of the enemy’s stores, which they had not time to carry off. We stayed there till the army came up; and the general finding the enemy were but a few miles ahead, ordered the infantry to proceed to a town called Croswick’s four miles from Bordentown, and they were followed by one of the Philadelphia and one of the New England battalions. We got there about 8 o’clock, and at about 10, (after we were all in quarters), were informed that the enemy’s baggage was about 16 miles from us, under a guard of 300 men. Some of the militia colonels applied to the infantry to make a forced march that night and overhaul them. We had then been on duty four nights and days, making forced marches, without six hours sleep in the whole time; whereupon the infantry officers of all the companies unanimously declared it was madness to attempt, for that it would knock up all our brave men, not one of whom had yet gave out, but every one will suppose were much fatigued. They then sent off a party who were fresh, but they knocked up before they got up with them, and came back and met us at this town next morning. They surrounded a house where there was six tories—took three of them—one got off—and one who ran and would not stop, was shot dead. They gave him warning first by calling, and at last shot two bullets over his head, but he still persisted, and the next two shot; one bullet went through his arm and one through his heart. The enemy have fled before us in the greatest panic that ever was known; we heard this moment that they have fled from Princeton, and that they were hard pressed by Washington. Never were men in higher spirits than our whole army is; none are sick, and all are determined to extirpate them from the Jersey, but I believe the enemy’s fears will do it before we get up with them. The Hessians, from the general to the common soldier, curse and imprecate the war, and swear they were sent here to be slaughtered; that they never will leave New York again, till they sail for Europe. Jersey will be the most whiggish colony on the continent; the very Quakers declare for taking up arms. You cannot imagine the distress of this country. They have stripped every body almost without distinction—even of all their clothes, and have beat and abused men, women and children, in the most cruel manner ever heard of. We have taken a number of prisoners, in our route, Hessians and British, to the amount of about twenty. It seems likely through the blessing of Providence, that we shall retake Jersey again without the loss of a man, except one gen. Washington lost at Trenton. The enemy seem to be bending their way to Amboy with all speed, but I hope we shall come up with the Princeton baggage yet, and also get a share of their large stores at Brunswick. I hope if I live, to see the conquest of Jersey, and set off home again in two weeks. Some of my men have complained a little, but not to say sick; they are all now well here. Thomas Rodney

Washington Crossing the Delaware – Mort Kunstler

The next letter is from Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury and a member of the peace delegation who met with the British and on Christmas Eve 1814 signed the Treaty of Ghent to end the War of 1812, bringing a message of peace at Christmas time, although the last battle of the war would take place after the treaty was signed.

