No Rest and Little Celebration for Christmas 1861

December 25, 1861 (Wednesday – Christmas)

For some, the first Christmas of the war was a time of rest, where drills and military formalities took a short day off. Around Washington, the mood was full of apprehension and gloom over the Trent Affair, as well as gloom, if the past year was considered in the equation. The eastern theater of war, save for Western Virginia and Port Royal, had seen what seemed like many Union setbacks. For southerners in Richmond, it was a time of hope and celebration. The Trent Affair seemed to be leading the United States headlong into a war with England, while the victories on the fields of battle generally favored the Confederacy. Many believed that the Union would have to attack soon or grant the Confederates States their independence.

In General Stonewall Jackson’s camp, church services took the place of military drill. Officers like Sandie Pendleton, Dr. Hunter McGuire and even Jackson himself enjoyed the frivolities this day provided.1

Though similar scenes were, no doubt, played out along the eastern states, the armies were not far from “business as usual.”

At Centreville, Confederate General Joe Johnston forwarded a message from a spy in Washington claiming that McClellan’s Army of the Potomac was about to advance. It would, said the spy, be at Johnston’s door by January 5th. Because of the dispatch, Johnston took time from whatever festivities he was attending to protest Jackson’s request for 5,000 troops, made just the day before. While he conceded that holding the Shenandoah Valley, where Jackson was stationed, was important, it was “of greater consequence to hold this point.”2

Confederate General John Floyd, meanwhile, celebrated the holidays by beginning his long march to Bowling Green, Kentucky. His Army of the Kanawha had been thoroughly whipped by Union General Rosecrans in Western Virginia, but could still be absorbed into General Albert Sidney Johnston’s Army of Central Kentucky.3

On the Union side, General George B. McClellan was sick in bed. Actually, he was very near death. On the previous day, McClellan missed his regular staff meeting, as well as a meeting with the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. McClellan had been diagnosed with typhoid fever, which may not have actually been typhoid as we know it today. It was possible that he had dengue fever or even salmonella poisoning. “Typhoid” was just a generic term given for any number of diarrheal diseases. Needless to say, General McClellan had a fairly bad Christmas.4

Union commander of the Department of Missouri, General Henry Halleck, spent Christmas like he would spend any other day. An early Christmas present arrived in the form of confirmation that Rebel General Sterling Price had retreated past Humansville. He was still about 100 miles from the Arkansas border (his supposed destination), but was most definitely retreating.

With Price out of the way, Halleck renewed his vigor on wiping out the secessionists in central and northern Missouri. Halleck also sent artillery and infantry to Warrenton, where 800 Union troops were gathering to crush the insurrectionists. General William Tecumseh Sherman was also given his first orders since arriving at Benton Barracks after his leave of absence: “Have the battery at the North Missouri Railroad depot at 3 o’clock this afternoon and the Iowa regiment at the same place at 8 o’clock to-morrow morning.”

Most importantly, however, General Halleck sent General Samuel Curtis, a military governor during the Mexican War, to command the southwestern district of Missouri, creating the Union Army of the Southwest. The small army had three divisions under Franz Sigel, Alexander Asboth and Col. Jefferson C. Davis. Halleck himself had already placed Sigel in command in Rolla, where Curtis would soon make his headquarters. Sigel was to ready his division, focusing specifically on the cavalry.5

Clearly General Halleck was not about to let any festive spirit get in the way of duty.


To Establish a Confederate West Coast

Christmas Day saw the departure of Col. James Reily from the Confederate Army of New Mexico. Reily, originally from Ohio, had relocated to Texas in the 1830s, even serving in the Army of the Republic of Texas as a Major. In the pursuing decade, he negotiated with Daniel Webster a treaty between the United States and Texas, but being against annexation, he was ousted from his post. During the Mexican War, Reily led a US regiment, but after the war, as the politics edged closer to a war between north and south, he left the Whig party and joined with the Democrats, purely on the issue of slavery and became a secessionist. Just as the Civil War was breaking out, Reily was commissioned a colonel in the 4th Texas Mounted Rifles. He was seen as an ideal southern gentleman, on par with Robert E. Lee.

Reily had, thus far, spent most of the war marching to Fort Bliss with his regiment, but on this Christmas morning, he found himself saying good-bye to the men he commanded. General Henry Sibley, commander of the Army of New Mexico, had selected him for a diplomatic mission into Mexico.

Due to the problems Mexico faced internally, as well as with England, France and Spain, the states had become, more or less, autonomous. Riley was to be his representative to the states of Chihuahua and Sonora.

