- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 24, 2006

“Christmas has come once more and it is a very beautiful morning, but O! how changed the scene to what it was last Christmas. Today twelve months ago I was home where I could enjoy the blessings of a comfortable house and home of parents and friends and of religious worship, but this Christmas I am surrounded by warriors, cannons, and guns. … But I hope and pray that the good Lord in his tender mercy may soon bring this state of things to an end and restore Peace and prosperity to our beloved Country again and turn the hearts of the rulers to peace for ever instead of war.”

This soldier’s heart-wrenching plea for peace and home could have been written by one of our soldiers in Iraq. But it wasn’t. The words came from the pen of North Carolina soldier Constantine A. Hege on Christmas Day 1862, and his letter home is how James McIvor opens his wonderful book “God Rest Ye Merry, Soldiers: A True Civil War Christmas Story.”

Recounting the events that transpired at Christmastime during the Battle of Stones River (Tennessee) in 1862, this little volume packs a lot of insight into what Christmas was like during the four terrible years that engulfed the nation from 1861 to 1865. Ironically, as Mr. McIvor points out, it was during those devastating years that Christmas became “a truly American holiday in a way that it had never entirely been before.”

Perhaps it was, in the words of Confederate Hege, “the blessings of a comfortable house and home of parents” that first made Christmastime so special for those lonely, homesick soldiers. As thousands of veterans, both North and South, returned home after the war, they doubtless looked forward to enjoying that first Christmas of peace with loved ones — thankful to have survived a war that had taken the lives of many of their comrades. Yet the war left poignant recollections.

Mr. McIvor recounts one such event as the Union and Confederate armies camped near each other at Murfreesboro, Tenn. It was just after Christmas, on the night of Dec. 30, 1862, that an unusual event occurred. The opposing armies’ bands began playing their favorite melodies. The Union band first struck up a taunting rendition of “Yankee Doodle.” The Confederates fired back with “Dixie” and “The Bonnie Blue Flag.” The duel continued as the Yankees played and sang “Hail Columbia” — “another song from the Revolution that the North had adopted as an anthem of its new fight in the Civil War.”

Then something unplanned and unexpected happened. Mr. McIvor writes:

“Finally one of them struck up ‘Home! Sweet Home!’ As if by common consent, all other airs ceased, and the bands of both armies, far as the ear could reach, joined in the refrain. … Soon the men of both sides, North and South, were all raising their voices to sing the familiar words together.”

The final words of the familiar tune must have reminded the soldiers that they might not see home again: “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home. Home! Home, sweet Home!”

Mr. McIvor recounts the words of one Tennessee soldier: “And after our bands had ceased playing, we could hear the sweet refrain as it died away on the cool frosty air on the Federal side.”

There would be more dying in the days to come, but the men who experienced this very special Christmas season — and survived — would carry those special memories home to their loved ones. As the author points out, “The mass migration and social dislocation the war had left in its wake made a holiday tied to the timeless cornerstones of family and children all the more important to a restless and growing nation.”

If you need a last-minute Christmas gift for a Civil War buff on your list, you would do well to consider this delightful book.

Richard G. Williams Jr. is author of “Stonewall Jackson — The Black Man’s Friend” and “The Maxims of Robert E. Lee for Young Gentlemen” (www.SouthRiverBooks.com).

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