'Twas the Season, Part 11

Christmas 1861 was clouded by the war that had erupted eight months earlier at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. What caused the American Civil War – slavery, state’s rights, an inevitable clash of incompatible economic systems – is still being debated today. But before it ended in 1865, more than 620,000 American soldiers would die.

When the January 4, 1862 issue of Harper’s Weekly was sent out to 120,000 subscribers, few Americans realized how prolonged, grim and bloody the conflict would become. Harper’s editors certainly didn’t have a clue. “A Happy New Year!” they wrote in that issue. “It can hardly fail to be that. The tempest upon our Southern horizon is already wasting itself away.”

This engraving by Winslow Homer was on the cover of Harper’s January 4 issue. It shows Union troops happily opening a crate of Christmas presents. Socks, food, books and booze are being handed out to the delighted soldiers.


'Twas the Season, Part 10

A junior executive makes merry with the secretaries at this office Christmas party in New York in 1948. If you look closely, you'll see that there are no wedding bands on anyone's fingers, so you have to wonder if the happy young guy eventually steered one of his female friends to the mistletoe.

Note the guy's tie. The 1940s were a classic era for men's ties. Hand-painted silk neckties were the style, and flamboyance and amazing geometric designs were the norm. This guy's tie, with its geometric design, was the height of fashion for the day.
The photo was shot by Cornell Capa for Life magazine.

There are a couple more episodes of "'Twas the Season" coming up, so please check back as we get closer to Christmas.


150 Years Ago, My Great-Grandfather 'Saw the Elephant" at Battle of Goldsboro Bridge

Inexperienced soldiers in the Civil War often talked of "seeing the elephant," a phrase used to describe being in battle for the first time.

But after they heard bullets whiz past them, saw what a .58-caliber rifle bullet did to human flesh and bone, and watched their friends die, those soldiers were more likely to describe combat in terms similar to General William T. Sherman's description. "War is at best barbarism," Sherman said. "Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell."

My guess is that my great-grandfather, William C. Dry, was curious about seeing the elephant 150 years ago. He was 23 years old when he enlisted in the Confederate Army shortly after the Confederate government instituted a military draft in April 1862.

I've long wondered what William thought when he entered the army. People are still arguing over what that war was about, but in my opinion, the Civil War was fought because of slavery. William's family did not own slaves, so he didn't have a personal stake about whether slavery was ended.

Maybe he wanted to go fight, but the war had been going on for more than a year before he joined the Confederate Army, so he clearly did not enlist in a passion of Southern patriotism. His family farmed in Cabarrus County, and William listed his occupation as "field hand" in his enlistment papers. Without slaves to work the farm, William's absence added to the family's burden.

Whatever his thoughts about the war and why it was being fought, he had no choice after the draft went into effect.

By December 1862, he'd been in the army for about eight months. But his unit, the 52nd North Carolina Infantry, hadn't done much more than engage in endless drills and ride trains back and forth between Petersburg, Virginia and Kinston, North Carolina.

A soldier in the 52nd complained of the monotony. "We have to drill nearly all the time," Sergeant A.C. Myers wrote in a July 27, 1862 letter to his wife.

That changed in mid-December, however. At the time, William's unit was stationed on the Blackwater River near Franklin, Virginia. On December 16, the 52nd was ordered to move immediately to Goldsboro, North Carolina. The men boarded a troop train and traveled through the night to reach Goldsboro in the early morning of December 17.

They didn't have to wait long for the elephant. At sunrise, a force of about 10,000 Union troops arrived from New Bern and moved toward their objective -- a wooden railroad bridge that spanned the Neuse River. The railroad was a vital supply line to Confederate troops in Virginia.

The Union Army's plan to destroy the bridge was part of an effort to inflict a major defeat on Confederate forces under General Robert E. Lee. Union forces had launched an attack against Lee at Fredericksburg, Virginia on December 11, the same day the Union troops started moving from New Bern to Goldsboro. Union commanders reasoned that if they could destroy the bridge, it would cut off supplies to the Confederates and make it easier to defeat Lee.

