Perhaps the only really merry Christmas that soldiers of the Union Army of the Potomac enjoyed during their service was in 1861. The army was in still encamped around Washington, training. Surely, they were homesick. But their campaigns had not yet begun and they were generally in good spirits. There are numerous accounts of company streets decorated with garlands and lanterns, lots of boxes from home, turkeys in good number, and dinners hosted by various regiments.
One year later, Christmas 1862, would find the Army of the Potomac in a dramatically different situation. Twelve days before Christmas, on December 13, they fought the Battle of Fredericksburg. If not numerically, the battle was perhaps the worst psychological defeat for the Union as brigade after brigade futilely attempted to take the heights west of town. The Army of the Potomac crossed back over the Rappahannock River to Falmouth, buried their dead and cared for their wounded. On the hills and plains surrounding the town, almost 100,000 soldiers began building a winter camp of log huts, preparing for the bleak months ahead. And yet, even in these circumstances, on Christmas Eve, there were bright moments of good will…and it is perhaps this sort of moment that carries the greatest meaning.
Ironically, that cold Christmas Eve, it was the units out on picket duty along the Rappahannock River who experienced some of the best remembered instances of merriment and kindness. Picket duty was not relished by the soldier. It meant a long night outside of camp, keeping watch with no camp fires for warmth and little or no sleep. To be assigned picket duty on Christmas Eve under already dismal circumstances must have seemed bitterly bad luck.
One might think it would be the units back in camp who enjoyed some measure of comfort. But regimental histories speak of a somber eve and Christmas day. A soldier of the 9th Massachusetts wrote, “Christmas day was remembered and quietly observed in the Ninth regiment. The great American turkey was conspicuous by his absence from our dinner tables; it served to remind us of the homes ‘so far away’ where many vacant chairs stood—chairs that were never to be filled again by many of the absent ones.”
In the 1st Massachusetts, “Christmas came and went in camp without any particular celebration. Owing to some misunderstanding between the War Department and the express companies, no boxes, parcels, or packages were brought to the troops from home; so that, in observing the day, they were obliged to content themselves with what few things they could obtain of the regimental sutlers.”
A soldier of the 35th Massachusetts later learned that the “Christmas boxes were delayed in Washington, pending our movements, until they accumulated in piles as big as the pyramids, and almost as old.”
As the men in camp made the best of a grim evening, the men out on picket attempted to do the same. The 21st Massachusetts, a Worcester County unit, were placed on picket at Rocky Ford, several miles upriver of Falmouth. On the other side of the river, in Fredericksburg, the Confederates were in a very different mood. Though they lacked even the meager rations enjoyed by the Yanks, the Confederates had won an unparalleled victory and felt like celebrating.
Watching from across the river, not bothering to keep themselves hidden, the men of the 21st Massachusetts marveled, “hearing and seeing the merry revelry with which the rebels celebrated the advent of Christmas; there was a great firing of guns among them, and lots of glorious camp-fires.” It must have been a sight.
Before long, the Rebs called out an invitation. And soon men were moving across the ford to the Confederate side. And not just a few of them. “Quite a number of Union troops,” apparently from more than one unit according to the regimental historian of the 21st Massachusetts, “on invitation of the rebels, crossed the river on Christmas Eve, by the rocky ford just above Falmouth, and helped them celebrate.”
Private James Madison Stone of the 21st Massachusetts recorded in his memoir, “The boys accepted the invitation and went over, had a fine time, were well entertained, and got back without anything happening to mar the pleasure.”
They apparently had such a merry time of it that the men of the 21st Massachusetts decided to reciprocate a week later. On New Year’s Day, about 50 Confederates crossed over and they had a fine time celebrating the New Year with coffee and tobacco, laughter and card games. Until the 21st Massachusetts officer of the day happened upon the scene and ordered all the rebels taken prisoner. A happy instance of comradery among fellow soldiers might have ended very badly. However, as Private Stone recalled, “The Rebs were marched off to headquarters, but our boys would not allow the thing to end that way, went with them to headquarters, explained the whole matter, taking all the responsibility, and the affair was dropped. The Johnnies were allowed to return but they were all told they must not do so any more.”
Exchanges between the Yanks and Rebs that Christmas of 1862 along the Rappahannock were apparently widespread and remembered in numerous regimental histories and memoirs. Although not all units, like the 21st Massachusetts, were conveniently posted at a ford and had to be a bit more creative in exhanging gifts with a wide river between them.
An instance was poignantly described by Rev. John Paxton in 1886 in Harper’s Magazine. During the war, he was a young lieutenant with the 140th Pennsylvania. Having enlisted just four months prior, now he was on the bank of the Rappahannock on Christmas Day, “a dejected young patriot, wishing I hadn’t done it, shivering in the open.” As he paced along his designated fifty yards of the river bank with “wet feet, empty stomach, swollen nose,” one of the Rebs made contact with his squad, asking if they had anything to trade.
Soon Paxton and his fellow Pennsylvanians were placing rations aboard little boats and rafts that had been improvised out of who-knows-what and sent them across the Rappahannock. “We loaded them with coffee, sugar, pork, and set the sail and watched them slowly creep to the other shore. And the Johnnies? To see them crowd the bank and push and scramble to be first to seize the boats, going into the water and stretching out their long arms. Then, when they pulled the boats ashore, and stood in a group over the cargo, and to hear their exclamations.”
The Confederates sent back parched corn, Virginia tobacco (scarce in the North and highly prized by Union soldiers), and persimmons.
They called out, “Merry Christmas, Johnny.” And the Rebs shouted, “Same to you, Yank.”
And, as Paxton recalled,
…We forgot the biting wind, the chilling cold; we forgot those men over there were our enemies, whom it might be our duty to shoot before evening…We had bridged the river, spanned the bloody chasm. We were brothers, not foes, waving salutations of good-will in the name of the Babe of Bethlehem, on Christmas Day in ’62…We kept Christmas and our hearts were lighter for it, and our shivering bodies were not quite so cold.
 Daniel G. Macnamara, The History of the Ninth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, (1899), p. 270
 Warren Handel Cudworth, History of the First Regiment (Massachusetts Infantry), (1866), p. 333
 Committee of the Regimental Association, History of the Thirty-Fifth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, 1862-1865, (1884), p. 98
 Charles Folsom Walcott, History of the Twenty-first Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteers, in the War for the Preservation of the Union, 1861-1865, (1882), p. 257
 James Madison Stone, Personal Recollections of the Civil War, (1918), p. 122
 Rev. John R. Paxton, “Christmas on the Rappahannock,” reprinted in Robert Laird Steward, History of the One Hundred and Fortieth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, (1912), p. 439-440