The Grim Christmas of 1863

This cartoon by Thomas Nast, published in Harper's Weekly on December 26, 1863, was perhaps the earliest depiction of now-classic Christmas images.

The warm, cozy images we associate with Christmas likely began in December 1863, when Harper’s Weekly published three elaborate drawings by cartoonist Thomas Nast. The two-page spread, a sort of Christmas triptych, included now-familiar, sentimental images – a bearded Santa Claus with a huge sack of gifts, a soldier on leave being welcomed home with a small Christmas tree in the background, and children playing with toys on Christmas morning.

But Christmas 1863 was quite different for many Americans than Nast’s feel-good images portrayed. Family members were missing from firesides and Christmas celebrations across the divided nation as the start of a third year of bloody civil war approached.

My great-great-grandfather Allison Dry and his family faced such a cheerless Christmas on their farm in Cabarrus County, North Carolina 150 years ago. Two of Allison’s sons – Thomas and my great-grandfather, William – would endure the brutally cold winter of 1863-64 in a Union prisoner-of-war camp in Maryland, living in tents with only a blanket and an occasional few sticks of firewood to keep them warm.

Allison did not own slaves. But his family had nevertheless become deeply invested in this war that had erupted because of slavery. Besides Thomas and William, Allison had another son as well as brothers, cousins, and nephews serving in the Confederate Army. And as Christmas 1863 approached, the awful reality of the American Civil War had come home to his doorstep.
Thomas, a member of the 5th North Carolina Infantry, had been taken prisoner on July 1, 1863 during the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. A month later, Allison learned that his brother, Henry Dry, who was serving in the Confederate Army in Charleston, South Carolina, had died of typhoid. Then came the news that William, serving in the 52nd North Carolina Infantry, had been captured on October 14 at the Battle of Bristoe Station in Virginia.

Allison’s son Daniel was serving with the 8th North Carolina Infantry. In December 1863, Daniel’s unit was sent north from the relative safety of Raleigh to the frontline battlefields near the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia.
From Gettysburg, Thomas was sent to Fort Delaware, a massive pile of bricks on an island in the Delaware River about 45 miles downriver from Philadelphia. The fort, completed in 1859, was intended to protect Philadelphia from enemy warships. But in 1863 it was being used as a prison for captured Confederate soldiers.

The conditions Thomas encountered at Fort Delaware were far from comfortable, but they could be endured. “Things here are not quite as bad as I expected to find them,” Henry Berkeley, a captured Confederate soldier from Virginia, wrote in a letter home in the late summer of 1863. “They are, however, bad, hopeless and gloomy enough without any exaggeration.”
For the first couple years of the war, the Union and Confederate governments operated POW camps as temporary holding pens. Prisoners were detained until they could be “exchanged” for prisoners from the other side.

But that relatively civilized system fell apart because Union leaders became reluctant to recognize the Confederacy as a legitimate government, and because Confederate military officials refused to exchange captured black Union soldiers. So POW camps in the North and South became steadily more crowded. And the crowded conditions steadily increased the death toll among prisoners in both Union and Confederate camps.
On July 20, 1863, Union military officials decided to establish a POW camp at the tip of a peninsula in Maryland where the Potomac River joins the Chesapeake Bay. It was called Point Lookout. The federal government had already built a large military hospital to treat Union soldiers near the tip of the peninsula, and the POW camp was built just to the north of the hospital.

The exposed location of the camp made it very hot in the summer and extremely cold in the winter. General Gilman Marston, a political appointee who had represented New Hampshire in the U.S. House of Representatives before the war, was put in charge of the camp.
Like all POW camps on both sides in the Civil War, it would become a hellhole.

On August 15, Marston notified his superiors in Washington, D.C. that he was ready to receive 1,000 prisoners. Union officers responded by sending 1,300 Confederates to Point Lookout.

When the first prisoners arrived, it turned out that the Point Lookout commander had exaggerated the readiness of the camp. The 15-foot-high wooden fence to contain the prisoners had not been completed. So Union soldiers with bayonets fixed to their rifles guarded the Confederates. A few tried to escape. They were shot and killed.

By late September, nearly 4,000 Confederate soldiers were imprisoned at Point Lookout. On October 7, with fall’s chill in the air, Marston sent a recommendation to Washington suggesting that a wooden barracks be built to house the prisoners.

But the request was denied. Instead, with winter approaching, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton ordered 10,000 tents sent to Point Lookout.
A week later, William Dry was captured at Bristoe Station and sent to Washington, D.C., where he was held in a building that had served as a temporary capitol after British troops burned the city in 1814.

While William was being held in Washington, his brother Thomas was transferred from Fort Delaware to Point Lookout on October 18. By now, the population of the 40-acre camp had more than doubled to almost 9,000. And the new prisoners brought a problem that would be exacerbated by overcrowding.
During the fall of 1863, smallpox killed 860 Confederate soldiers at Fort Delaware. Marston complained that every group of prisoners sent to Point Lookout from Fort Delaware included men suffering from the highly contagious and potentially deadly disease. It is an illness that thrives in crowded conditions. By late October 1863, Point Lookout was becoming more crowded by the day.

On October 27, 1863, William and other prisoners in the old capitol building in Washington were herded aboard a train. Their destination was Point Lookout, where they would become part of the shivering, ragged horde being held behind the high walls near the tip of the chilly peninsula.
There’s no record of whether William knew that his younger brother was already at Point Lookout. But it’s hard to imagine that they didn’t eventually find each other.

