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Katzenhaus Books

Where We Tell the Stories behind the History


The Army Version of Christmas, 1861

Posted on December 20, 2013 at 12:25 PM
After the joyous celebrations of the slaves, Christmas Day at Roundheads Headquarters
moved from somber to dismal as the day progressed. The staff officers started the morning by
traipsing out to the Presbyterian church, where they expected Reverend Browne to rejoice in his
recovery and in the true meaning of the holiday. Instead, he treated them to a grim picture of the
Holy Family, driven out of Bethlehem by the evil actions of Herod and into exile in the barren
land of Egypt. With the help of Browne’s clever rhetoric, Herod appeared as Jefferson Davis,
ordering the slaying of young black children. The angel’s voice became that of Lincoln, calling
on all good Christian men to travel to a distant land to save their country. Egypt’s shore took on
the characteristics of the Atlantic coast, complete with sea grass to replace the bullrushes.

Sand was sand, and the message was clear. This was an exile, one to be suffered willingly until the
good Lord chose to send the Roundheads home. Instead of Christmas carols, Browne called the
men to sing “Onward Christian Soldiers,” a hymn rousing enough, but certainly not designed to
put the regiment in a holiday mood. They left the church gloomily reminded of their own exile.

Back at the Leverett House, Bessie the cook had outdone herself to prepare a Christmas
feast. First, she sent out oysters on the half shell, followed by a fish soup brimming with clams,
shrimp, and chunks of snapper. Then the slave girls brought the main feast while the startled
Roundheads watched in amazement. At one end of the side board, a fat turkey spilled forth his
chestnut and cornbread stuffing. At the other end sat a roasted boar’s head, apple in mouth,
ready for carving should anyone be brave enough to tackle the chore. In between were bowls of
sweet potatoes, green beans, field peas, rice, gravy, turnip greens, and tiny broiled quail. The
finishing touch—blackberry and pecan pies, sugar cookies and gingerbread men, and a formidable
fruitcake—awaited the diners on the back buffet server.

The staff took their places at what had become a banquet table, draped in fine linen to set
off the decorated china service and the sparkling silver. All were still dressed in their churchgoing
finery, so they presented a handsome picture. Nellie lingered until last, making sure all
was in order. Then she slipped into her accustomed place at the foot of the table, facing Colonel
Leasure, who commanded the attention of the table.

After a stuffy dinner marked by various arguments among the staff officers, the next hours were filled with the demands of
hospitality. The house quickly filled, and not only with the staff of the Roundhead Regiment.
General Stevens showed up early, accompanied by his brigade officers. That was no surprise, of
course. General Stevens was famous for his ability to scent out any affair at which alcohol
might be playing a part. The other regiments, too, began to arrive—the Pennsylvanians from the
Fiftieth, followed by the New York Highlanders, and the Michiganders. No other regimental
commander had thought to throw a reception for his own men, so the Roundheads played host
to the entire brigade.

It was not a terribly merry celebration, but it was loud. The syllabub, whose ingredients
Colonel Leasure professed not to know, was a tremendous hit. Nellie knew, because she had
helped whip it, that it contained a bottle of brandy and a bottle of port in addition to the usual
ingredients. As the afternoon progressed, however, she noticed the level of the punch bowl
never seemed to decrease, although many cups were being filled from it. 

Doubting this was evidence of one of Reverend Browne’s miracles, she watched closely and had only to wait a few
minutes to catch an officer surreptitiously emptying the contents of a pocket flask into the bowl.
Some gentlemen, well-schooled in their manners, brought a Christmas gift of wine with them,
and those bottles, too, were finding their way to the punch bowl. Nellie hurried out to find
Bessie, to see if she could dilute the alcohol with a bit more whipped milk.
As usual, the cook was already prepared. “Don’ you worry, Miss Nellie. I’s pourin’ in more
milk ever’ time dey adds more likker. At least it be gonna coat dere stomachs.”

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