Specifically, he was to find out if Mexico was about to allow US troops to march across her land to invade the Confederacy from the south. If Mexico was going to allow this, Reily was to find out if Chihuahua and Sonora would come to the defense of the South, in effect creating a civil war in Mexico as well. He was also to broker an agreement with the governor of Sonora, along the Pacific coast, that would allow the Confederacy to establish a depot in the port of Guaymas. This would give the South a west coast, potentially opening trade with the east.

He would not return until April.6

  1. Stonewall Jackson by James I Robertson. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p1007-1008. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p796. []
  4. Army of the Potomac; McClellan Takes Command by Russel Beatie. Do you have any idea how difficult it was to resist saying that “McClellan had a crappy Christmas”? []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 8, p460-462. []
  6. Sibley’s New Mexico Campaign by Martin Hardwick Hall. []
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No Rest and Little Celebration for Christmas 1861 by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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10 thoughts on “No Rest and Little Celebration for Christmas 1861

  1. This whole Col. James Reily and the War in the West narrative is quite facinating to me being a former Tucson and Arizona resident.

    Civil war in Mexico?…”allow the Confederacy to establish a depot in the port of Guaymas. This would give the South a west coast, potentially opening trade with the east.” Facinating stuff…love to read more on this neglected theater…


    1. Well, the CS held Tucson through most of spring of 62. I am doing my best to cover that, but I admit, there’s a LOT more to it than I am able to handle.

      I’ll cover Sibley pretty well, but the stuff in Tucson keeps being over shadowed by other events.

      I do mention it and cover it a few times, though, so keep reading!


  2. Zac Cowsert & I are going to be working on Glorieta Pass this spring–I will be in touch about this with you, now that I know you share the interest. That and it is the only battlefield I can drive to, reasonably, from CA.

    Surprised you didn’t go all out and say McClellan’s holidays were pretty #@&*^*–LOL! I love puns. Merry Christmas!

    1. I’ve driven through there three times, but it was because of Route 66. I didn’t stop at the battlefield (and I really didn’t even know where it was). I found a few signs with bullet holes through them, but that’s it.

      I wish I could go back. I love the area quite a bit. Tons of history, including the Pecos ruins (which the Union army camped near). Also, don’t forget the three other battlefields in the area. Val Verde, Peralta and Albuquerque are all worth a visit (you know, so I hear).

      I really should have punned it up. I’m ashamed that I didn’t.

      1. rewrite it!!! it’s Christmas break, so stats are low anyway–LEAVE NO WORD UNPUNNED!! well, rewrite it and send it to me–

        Someone has to be the joker in the pack–maybe it is just looking at dead guys on the battlefields, or realizing how really terrifying it must have been to have 2 groups of men standing across from each other, trying to kill as many of the other group as possible that makes the humor all the more necessary.

        I knew there was cop humor, and firefighter humor, and operating room humor–but I never realized that there was historian humor until this year.

        1. I’m usually not very punny, but I do try to include some humor sometimes. When the captions start showing up, I try to be a bit humorous with those.

          I was planning on doing a satire piece on April 1, but thanks to McClellan, I didn’t need to!

          1. And you’re not kidding about low stats. I’ve had my first under-300-views day in months this past week. Hopefully folks come back after the winter break.

  3. Eric:

    Any and all mention of Civil War history west of Vicksburg is more than I learned in school. Someday, I will read more than you place in this blog. Words can not express my gratitude for bringing such history to life.

    I did read Steven Ambrose’s biography about Halleck. It is good reading, as Ambrose always is.


    1. Dave–I hope you are checking the blogs & sites listed on the left of this blog. Each is different, with a different interest, slant, etc. I just picked one a day until I had looked at all of them, and then started following the ones I particularly enjoyed or found interesting. Each of them will have their own list, so it can get overwhelming, but it is worth it. I am going to recommend First Fallen–it is mine–but it is really about writing a book, and the first year of the War, so if that is not your deal, there are plenty more. Huzzah!

    2. Dave,

      Any and all mention of the Civil War at all is more than I got in school. Somehow, in 8th grade we were supposed to have it and then again in 10th grade. But in 8th, the teacher stopped short and in 10th the teacher (also the football coach) started with reconstruction. So I went through 12 years of schooling without being taught a single thing about the Civil War.

      Thankfully, my mom was big into history and Gettysburg was only two hours away. Living out in Seattle, however, I really have to dig for the history.

      I read Ambrose’s book on the Johnstown Flood, which was great, but I think that’s all I’ve read of his.


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