Ghent, December 25, 1814

Sir – The treaty of peace we signed yesterday with the British ministers is, in my opinion, as favorable as could be expected under existing circumstances, so far as they were known to us. The attitude taken by the State of Massachusetts, and the appearances in some of the neighboring States, had a most unfavorable effect. Of the probable result of the congress at Vienna we had no correct information. The views of all the European powers were precisely known from day to day to the British Ministry. From neither of them did we in any shape receive any intimation of their intentions, of the general prospect of Europe, or of the interest they took in our contest with Great Britain. I have some reason to believe that all of them were desirous that it might continue. They did not intend to assist us; they appeared indifferent about our difficulties; but they rejoiced at anything which might occupy and eventually weaken our enemy. The manner in which the campaign has terminated, the evidence afforded by its events of our ability to resist alone the now very formidable military power of England, and our having been able, without any foreign assistance, and after she had made such an effort, to obtain peace on equal terms, will raise our character and consequence in Europe. This, joined with the naval victories and the belief that we alone can fight the English on their element, will make us to be courted as much as we have been neglected by foreign governments. As to the people of Europe, public opinion was most decidedly in our favor. I anticipate a settlement with Spain on our own terms, and the immediate chastisement of the Algerines. Permit me to suggest the propriety of despatching a squadron for that purpose without losing a single moment. I have little to add to our public despatch on the subject of the terms of the treaty. I really think that there is nothing but nominal in the Indian article as adopted. With respect to precedents, you will find two, though neither is altogether in point, the article of the Treaty of Utrecht, and the latter part of the article of our  treaty with Spain. You know that there was no alternative between breaking off the negotiations and accepting the article, and that we accepted it only as provisional and subject to your approbation or rejection. The exception of Moose Island from the general restoration of territory is the only point on which it is possible that we might have obtained an alteration if we had adhered to our opposition to it. The British government had long fluctuated on the question of peace: a favorable account from Vienna, the report of some success in the Gulf of Mexico, or any other incident, might produce a change in their disposition; they had already, after the question had been referred to them, declared that they could not consent to a relinquishment of that point. We thought it too hazardous to risk the peace on the question of the temporary possession of that small island, since the question of title was fully reserved, and it was therefore no cession of territory. On the subject of the fisheries within the jurisdiction of Great Britain, we have certainly done all that could be done. If, according to the construction of the treaty of 1783, which we assumed, the right was not abrogated by the war, it remains entire, since we most explicitly refused to renounce it directly or indirectly. In that case it is only an unsettled subject of difference between the two countries. If the right must be considered as abrogated by the war, we cannot regain it without an equivalent. We had none to give but the recognition of their right to navigate the Mississippi, and we offered it on this last supposition. This right is also lost to them, and in a general point of view we have certainly lost nothing. But we have done all that was practicable in support of the right to those fisheries, 1, by the ground we assumed respecting the construction of the treaty of 1783; 2, by the offer to recognize the British right to the navigation of the Mississippi; 3, by refusing to accept from Great Britain both her implied renunciation to the right of that navigation and the convenient boundary of 49 degrees for the whole extent of our and her territories west of the Lake of the Woods, rather than to make an implied renunciation on our own part to the right of America to those particular fisheries. I believe that Great Britain is very desirous of obtaining the northern part of Maine, say from  about 47 north latitude to the northern extremity of that district as claimed by us. They hope that the river which empties into Bay des Chaleurs, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, has its source so far west as to intervene between the head-waters of the river St. John and those of the streams emptying into the river St. Lawrence: so that the line north from the source of the river St. Croix will first strike the heights of land which divide the waters emptying into the Atlantic Ocean (river St. John’s) from those emptying into the Gulf of St. Lawrence (River des Chaleurs), and afterwards the heights of land which divide the waters emptying into the Gulf of St. Lawrence (River des Chaleurs) from those emptying into the river St. Lawrence; but that the said line never can, in the words of the treaty, strike any spot of land actually dividing the waters emptying into the Atlantic Ocean from those which fall into the river St. Lawrence. Such will be the foundation of their disputing our claim to the northern part of that territory; but, feeling that it is not very solid, I am apt to think that they will be disposed to offer the whole of Passamaquoddy Bay and the disputed fisheries as an equivalent for this portion of northern territory, which they want in order to connect New Brunswick and Quebec. This may account for their tenacity with respect to the temporary possession of Moose Island, and for their refusing to accept the recognition of their right to the navigation of the Mississippi, provided they recognized ours to the fisheries. That northern territory is of no importance to us, and belongs to the United States, and not to Massachusetts, which has not the shadow of a claim to any land north of 45 to the eastward of the Penobscot River, as you may easily convince yourself of by recurring to her charters. – A. Gallatin

Albert Gallatin – Metropolitan Museum

The next letter is a letter home from Lieutenant Andrew Davis to his daughters. Lt. Davis was an officer in the 15th Indiana Infantry, Company I, stationed at Camp Wickliffe, Kentucky. (Caution should be given, Lt. Davis uses a racist slur referring to a cook)

Camp Wycliff Ky.
December 25th 1861

Miss Orrilla Davis and Nan Davis

My dear little daughters,

This is Christmas night and no doubt while I am setting in my tent in a war camp, you are enjoying yourselves at the Christmas Supper which I understand you are having at the Court House. No doubt you are enjoying yourselves over your Christmas presents and I hope Santa Claus in his rambles last night did not miss the Stockings of my two little girls but put something nice in them to make them happy. I got a Christmas present this evening which was nothing more than a letter from my dear little girl, and I now hasten to answer it. I was very sorry to hear that our sweet little babe was so sick but I hope it is getting well before this time and no doubt but what I will next hear that you and Nan will both have the measels and if you do you must be patient and you will soon get well again. I was surprised that you could write so good a letter & I read it to some of the boys and they said it contained more news than one half of the letters that they got from Liberty.