The 52nd was ordered to hold the bridge. But the Confederates numbered fewer than 2,000 against the much larger Union force. After about two hours of fighting, a squad of Union volunteers raced through gunfire and set the bridge ablaze.

The 52nd and other Confederate forces counterattacked, but the bridge could not be saved. Somewhere in all the fighting, William was hit in the arm.

In the Civil War, a wound to an arm or a leg often shattered bones and required the limb to be amputated. Death from such a wound was not unusual. But William was lucky. The bullet did not hit bone. He was listed among the 58 wounded in his unit, but he recovered and returned to duty. Eight men in the 52nd were killed.

The destruction of the bridge did not help the Union's effort against Lee at Fredericksburg, however. Whatever advantage gained by cutting Confederate supplies was lost when Union General Ambrose Burnside foolishly threw wave after wave of soldiers against Confederates securely entrenched behind a stone wall at the top of a hill known as Marye's Heights. Burnside's troops were slaughtered, and he was forced to withdraw from Fredericksburg.

The bridge at Goldsboro was quickly rebuilt.

For several months after the Battle of Goldsboro Bridge, the 52nd North Carolina Infantry was shuttled between eastern North Carolina and Virginia. But in early June 1863, the 52nd was assigned to General Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.

A few weeks later, Lee began his fateful invasion of Pennsylvania that ended in futility at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. Although the war would continue for almost two years after that battle, the Confederacy never recovered from that defeat.

The Battle of Gettysburg also marked the beginning of 18 months of misery and loss for William and his family. By the time the war ended in April 1865, William's three brothers were dead and William had barely survived more than a year in a hellish Union POW camp at Point Lookout, Maryland.

I'll be writing occasionally about my family's experiences during the Civil War Sesquicentennial, including what I've pieced together about William's experiences at Gettysburg and Point Lookout. Check back at Drye Goods for updates.


'Twas the Season, Part 9

December 1951. U.S. troops were mired in a bloody and politically unpopular war in Korea.

Among the American casualties was 20-year-old Corporal Richard E. deVilliers of the 1st Marine Batallion. He'd worked for Bell Telephone in Hayward, California before being shipped off to Korea.

He was killed in fighting near Seoul in 1950.

As a memorial to their former co-worker, a group of Bell employees in San Francisco sent Christmas packages to every member of deVilliers's unit. The grateful Marines found a South Korean tailor to create a Santa costume, turned a jeep trailer into an impromptu wheeled "sleigh," and celebrated Christmas far from home.

The above drawing depicting the Christmas 1951 celebration is from a Bell Telephone ad that was published in the December 1952 issue of Harper's magazine. If there's an artist's signature on the drawing, I couldn't find it.
Check back tomorrow for another glimpse of Christmas Past at Drye Goods.


'Twas the Season, Part 8

This is downtown Spencer, Iowa in 1936, in the middle of the Great Depression.

Times were very bad, but Spencer still managed, in a very modest way, to observe the Christmas season. How? You have to look closely for the town's seasonal decorations. There's a single strand of lights strung between streetlamps, and another strand from the roof of the Spencer Daily Reporter across the intersection to, presumably, another building or lampost on the other side of Main Street.

Click on the picture to enlarge it and get a better look at the lights.

The photo is from the website Papa Ted's Place, and was posted by Ted Althof Jr. There's no information about who shot the photo.

Check back tomorrow for another 'Twas the Season post.


'Twas the Season, Part 7

This photo of an anonymous young girl standing stiffly beside her family's Christmas tree is probably from the late 1920s or maybe the early 1930s. Things were much more formal back then. Getting your picture made was an Event and not an everyday casual occurrence. I'm guessing that sense of special occasion explains the girl's stiff pose by the tree.

Still, the young lady's stylish shingle-bob haircut is on the cutting edge of fashion for the day. The haircut became popular after fashion designer Coco Chanel and actresses Louise Brooks and Clara Bow abandoned the long hair of the demure Victorian era for a hairstyle that became identified with the new woman of the Roaring Twenties. So despite her stiff formality, she's aware of the latest fashions.

The photo is from the website Papa Ted's Place, and was posted by Ted Althof Jr. There's no info about who the girl is, or who shot the photo.

