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One hundred fifty years ago, the United States experienced its last holiday season of the Civil War. For the past three Decembers, President Abraham Lincoln had been frustrated by defeats on the battlefield and the continuation of a seemingly endless war. This Christmas of 1864 however, President Lincoln had much to celebrate. He was glad First Lady Mary Lincoln had returned safely from a shopping trip to Philadelphia; on December 21 he had telegraphed her: “Do not come on the night train. It is too cold. Come in the morning.”1

In addition to being elected to a second term in November, President Lincoln had good news from the front indicating the Confederate war effort might be coming to an end. General Philip Sheridan drove the Confederates out of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, and a Confederate effort to capture Nashville, Tennessee resulted in the defeat and near collapse of Confederate forces in the Western Theater. Perhaps the largest victory of all, however, came as an early Christmas gift to Lincoln in the form of a telegram from General William Tecumseh Sherman. The telegram read, “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.”2

With Savannah in Northern hands, victory seemed that much closer to President Lincoln. Washington celebrated the news of the fall of Savannah with a 300-gun salute. The same day Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles attended the Lincolns’ Christmas reception for the cabinet at the White House, where he bragged “of the achievements of the South Atlantic Blockading squadron in capturing Savannah, while also being kind enough to acknowledge that the forces under General Sherman had rendered the navy some not inconsiderable help!” After the navy secretary left the room Lincoln and several other military officers observed ruefully that Welles seemed to think the capture of Savannah was a naval victory.3

On Christmas Day 1864, Tad Lincoln, the President’s young son, embraced the spirit of the holidays, inviting several cold and hungry newsboys he had met into the White House for Christmas dinner. Although the unexpected guests were a surprise to the White House cook, the president welcomed them and allowed them to stay for dinner. Thomas Pendel, a bodyguard and doorkeeper appointed during the Lincoln administration, recalled in an interview: “’We didn’t have many doings in those days’ says Mr. Pendel, ‘there were too many grave things to think about. . . Mrs. Lincoln used to buy a great many presents for Tad, but he could amuse himself with the ‘bucktails’ better than with playthings.’”4

As Lincoln celebrated his last Christmas both in the White House and during his life, he probably reflected upon previous loss and a hopeful future. During Lincoln’s last peacetime Christmas in 1860, the Lincoln family was in Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln had been elected president. Although war had not broken out, war clouds loomed over the nation. That Christmas Eve, Lincoln’s close friend Senator Edward Baker visited Lincoln. One year later, Baker was dead, having been killed at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff in October 1861. In February 1862, the President experienced another personal loss when his son Willie suddenly fell ill and died in the White House. The holiday season of 1862 was marred by the Union defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg only a few weeks before Christmas. On January 1, 1863 President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation redefining the purpose of the war and, by the end of 1863, victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg had bolstered the Union cause.

Members of Company K of the 150th Pennsylvania Infantry celebrated Christmas in winter quarters on the grounds of the White House in 1863 and 1864. While several years previously they had enjoyed the holiday season with their families in Pennsylvania, they were now celebrating with their fellow comrades protecting the president and his family. The White House functioned as Lincoln’s command hub. Within the War Department, a short walk from the executive residence, Lincoln stayed in constant communication with his generals by telegraph.

The Lincoln White House celebrated the Christmas of 1864 on a more positive note as the end of the war was in sight. While challenges remained, Union victory seemed inevitable that Christmas season. Although Lincoln would not see another Christmas, the decisions he made during his time at the White House to prevent the dissolution of the Union ensured the nation would endure, and through Lincoln’s presidency the White House came to symbolize for all time the trials of the office.

Telegram from General William T. Sherman to President Abraham Lincoln announcing the surrender of Savannah, Georgia, as a Christmas present to the President, 1864.

National Archives

Tad Lincoln stands on the North Drive of the White House (detail from this carte de visite by Henry Warren), 1865. The soldiers in the background may be members of Company K of the 150th Pennsylvania Volunteers known as the “Bucktails” for the deer tails they wore on their hats.

White House Collection, White House Historical Association

The Peacemakers, by G.P.A. Healy, 1868. Seated in the after cabin of the Union steamer River Queen are Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, President Abraham Lincoln, and Rear Adm. David D. Porter. The four met in March 1865, less than a week before the fall of Petersburg, Virginia.

White House Collection, White House Historical Association

The President’s House and the East Terrace are just visible through the trees behind the Union encampment, ca. 1863.

Courtesy of Matthew Pliska

This article was originally published December 15, 2014

Footnotes & Resources

  1. Leslie J. Perry, “Lincoln’s Home Life in Washington,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 94 (February 1897), 353-359.
  2. “Telegram from General William T. Sherman to President Abraham Lincoln announcing the surrender of Savannah, Georgia, as a Christmas present to the President,” 12/22/1864-12/22/1864. Accessed December 10, 2014.
  3. “The President’s List Not Nice But Energetic,” New York Herald, December 29, 1864.
  4. “White House Christmas: The Cheerful Reminiscences of Septuagenarian Door Keeper,” Wheeling Register (WV), December 22, 1890.

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