We did not have to drill today consequently I do not feel as tired as I do some nights. I will tell you what we had to eat today as you no doubt would like to know. Well we had roast chicken, oysters, peach pie, dried beef, molasses, brisket, butter, crackers, milk, sweet potatoes, rice, eggs &c. So you see we did not starve. It was not cooked as nice as your mother could cook it but it was very good. We bought most of it from country people and they sell them cheap enough if they were only cooked good but they are poor people who bring them and they have to cook them by the fire in skillets as they have no cook stoves. Stuffed chickens ready cooked are worth 20 & 25 cts, pies 10 cts, cabbage 5 cts apples 6 for 5 cts. milk 10 cts pr qt. roast turkies 75 and 80 cts. Sweet potatoes 75 cts per bushel, and many other things about the same. Jo Miller is in my tent while I am writing and almost cried when he read your letter. George [Rinehart?] come back from the Hospital today and is nearly well again. All of the Liberty boys are well now and none of them are at Louisville now.

I send with this letter 2 papers which I want you to take to Mr Thomas for him to publish in the Herald. I want to know if you are going to go to School this winter I gave $2.50 for the picture I sent home to your mother and the one I sent to your Grandpa, Tell mother if she can get the two big pictures framed for $5.00 to get it done but not to give any more than that. It is the prettyest sight I ever saw to go out of out tents after night before the lights are put out as our camp is on hilly ground and there is several hundred tents in camp and all with lights in them which makes them look like big lanterns scattered all over the country. Tell your ma I am glad she has got her hogs killed but I am afraid she will work so hard that she will be sick again. I got weighed today and weighed 167 lbs without my coat on so you see I am well and getting fat. Tell Nan I mean this letter for you and her both and I want her to get in some sly corner and write me one some of these days. Tell ma and uncle Newton that I have not got a newspaper from them since I have been Kentucky. Wm Appleton got last weeks Herald tonight and I got to read it. The darkie I had to cook for me went home today and one of the soldiers is cooking for me now. Ab. Bennett was to see me this evening and is going home in the morning. I am glad to hear that Wally Smith has been promoted to Sergeant as it proves that he has been a good soldier. Mans Crist is Sergeant in our company now.

The drums are now beating for us to put out the lights so I must stop for this time but will write to some of you again this week. You must write to me often as that is the way to learn, and you don’t know how glad it makes me to get a letter from my dear little girls.

No more this time from your affectionate father,
A.F. Davis

Christmas in Camp – Harper’s Weekly 1862 (Thomas Nast – Artist)

The next letter was written by a British Soldier during World War I, it is written during the Christmas Truce of 1914, which is now pretty well known because of the pleasantries exchanged between British and German troops.

Christmas Day, 1914

My dear sister Janet,

It is 2:00 in the morning and most of our men are asleep in their dugouts—yet I could not sleep myself before writing to you of the wonderful events of Christmas Eve. In truth, what happened seems almost like a fairy tale, and if I hadn’t been through it myself, I would scarce believe it. Just imagine: While you and the family sang carols before the fire there in London, I did the same with enemy soldiers here on the battlefields of France!

As I wrote before, there has been little serious fighting of late. The first battles of the war left so many dead that both sides have held back until replacements could come from home. So we have mostly stayed in our trenches and waited.

But what a terrible waiting it has been! Knowing that any moment an artillery shell might land and explode beside us in the trench, killing or maiming several men. And in daylight not daring to lift our heads above ground, for fear of a sniper’s bullet.

And the rain—it has fallen almost daily. Of course, it collects right in our trenches, where we must bail it out with pots and pans. And with the rain has come mud—a good foot or more deep. It splatters and cakes everything, and constantly sucks at our boots. One new recruit got his feet stuck in it, and then his hands too when he tried to get out—just like in that American story of the tar baby!

Through all this, we couldn’t help feeling curious about the German soldiers across the way. After all, they faced the same dangers we did, and slogged about in the same muck. What’s more, their first trench was only 50 yards from ours. Between us lay No Man’s Land, bordered on both sides by barbed wire—yet they were close enough we sometimes heard their voices.

Of course, we hated them when they killed our friends. But other times, we joked about them and almost felt we had something in common. And now it seems they felt the same.

Just yesterday morning—Christmas Eve Day—we had our first good freeze. Cold as we were, we welcomed it, because at least the mud froze solid. Everything was tinged white with frost, while a bright sun shone over all. Perfect Christmas weather.

During the day, there was little shelling or rifle fire from either side. And as darkness fell on our Christmas Eve, the shooting stopped entirely. Our first complete silence in months! We hoped it might promise a peaceful holiday, but we didn’t count on it. We’d been told the Germans might attack and try to catch us off guard.

I went to the dugout to rest, and lying on my cot, I must have drifted asleep. All at once my friend John was shaking me awake, saying, “Come and see! See what the Germans are doing!” I grabbed my rifle, stumbled out into the trench, and stuck my head cautiously above the sandbags.

