Sunday, December 23, 2018

On Christmas Day 1862, a special feast for wounded warriors

A ward in Washington's Armory Square Hospital, where a Christmas dinner was held for patients in 1862.
(Library of Congress)
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On Christmas Day 1862, a grateful nation showed its appreciation for the sacrifices of the U.S. Army with dinners for thousands of sick and wounded soldiers in military hospitals in and near the nation's capital. President Lincoln and the first lady attended the event—one of the most extraordinary of its kind during the Civil War. 

"Nowhere else in the world than in America," a New York newspaper wrote, "could have been the sight which has made this holiday in Washington remarkable and memorable — the banqueting of 35,000 wounded and sick soldiers upon a Christmas dinner, spread by the hands of individual benevolence."

Elizabeth Smith, wife of President Lincoln's
Secretary of the Interior, was a driving force
behind the 1862 Christmas Day dinner for soldiers.
(Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection)
Financial contributions for the event — organized by Elizabeth Smith, wife of the Secretary of the Interior — poured in from individuals, businesses and states. (Indiana contributed $700, and $2,500 was collected in Philadelphia.) "A grand Christian event," a newspaper called the dinner, greatly aided by contributions from other "noble ladies."

Food came from throughout the Union. Pennsylvania and Maryland shipped an "immense amount" of poultry. "Ever-generous" Albany, N.Y., provided 300 turkeys, "cooked and ready to eat." Four carloads of poultry arrived from Chicago. In total, 7,000 chickens and turkey were consumed. Volunteers served the feasts in hospital wards decorated with Christmas trees, evergreens, green holly, crimson berries, wreaths and red roses.

"... the whole was prepared in a style to please the most epicurean taste," a newspaper wrote about the fare served at College Hospital in Georgetown. Topped with flowers, a pyramid of seven large cakes stood near the door of the hospital near the Potomac River. Desert included ice cream at at least one dinner.

Volunteers decorated hospitals with patriotic touches. 

At Dumbarton Hospital, patients found red, white and blue ribbons displayed in "lavish profusion," and the motto "Union" prominently displayed. At Presbyterian Church Hospital, crossed muskets on each side of the altar gave the room "somewhat of a military appearance." A large American flag "gracefully festooned" another part of the room. "Union" and "Constitution" formed in cedar twigs appeared  beneath it. Mini-national flags decorated the Finley Hospital dining hall.

President Lincoln visited military hospitals 
in Washington with his wife on Christmas Day 1862.
(Library of Congress)
Apparently with no regard for soldiers' suffering, senators, congressman and members of President Lincoln's cabinet "made speeches happily fit for the occasion." Then they mingled with soldiers. Entertainers serenaded soldiers with songs of home or country. At Stone Hospital, music by a glee club of patients enlivened the dinner.

Abraham and Mary Lincoln appeared at at least two hospitals. "In one or two the President found time to bring excitement and sunshine with him among the bandage and becrutched revelers," according to a newspaper account.  "Mrs. Secretary Smith," the event's organizer, visited at least a half-dozen hospitals.

At Judiciary Square Hospital, which accommodated 500 patients, the scene was especially impressive. In the dining hall, portraits of George Washington and Secretary of the Interior Caleb Blood Smith hung on the walls. "Merry Christmas" in blue letters appeared on a large banner. "The Union must and shall be preserved," read another sign near the dinner table, which was "furnished in a style of actual magnificence." Stacks of chickens and turkeys formed "perfect" pyramids — one of the gobblers reportedly weighed 25 pounds. The fare also consisted of roast beef, mutton, hams, oysters, chickens, "side dishes of all sorts" and pies.

As Lincoln was about to depart Judiciary Square Hospital, a short carriage ride from the White House, an elderly gentleman approached the president. "Notwithstanding your extensive public duties," the man told the president, "you managed to hold your own."

"Yes," Lincoln replied with a laugh, "but I have not got much to hold."

Volunteer waiters eagerly served wounded warriors. They first fed soldiers too injured or sickly to be moved to a dinner table. "The feasting of this army," according to an account, "was a touching sight."

