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
- Stonewall Jackson by James I Robertson. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p1007-1008. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p796. [↩]
- 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”? [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 8, p460-462. [↩]
- Sibley’s New Mexico Campaign by Martin Hardwick Hall. [↩]