I never hope to see a stranger and more lovely sight. Clusters of tiny lights were shining all along the German line, left and right as far as the eye could see.

“What is it?” I asked in bewilderment, and John answered, “Christmas trees!”

And so it was. The Germans had placed Christmas trees in front of their trenches, lit by candle or lantern like beacons of good will.

And then we heard their voices raised in song.

Christmas Day, 1914

My dear sister Janet,

It is 2:00 in the morning and most of our men are asleep in their dugouts—yet I could not sleep myself before writing to you of the wonderful events of Christmas Eve. In truth, what happened seems almost like a fairy tale, and if I hadn’t been through it myself, I would scarce believe it. Just imagine: While you and the family sang carols before the fire there in London, I did the same with enemy soldiers here on the battlefields of France!

As I wrote before, there has been little serious fighting of late. The first battles of the war left so many dead that both sides have held back until replacements could come from home. So we have mostly stayed in our trenches and waited.

But what a terrible waiting it has been! Knowing that any moment an artillery shell might land and explode beside us in the trench, killing or maiming several men. And in daylight not daring to lift our heads above ground, for fear of a sniper’s bullet.

And the rain—it has fallen almost daily. Of course, it collects right in our trenches, where we must bail it out with pots and pans. And with the rain has come mud—a good foot or more deep. It splatters and cakes everything, and constantly sucks at our boots. One new recruit got his feet stuck in it, and then his hands too when he tried to get out—just like in that American story of the tar baby!

Through all this, we couldn’t help feeling curious about the German soldiers across the way. After all, they faced the same dangers we did, and slogged about in the same muck. What’s more, their first trench was only 50 yards from ours. Between us lay No Man’s Land, bordered on both sides by barbed wire—yet they were close enough we sometimes heard their voices.

Of course, we hated them when they killed our friends. But other times, we joked about them and almost felt we had something in common. And now it seems they felt the same.

Just yesterday morning—Christmas Eve Day—we had our first good freeze. Cold as we were, we welcomed it, because at least the mud froze solid. Everything was tinged white with frost, while a bright sun shone over all. Perfect Christmas weather.

During the day, there was little shelling or rifle fire from either side. And as darkness fell on our Christmas Eve, the shooting stopped entirely. Our first complete silence in months! We hoped it might promise a peaceful holiday, but we didn’t count on it. We’d been told the Germans might attack and try to catch us off guard.

I went to the dugout to rest, and lying on my cot, I must have drifted asleep. All at once my friend John was shaking me awake, saying, “Come and see! See what the Germans are doing!” I grabbed my rifle, stumbled out into the trench, and stuck my head cautiously above the sandbags.

I never hope to see a stranger and more lovely sight. Clusters of tiny lights were shining all along the German line, left and right as far as the eye could see.

“What is it?” I asked in bewilderment, and John answered, “Christmas trees!”

And so it was. The Germans had placed Christmas trees in front of their trenches, lit by candle or lantern like beacons of good will.

And then we heard their voices raised in song. Stille nacht, heilige nacht.

This carol may not yet be familiar to us in Britain, but John knew it and translated: “Silent night, holy night.” I’ve never heard one lovelier—or more meaningful, in that quiet, clear night, its dark softened by a first-quarter moon.

When the song finished, the men in our trenches applauded. Yes, British soldiers applauding Germans! Then one of our own men started singing, and we all joined in. The first nowell, the angels did day. In truth, we sounded not nearly as good as the Germans, with their fine harmonies. But they responded with enthusiastic applause of their own and then began another. O Tannenbaum, O tannenbaum.

In truth, we sounded not nearly as good as the Germans, with their fine harmonies. But they responded with enthusiastic applause of their own and then began another. O come all ye faithful, but this time they joined in, singing the words in Latin, Adeste fidelis.

British and German harmonizing across No Man’s Land! I would have thought nothing could be more amazing—but what came next was more so.

“English, come over!” we heard one of them shout. “You no shoot, we no shoot.”

There in the trenches, we looked at each other in bewilderment. Then one of us shouted jokingly, “You come over here.”

To our astonishment, we saw two figures rise from the trench, climb over their barbed wire, and advance unprotected across No Man’s Land. One of them called, “Send officer to talk.”

I saw one of our men lift his rifle to the ready, and no doubt others did the same—but our captain called out, “Hold your fire.” Then he climbed out and went to meet the Germans halfway. We heard them talking, and a few minutes later, the captain came back with a German cigar in his mouth!

