The Clara Barton Museum Blog

Christmas in Washington – Civil War Style

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Enjoy this reflection on Clara Barton’s experience of Christmas in war-time Washington from 2013. 

Clara Barton spent several years in Washington during Christmas, which also happened to be her birthday.  My impression from reading diaries and letters is that although she did not dislike the holiday, it wasn’t very exciting to her, at least as an adult.  Of course, the Civil War era was quite stressful under the best of circumstances and her commitment and frustration working to establishing a national humanitarian relief organization also took a toll on her emotions.  I regret to say that I have not had time to delve deeply into her later years – I’ve seen some Christmas cards from her that were quite nice in the early twentieth century.

Description of Washington, December 9, 1861
The streets are thronged with men bright with tinsel, and the clattering hoofs of galloping horses sound continually in our ears.  The weather is bright and warm as May, for which blessing I feel hourly to thank the great Giver of all good gifts, that upon this vast army lying like so many thousand herds of cattle on every side of our bright, beleaguered city, with only the soil, for which they peril life, beneath, and the single threads of white canvas above, watching like so many faithful dogs, held by bonds stronger than death, yet patient and uncomplaining.

Thomas Nast engraving for Harper’s Weekly 1863

From a letter written by Clara Barton on December 24, 1861:
…to relate of our big city, grown up so strangely like a gourd all in a night; places which never before dreamed of being honored by an inhabitant save dogs, cats, and rats, are converted into ‘elegantly furnished rooms for rent,’ and people actually live in them with all the city airs of people really living in respectable houses, and I suspect many of them do not know that they are positively living in sheds, but we, who know perfectly we what shelters them.  Well, the present aspect of our capital is a wide fruitful field for description…
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