In November, Dr. W.F. Swalm, a medical officer with the 14th Brooklyn Regiment, was sent to inspect the prisoners at Point Lookout. Swalm was an odd choice to make the inspection.
During the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, Swalm and another Union medical officer had been captured by the Confederates and sent to Richmond as prisoners of war. But rather than being confined, they were allowed to move freely about the city. They became minor celebrities in the Confederate capital, where they were entertained in the homes of the city’s gentry. They responded to their captors’ hospitality by loudly denouncing President Abraham Lincoln and the Union cause and vowed that when they were exchanged, they would settle their affairs up North and move back to “Dixie’s Land” as permanent residents.

Perhaps their comments were sincere. Or maybe they realized that their harsh criticism of Lincoln and the Union war effort earned them extraordinary privileges in the capital city of their enemy. Whatever their motivations, their comments became public record when they were published in the Richmond Dispatch, and later in the New York Times.

Eventually Swalm and the other doctor were exchanged, and in May 1862, while testifying before the House Committee on the Conduct of the War, the doctors accused Confederate soldiers of “inhuman acts” and “terrible monstrosities.”

When Swalm inspected the prisoners at Point Lookout in November 1863, he reported that the hospital for sick prisoners consisted of 18 unheated tents, and noted that the weather was turning very cold. The winter of 1863-64 would be one of the coldest on record.

Swalm also noted that the sick men were in a “filthy” condition, and that the entire POW camp was similarly dirty. The prisoners were ragged and did not have warm clothing. Three men had to share one blanket in the tents.

The cold was brutal on the thinly clad prisoners. “In winter when a high tide would flood the whole surface of the ground, freezing as it flooded, the suffering of the half-clad wretches, accustomed to a southern climate, may be imagined,” Anthony M. Keiley a former prisoner at Point Lookout, wrote in a memoir after the war. “. . . So severe was the cold that even the well-clad sentinels had to be relieved every thirty minutes, instead of every two hours, as is the army rule.”

The conditions at the camp appalled Frederick Knapp of the U.S. Sanitary Commission. He suggested that the Commission send food and clothing to the Confederate prisoners. “I know that they are our enemies, and bitter ones, and what we give them they will use against us, but now they are within our power and are suffering,” he said in a report to the Commission.

But General Marston, the commander of the Point Lookout POW camp, had little sympathy for his Confederate prisoners. And Swalm’s earlier, well-publicized comments in Richmond gave Marston a convenient excuse to dispute the accuracy of Swalm’s report on conditions in his camp. After all, how could anyone trust the word of a man who had denounced his country and commander-in-chief in the heart of enemy territory?

In a December 4 letter, Marston denied that the conditions described by Swalm existed and said the prisoners’ woes were largely their own fault. “That they are a dirty, lousy set is true enough, but having afforded them every facility for cleanliness the duty of the Government in this regard  ... is accomplished,” he wrote.

Union officers prevented Swalm’s report from being released. Still, either a copy of the report or a description of its contents found its way to Dr. Montrose Pallen, a Mississippi physician who was involved in Confederate intrigues in Montreal, Quebec.
Pallen sent a letter to Union Major General E.A. Hitchcock describing the conditions. “Many of the prisoners are without the necessary clothing even to hide their nakedness, and during the late cold weather several absolutely froze to death at Point Lookout, where they are living in tents, and more than half of the 9,000 and more confined there have not even a single blanket for covering or bedding and sleep on the bare ground,” he wrote.

But Union officers seemed determined to keep the prisoners at Point Lookout in enforced misery.
The prisoners weren’t allowed to receive a new article of clothing without giving up a similar article of clothing, Kieley wrote in his memoir. “(S)o literally was this rule enforced that prisoners who came in barefooted were compelled to beg or buy a wornout pair of shoes for exchange before they were allowed to receive a pair sent to them by a friend.”

And when the Union Army added black soldiers to its ranks, the African-American troops replaced white guards at Point Lookout. The black guards, many of them former slaves, often took great delight in tormenting their former masters.

And the food, what there was of it, was terrible. “For my part, I never saw any one get enough of anything to eat at Point Lookout except of the soup, one spoonful of which was too much for ordinary digestion,” Kieley wrote.

By Christmas 1863, the smallpox problem had become so severe at Point Lookout that officials had set up a separate hospital about a quarter-mile from the main compound for prisoners suffering from the disease. The prisoners admitted to the hospital were cared for by Catholic nuns belonging to the Sisters of Charity from Emittsburg, Maryland.
The nuns, in their unusually wide and tall white cornettes and black habits, added an air of dignified solemnity to the wretched conditions in the camp.

The late-December weather became so bitterly cold that five prisoners froze to death on New Year’s Eve 1863. “We all suffered a great deal with the cold and hunger,” Sergeant Bartlett Malone, a member of the 6th North Carolina Infantry, wrote in his diary. “Two of our men caught a rat and cooked it and ate it.”

That same night, Thomas Dry was admitted to the smallpox hospital. He died on January 29, 1864. Somehow, his older brother William would survive another year at Point Lookout until POW exchanges finally resumed. He was exchanged in February 1865. Still, there would be more bad news -- much more -- for Allison Dry and his family before 1864 ended.
Sources consulted for this story included Point Lookout Prison Camp For Confederates, by Edwin W. Beitzell; Portals to Hell: Military Prisons of the Civil War, by Lonnie R. Speer; exhibits at Point Lookout State Park in Scotland, Maryland, and documents from the National Archives.

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