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.