What Is It About the Civil War and Christmas?

The two seem to go perfect together, but why?  Well, I guess in Fredericksburg it is the proximity of the famous battle to the holiday season that makes for such an easy connection.  Joyce Smith, a parishioner at Cornerstone Baptist Church, has written a Christmas Civil War drama titled “My Friend, the Enemy” which is based on the Mort Kunstler print by the same name.


According to the news story, Smith “studied the picture for months.”  I’m not quite sure what there is to study that would keep one occupied for months, but it culminated in a play that essentially reenacts a meeting between four soldiers on Christmas Day 1862.  Stories of Civil War soldiers meeting to trade and talk are powerful narrative threads in our continued obsession with the Reconciliationist Narrative of the war.  They make the war palatable.  I can only imagine the dialog: (1) What the war is about; (2) Why must we be enemies?; (3) Family and Home…  The play ends with a meeting between two soldiers on Christmas Day 30 years after the end of the war followed by the singing of Christmas Carols.

Americans need to believe that their civil war was special, that the violence did not overshadow our faith in “Good Will Toward Men.”  I tend to think that we emphasize these stories to make ourselves feel better about what happened and why.  It give us a reason not to look too closely at ourselves and our collective past.  Our civil war needs to fit neatly under the Christmas tree.  When we cross the Rapphannock River we want to see two soldiers peacefully engaged rather than thousands of men crossing on the eve of a bloody battle or fugitive slaves crossing to their freedom.  So be it.  Take the family to see this one and remember to bring plenty of good cheer and egg nog.

Image: Mort Kunster’s “My Friend, the Enemy”

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12 comments… add one
  • Ray O'Hara Sep 18, 2011 @ 18:40

    The first Thomas Nast drawing of Santa Claus was of St Nick distributing gifts to Union Soldiers

    Christmas is the time when one most wants to be home. and in those days it stood alone, Thanksgiving was just started. and in Wars, all wars, thoughts turn to home, The homefront years the most for their sons away in the army and it was a war with an almost fetish like attachment to home. “Home boys, home is just over that hill” is how one CSA regimental commander urged his men forward at Gettysburg. ‘Home Sweet Home’ was the song one always reads of being played by the bands of both armies in unison on the nights after a hard days fighting.

    So Christmas loomed large to the men of the time and I think the CW-Christmas connection is one they made and it has echoed down the years more so than a modern attachment of it by us.

    Other wars, WWI , and WWII especially Christmas hit hard at the soldiers hearts.
    on Christmas Eve 1942 on the Stalingrad Front the Russians set up speakers along the front and David Oistrakh the acclaimed Russian violinist played a Christmas concert that both armies suspended fighting to listen to and when some Germans sent a request for a song across the lines he played it. . So the heartbreak of war is what amplifies Christmas and I don’t think its just cynical modern commercialism and whitewashing the past as you seem to be implying.

    To be fair to Kunstler and Gallon their trite and maudlin subjects look much better if you see the originals and not the prints. When I saw some of the originals in the Fredericksburg Art Gallery next to the prints there was no comparison. I still wouldn’t buy them and they are pandering to a narrow fan base but they can paint.

  • Toby Dec 9, 2009 @ 11:55

    You might enjoy this musical-visual representation of a famous case of fraternization in war – Christmas 1914. The video is better than the song.


  • Toby Dec 9, 2009 @ 5:55

    You might enjoy this musical-visual representation of a famous case of fraternization in war – Christmas 1914. The video is better than the song.


  • Timothy J. Orr Dec 8, 2009 @ 13:28

    In the real world, the two soldiers would be wet up to their armpits if they tried to meet midway in the Rappahannock River. On what day of the year is the water level outside Fredericksburg only two inches deep?

  • Ken Noe Dec 1, 2009 @ 14:20

    Reb: Good coffee.
    Yank: Thanks.
    Reb: Where'd you get the fancy coffee pot on the rock there?
    Yank: Stole it over in town t'other day. Got me a woman's dress and part of a piany too.
    Reb: Figured. Say, who's that down river over there by the bridge pier?
    Yank: Him? That's Colonel Chamberlain from Maine, reciting Marcus Lucanus again.
    Chamberlain: Here am I, Caesar, conqueror of land and sea, your own soldier, everywhere, now, too, if I am permitted. The man who makes me your enemy — it is he who be the guilty one.
    Reb: One of them elite liberal perfessers, I reckon, judging by his non-American cant.
    Yank: Every day, the same thing. Least he could do is recite some Artemus Ward or something.

  • msimons Dec 1, 2009 @ 13:36

    Well it is not to hard to envision Kevin since British and Germans stopped WW1 in areas of the front and traded and sang Christmas carols. Plus the Civil War is described as Father against Son and Brother against Brother.

  • Craig Dec 1, 2009 @ 9:11

    Mind you this is not directed at you Kevin, but at the general romantic notion of enemies meeting on the battlefield – What might they be talking about? Well likely the same things that are on the top of a soldier's mind at times of relative inactivity (what passes for leisure for a soldier in the field). Perhaps the weather -” is it going to be rough winter, you think?” Or about basic necessities like clothing, food, and such. Family would not be discussed except in response to the other party's questions – “You married? You have kids? ….” Those tend to be reactive conversation points, more so than proactive. And certainly the “why are we fighting” conversations are rare and fleeting for some obvious reasons.

    But most important, looking at the setting in this painting, no soldier will risk getting wet, and losing the most important of all basic needs (warmth) on a cold winter day unless there is some specific item of value to be obtained. What are they talking about? I'd say they are haggling over the quantity of coffee beans and cut of tobacco which will be traded. Each soldier secretly considering and mentally balancing out what the product is worth on his side of the lines.

    And at some point the conversation ends, not with “You be careful Billy Yank!” and “You too, Johnnie Reb!” Rather with “tomorrow you'll bring the GOOD stuff, right?”

    • Kevin Levin Dec 1, 2009 @ 9:27

      Thanks for ruining the painting for me, Craig. 🙂

      In all seriousness, I think you make some excellent points. Perhaps my imposing of those narrative threads is a function of more recent cultural reference points such as Ron Maxwell's movies and other popular representations as opposed to your suggestion that their interaction is primarily about trade/survival.

      You make a very interesting observation. Thanks again.

      • dylan_h Dec 1, 2009 @ 12:01

        (Ron) Maxwell House coffee ad?


    • Ray O'Hara Sep 18, 2011 @ 18:45

      My favorite artifact in any visitor center is the note a Yankee preserved from a Reb saying ,” here is some tobacco, please respond with a like amount of coffee.” the Yankee sent the coffee and kept the tobacco and the note which his descendants saved and later donated to the Park Service. .

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