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A Wartime Christmas

Captain J.F. McCartney, the Union soldier whose letters structure my book, was with his regiment only one Christmas during the war.

He enlisted in the 131st Illinois Infantry shortly after Christmas, 1862 and became part of the campaign to take Vicksburg. After Vicksburg fell in the summer of 1863, the 131st was disbanded because of losses. Surviving men were combined with another regiment. McCartney spent the following months recruiting men who became Company D in the 56th Illinois Infantry.

In May 1864, his new company joined Sherman’s army moving toward Atlanta. Atlanta fell in September, but further action was postponed until after the presidential election to prevent the possibility that a tragic battle outcome would lead to Lincoln’s defeat.

In mid-November, Sherman’s army left Atlanta to march across Georgia. By Christmas, 1864, the 56th Illinois and the rest of Sherman’s army were in Savannah, Georgia. Although McCartney wrote a day-by-day account of the progress across Georgia and later South Carolina, he wrote very little about their several-week stay in Savannah.

There is no mention of the fact that they arrived a few days before Christmas and spent Christmas day in the city. Probably the most important event for McCartney personally was that soldiers received mail for the first time since leaving Atlanta and he learned that his baby son, who had been desperately ill with erysipelas, was recovering.

After describing the fight on the outskirts of the city, he concluded: “Thus ended one of the most signal marches known in modern times, and the reports will say with the least loss, and the most successful one, and I believe the health of all was rather better than when we set out on the expedition.”

Based only on his letters, it appears that the challenges and achievements of war pushed thoughts of happy holidays aside.

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