Check back tomorrow for another vintage picture from Christmases past.


'Twas the Season, Part 6

The title of this photo is "Shantyman's Christmas," and it was part of a series of photos shot for Life by George Silk in 1953.

A shantyman is a sailor who leads the crew in sing-alongs. The word is derived from the French word "chanter," which means "to sing." The Life archives don't explain why there's a reference to a "shantyman" in the photo's title. Maybe they were singing Christmas carols while they decorated the tree.

There's no info about where Silk shot this photo. I'm guessing maybe New England, but it could have been any American seaport or fishing village. What is clear, however, is that the captain and his crew or family are decorating the small craft for Christmas.

Check back tomorrow for another "'Twas the Season" post.

(NOTE: This was originally posted on Drye Goods on December 17, 2009)


'Twas the Season, Part 5

Yesterday's photo in this series showed Santa Claus with a serious public relations problem: A scared little kid who clearly wasn't happy about sitting on Santa's lap. That's a major issue for someone whose job is spreading the joy of the season.

But it looks like this Santa was up to the job. There's no record of what he said or did to calm the kid's fears, but whatever he did, it was exactly the right thing. The kid's faith in Saint Nick clearly has been restored.

The photo was shot by Frank Scherschel for Life magazine in 1946.

(Note: This entry was originally posted to Drye Goods on December 16, 2009.)


'Twas the Season, Part 4

Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as Santaphobia. And it looks like this kid might be a victim of the irrational fear of Santa Claus.

But then, if you're only a toddler, it might not be so irrational to be afraid of Jolly Old Saint Nicolas. Look at it from a little kid's point of view. For starters, he’s a lot bigger than a little kid. And then there's this little ditty that you're constantly hearing: “He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good. So be good for goodness sakes!”

Yikes. The guy knows your every move and thought. And if that’s not enough to induce some deep-seated adult neuroses, there's also the fact that you can’t keep him out of your house.

So it looks like this Santa has a serious public relations problem sitting on his lap -- a little kid who did not like being picked up by a big hairy guy who knows everything about him.

So how did Santa handle it? I'll give you a hint: this Santa knows his stuff. But check back tomorrow for the answer.

Frank Scherschel shot thos photo for Life magazine in 1946.

(Editor's note: This entry was originally posted on Drye Goods on December 14, 2009.)


'Twas the Season, Part 3

This photo could be titled "The Creepy Side of Christmas." It shows an infamous and immediately recognizable dictator surrounded by his Nazi synchophants at his Christmas party in December 1941.

Christmas 1941 lacked some of the traditional joy of the season. The United States had been shocked into the war when Japan attacked the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor 71 years ago today. England had endured a savage bombing campaign by Germany that came to be known as the Blitz. Germany controlled most of Europe and seemed about to conquer the Soviet Union. Japan was dominating Asia and the Pacific.

But Christmas Day 1941 marked the peak of Axis power. Soviet troops were about to turn back the Nazi invasion. Japan's dominance of the Pacific would end six months later when the U.S. Navy inflicted a smashing defeat on the Imperial Japanese Navy at the Battle of Midway.

The photo was shot by Hugo Jaeger for Life magazine.

Stay tuned for more pictures of Christmases past.

(Note: This post first appeared on Drye Goods on December 12, 2009.)


'Twas the Season, Part 2

Here's a followup to yesterday's photo of the Santa seminar at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. This Santa is taking the seminar's final exam. Looks like he's working on an essay question.

The photo was made by Martha Holmes for Life magazine in 1948.

I'll be posting old Christmas photos as I come across them on the Web during the next few days.

(Editor's Note: This was originally posted on December 11, 2009)

'Twas the Season, Part 1

(Editor's note: This entry was originally posted on December 10, 2009.)
I’m browsing the Web for old Christmas photos and posting the ones I like.

This photo by Martha Holmes shows a training seminar for Santas at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. The Santa Claus in charge is delivering a lecture to the student Santas. Note the ash trays in front of the students. It was a different era.

The photo was published in Life magazine in 1948.

I’ll be posting these for the next few days as I come across them. So, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and all other appropriate greetings and felicitations of the season.