1862: Christmas in Richmond

During the Christmas of 1861, the war was still relatively new and many believed it would be a short affair. 1862 brought the war right to Richmond’s doorstep and the stream of casualties, refugees, and prisoners had all taken their toll on the spirit of the city.

Original — December 24, 2012

Richmond celebrated Christmas, 1862, with the usual popcrackers, calls, eggnog, and the like. But winter was hard in the city.” The Confederate State of Richmond, Emory M. Thomas

Happy holidays from the Civil War department at RVANews! While researching possible topics for December of 1862, I thought it might be interesting to find accounts of what Christmas was like in Richmond back then. The account above sums it up perfectly. While many found small ways to celebrate, the realities and pains of war were felt hard at home in Richmond. During the Christmas of 1861, the war was still relatively new and many believed it would be a short affair. 1862 brought the war right to Richmond’s doorstep and the stream of casualties, refugees, and prisoners had all taken their toll on the spirit of the city.

In late 1862, the war had shifted back south to Virginia, and Richmond saw an influx of refugees ranging from those who fled farms and towns now in Union-held territory, wives of Confederate soldiers looking for employment, and the destitute. This influx of refugees drove rent prices much higher than they’d been previously, and wartime inflation sent prices on everyday goods skyrocketing. In the city, ten pounds of bacon, which cost $1.25 in 1860, now cost $10. Four pounds of coffee jumped from $0.50 to $20. In just a few short years, wartime prices in Richmond rose to prices that look a lot like what you might pay today after 150 years of inflation. To add to Richmond’s troubles in December: a new influx of prisoners and wounded from the recent fighting in Fredericksburg.

For many families, these issues paled in comparison to one that hit even closer to home: the loss of a loved one in the fighting. Richmond diarist and author Sallie Brock Putnam wrote about the sadness of Christmas for families who had lost soldiers in the war:

The Christmas dinner passed off gloomily. The vacant chairs were multiplied in Southern homes, and even the children who had curiously questioned the cause of the absence of the young soldier brother from the festive board, had heard too much, had seen too much, and knew too well why sad-colored garments were worn by the mother, and why the fold of rusty crape placed around the worn hat of the father, and why the joyous mirth of the sister was restrained, and her beautiful figure draped in mourning. Congratulations were forced, and tears had taken the place of smiles on countenances where cheerfulness was wont to reign. In Richmond During The Confederacy Sallie Brock Putnam

These were clearly tough times in Richmond. So, as you gather with family this holiday, try to take a moment to remember what it must have been like here 150 years ago, in the face of so many challenges and so much uncertainty. The new year, 1863, would continue to bring more pain to the citizens of Richmond as prices continued to rise and food shortages became more common.

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Phil Williams

In addition to being an amateur Civil War enthusiast, Phil is a musician, beard owner, dance party enthusiast, blogger, technology geek, and spends whatever time is left over working in the advertising industry. He can also be found DJing around RVA as his alter-ego Robot E. Lee.

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