Only 100 of the 280 patients were well enough to eat at the dinner tables at Douglas Hospital 
in Washington  on Christmas Day 1862. This is an undated wartime image. (U.S. Military Institute)
In two editions after Christmas, the Evening Star of Washington published detailed, hospital-by-hospital reports of the festivities:
  • At Trinity Church Hospital, a small Christmas tree rested on each of the four tables in the dining area. The air was fragrant with flowers and cedar, and an organist played The Star-Spangled Banner and Gloria In Excelsis, surely inspirational songs for all in attendance.
  • At Stanton Hospital, wives of Indiana's two senators supervised the dinners. "They had the assistance of a large number of other ladies, whose beauty and smiles were enough to gladden the hearts of the brave men who are amongst the unfortunate of those who have volunteered to sustain the nation and its honor," a newspaper reported.
  • At Douglas Hospital, only 100 of the 280 patients were well enough to eat at the dinner table. Wounded from the Battle of Fredericksburg, fought two weeks earlier, had arrived there only recently.
  • At Emory Hospital, the 1st Michigan Cavalry band played "eloquent music," and the sick and wounded who couldn't eat at the table were "bounteously supplied by the ladies — those angels of mercy who ever to delight to soothe the sufferings of our honored soldiers."
  • At Camp Parole in Alexandria, Va., across the Potomac River from Washington, nearly 15,000 convalescents and paroled prisoners were served. A toast to the men and women who provided the meal was "appropriately responded to."
  • At Union Chapel Hospital, the gathering asked Dr. Hubbard of the National Observatory to speak. Apparently uncomfortable as a public speaker, he refused. "Doctor," the patients shouted, "tell us about the stars!” He complied.
  • At Fourth Presbyterian Church Hospital, 50 of the 150 patients could not leave their beds. Every sick and wounded patriot, however, received a pint of ale. So, too, did each of the 500 patients at Finley Hospital. Christmas cheer, indeed. 
At Convalescent Camp, near Alexandria, Va., the Christmas Day dinner was delivered late.
(Library of Congress)

Not all the dinners went smoothly, unsurprising given the scale of the event. At Convalescent Camp, near Alexandria, soldiers did not eat until late in the evening because food was delivered late. And at Armory Square Hospital, tables in the wards were "devoid of all attractive embellishment." Worse, the meal was served first to hospital attendants and nurses, who ate off "china plates." 

The "invalid soldiers were obliged to wait until a long while after before they were supplied," the Evening Star reported, "and then the dinner was served to them on tin plates, and in such a manner as to convey with it no pleasing thoughts whatsoever." (Surgeons, attendants, clerks, wardmasters and others at the hospital complained the account was fake news, but the newspaper stuck by the story.)

Mary Lincoln, the president's wife,
contributed food for the dinner
at the Contraband Camp on Christmas Day.
At 2 p.m., volunteers served Christmas dinner at the Contraband Camp at 12th and Q streets, the temporary home of about 500 escaped slaves and other African Americans. The feast included turkey, chicken, roast beef, boiled ham, vegetables and candy, mostly contributed by Mary Lincoln. Afterward, each child received a toy. Earlier that morning, volunteers distributed clothing to grateful adults and children.

Soon after the Christmas dinner, soldiers and others sought contributions to buy Elizabeth Smith a "magnificent present" for her excellent work. They quickly raised several hundred dollars.

Ah, this holiday certainly was a extra-special.

Wrote a reporter for the Evening Star:

"It was a bright day for all, and which will always bring pleasing thoughts to both those who donated and those who were recipients of the dinners.  The main credit is due to Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Secretary Smith, who in a measure supplied all the hospitals; but the grateful soldiers will not forget soon the kind ladies who by their presence and smiles added sunshine to the gloomy hospital cots."

Perhaps another Washington newspaper summed it up best: "This war," the National Republican wrote, "will develop a great many manly, Christian and noble qualities in our people that the times of peace can never bring out."

Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.

  • New York Tribune, Dec. 26, 1862.
  • The Evening Star, Washington, D.C., Dec. 26, 27, 1862.
  • The National Republican, Washington, D.C., Dec. 15 and 25, 1862.
  • The Pittsburgh Gazette, Dec. 24, 1862.
  • Washington Evening Star, Dec. 27, 1862.


  1. Thank you for posting this account.It is rare that we get to view first hand,the efforts of the home front during the War of the Rebellion

  2. Excellent research! Great piece that really brings these scenes to life!!

  3. Thanks you for the great article. I am always learning new things.

  4. Very well done. Informative & well written.

  5. Great article! I wish my Father was alive to read your work, he and I explored many Civil War battlefield, sites, and campaign trails in our 36 years together. Wife and I still explore.

  6. So often coverage of the un-Civil War events is statistical. Thanks for this very human account.

  7. awesome article and unusual part of the history of the civil war.