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)
Like this blog on Facebook | Follow me on Twitter 

On Dec. 25, 1862, a grateful nation showed its deep appreciation for the sacrifices of Union soldiers. In one of the more extraordinary events of the Civil War, thousands of sick and wounded were served Christmas dinners in military hospitals in and near the nation's capital.

"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 massive event -- deftly organized by Elizabeth Smith, wife of the Secretary of the Interior -- poured in from private 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, too. 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. The feasts were served in hospital wards fittingly decorated for the holiday season 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. Ice cream was served at at least one dinner.

Many hospitals, of course, were decorated with patriotic flourishes.

At Dumbarton Hospital, red, white and blue ribbons were displayed in "lavish profusion," and the motto "Union" was displayed prominently. At Presbyterian Church Hospital, crossed muskets on each side of the altar gave the room "somewhat of a military appearance." At the opposite end of the altar, a large American flag was "gracefully festooned." Formed in cedar twigs beneath it were the words "Union" and "Constitution." At Finley Hospital, the dining hall was decorated with mini-national flags.

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

President Lincoln and his wife 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, where 500 patients were accommodated, 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." Chickens and turkeys were stacked in "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.

When Lincoln was about to depart Judiciary Square Hospital, a short carriage ride from the White House, he was approached by an elderly gentleman. "Notwithstanding your extensive public duties," the old 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. Soldiers who were too injured or sickly to be moved to a dinner table were usually served first. "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 richly 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, the dinner was supervised by the wives of Indiana's two senators. "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."
  • 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, Dr. Hubbard of the National Observatory was asked to give a speech. 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., Christmas dinner also was served 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, clothing was distributed 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.