“We’ve agreed there will be no shooting before midnight tomorrow,” he announced. “But sentries are to remain on duty, and the rest of you, stay alert.”

Across the way, we could make out groups of two or three men starting out of trenches and coming toward us. Then some of us were climbing out too, and in minutes more, there we were in No Man’s Land, over a hundred soldiers and officers of each side, shaking hands with men we’d been trying to kill just hours earlier!

Before long a bonfire was built, and around it we mingled—British khaki and German grey. I must say, the Germans were the better dressed, with fresh uniforms for the holiday.

Only a couple of our men knew German, but more of the Germans knew English. I asked one of them why that was.

“Because many have worked in England!” he said. “Before all this, I was a waiter at the Hotel Cecil. Perhaps I waited on your table!”

“Perhaps you did!” I said, laughing.

He told me he had a girlfriend in London and that the war had interrupted their plans for marriage. I told him, “Don’t worry. We’ll have you beat by Easter, then you can come back and marry the girl.”

He laughed at that. Then he asked if I’d send her a postcard he’d give me later, and I promised I would.

Another German had been a porter at Victoria Station. He showed me a picture of his family back in Munich. His eldest sister was so lovely, I said I should like to meet her someday. He beamed and said he would like that very much and gave me his family’s address.

Even those who could not converse could still exchange gifts—our cigarettes for their cigars, our tea for their coffee, our corned beef for their sausage. Badges and buttons from uniforms changed owners, and one of our lads walked off with the infamous spiked helmet! I myself traded a jackknife for a leather equipment belt—a fine souvenir to show when I get home.

Newspapers too changed hands, and the Germans howled with laughter at ours. They assured us that France was finished and Russia nearly beaten too. We told them that was nonsense, and one of them said, “Well, you believe your newspapers and we’ll believe ours.”

Clearly they are lied to—yet after meeting these men, I wonder how truthful our own newspapers have been. These are not the “savage barbarians” we’ve read so much about. They are men with homes and families, hopes and fears, principles and, yes, love of country. In other words, men like ourselves. Why are we led to believe otherwise?

As it grew late, a few more songs were traded around the fire, and then all joined in for—I am not lying to you—“Auld Lang Syne.” Then we parted with promises to meet again tomorrow, and even some talk of a football match.

I was just starting back to the trenches when an older German clutched my arm. “My God,” he said, “why cannot we have peace and all go home?”

I told him gently, “That you must ask your emperor.”

He looked at me then, searchingly. “Perhaps, my friend. But also we must ask our hearts.”

And so, dear sister, tell me, has there ever been such a Christmas Eve in all history? And what does it all mean, this impossible befriending of enemies?

For the fighting here, of course, it means regrettably little. Decent fellows those soldiers may be, but they follow orders and we do the same. Besides, we are here to stop their army and send it home, and never could we shirk that duty.

Still, one cannot help imagine what would happen if the spirit shown here were caught by the nations of the world. Of course, disputes must always arise. But what if our leaders were to offer well wishes in place of warnings? Songs in place of slurs? Presents in place of reprisals? Would not all war end at once?

All nations say they want peace. Yet on this Christmas morning, I wonder if we want it quite enough.

Your loving brother, Tom

British and German Soldiers Together – Christmas Truce 1914 – Smithsonian Magazine

We hope you enjoy reading through these letters and the history they provide. I wish you all the best Christmas or whatever holiday you celebrate. May the new year bring you peace, joy and a continued love of history!

Sources:

Revolutionary War Letter – From Alden T. Vaughn, ed., Chronicles of the American Revolution (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1965). Originally compiled by Hezekiah Niles and printed in 1822.

War of 1812 Letter – From the Writings of Albert Gallatin, Volume 1, https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/gallatin-the-writings-of-albert-gallatin-vol-1

Civil War Letter – University of Iowa, https://blog.lib.uiowa.edu/studio/2011/12/22/a-civil-war-christmas-letter/

World War I Letter – World Beyond War – https://worldbeyondwar.org/christmas-truce-letter/

Author:

Greetings! I am Shawn MacIntyre, and I grew up with a love of history. When most kids were watching cartoons I was watching documentaries. After a long career in public safety, I chose to return to college to seek a new career path bringing history to the public. In April 2019. I graduated from Point Park University with a Bachelor's Degree in History, Magna Cum Laude. My new path is to make learning history fun, exciting and accessible to everyone. I invite you to join me on my journeys to historic destinations, learn interesting facts about the past, and spark a love for history!

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