Joy in Sadness, Harpers Ferry's Civil War Christmas

Dec 23, 2015

Every year, dozens of people in Harpers Ferry go back in time. In the shops and at the national park, it's 1864 all over again. It's fun for locals and visitors to see how people in Victorian-era West Virginia celebrated Christmas. But it's also a reminder of how bittersweet it can be for people to try to find a bit of good cheer in the midst of a long and terrible war.

 

 

I walk along cobblestone streets in historic Harpers Ferry. It’s still 2015, but it sure doesn’t feel like it. Most of the buildings around me were built in the 1830s or 1840s.

 

I’m surrounded by reenactors dressed in Victorian style; women in plaid, poufy dresses, bonnets, and some with green or blue parasols; some men are in black suits with a top hat and some patrol the streets dressed in their Union blues keeping an eye out for Confederate guerilla raiders.

There’s a blacksmith hammering in the distance. Some Union soldiers look for a sweet to eat at the confectionary, or they stop by the provost marshal’s office to see if there’s a letter or a package from home. A train rumbles by as I walk outside a Union soldier hospital.

 

 

I’m only brought out of the magic when I see tourists dressed in modern clothes ogling the same scenes I am.

 

I arrive at a large, white tent.There’s a small stage where two men play on instruments; one on a banjo and the other taps a beat on a cow jawbone.

 

On either side of the stage are long tables with holiday crafts for children, and in the corner of the tent is a small Christmas tree decorated with popcorn and cranberry strands.

 

Twenty-two-year-old, Colleen Moran stands next to her grandmother, Mary Lou Taylor. They’re standing behind one of the tables in Victorian style plaid dresses.

 

Colleen Moran (left) helping children decorate gingerbread cookies, a common Christmas tree ornament during the Civil War.
Credit Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

They’re decorating gingerbread cookies with visiting children.

 

“There is colored icing and paper faces that you can put on the gingerbread," Moran explains, "and the very difficult decision is always deciding whether you should give your gingerbread to the tree or if you should just eat it.”

 

Moran’s grandmother tells me how ornaments like the gingerbread cookies used to be the norm during the Civil War.

 

“I explain to the visitors that they did not save ornaments from year to year, they made them fresh every year," Taylor said, "and they made them out of things that were available like nuts and pine cones and things like this, and then they would just throw them out at the end of the year. But during the Civil War, the German soldiers started bringing the glass blown ornaments from Germany, and they remembered those, and so those became more popular, so it was actually during the Civil War that they started saving the ornaments from year to year.”

 

Taylor and her granddaughter come from a family of history buffs. In fact, Taylor sewed the dresses the two of them are wearing. She’s been volunteering at this event for almost 30 years - and for Moran this is year number 16.

 

Credit Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“Well it’s very important just historically to this area to remind people of what happened here on this land and this place," Moran explained, "to the people who are related to a lot of the current residents here. They’re their great-great grandfathers or however many greats. They lived and celebrated and died here. There’s a lot of memories here, and it’s important to remember that.”

 

This is the 45th year for the Old Tyme Christmas event in Harpers Ferry. It’s put together by local businesses and the national park service, and it always happens the first weekend in December.

 

“All the activities here are something that actually happened here," explained John King, the supervisory park ranger for the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, "and as much as possible at the original event location where they happened, too.”

 

King’s colleague, Melinda Day, is out of her ranger uniform for this occasion. She's wearing a light green plaid dress, and her hair is pulled back in a low bun sort of like former First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln.

 

“Because this is a historical park and because we do have a rich Civil War history, we focus on the idea that Christmas and war coexist," Day said, "almost any visitor that walks into this park understands that someplace in this world, American service people are putting their lives on the line even though it may be Christmas, and when a visitor steps into this park for a Civil War Christmas, that’s the same story and relevance that resonates with them in modern times.”

 

Day says Harper’s Ferry was a strategic site in the war - it switched hands 14 times! And in late 1864, things were changing.

 

“The war’s coming to an end, and everybody feels that, and you can feel joy while you’re feeling pain. I think anybody that’s been through something like that could nod their head and say, yes I understand that, you can actually experience joy when you also experience pain,” she noted.

 

A reenactor named Tom Bates is portraying a Union soldier stationed in Harpers Ferry. He runs up to the Provost Marshal's office. There’s a package waiting for him from his wife. Some Union soldiers check the contents of the box to make sure there isn’t any contraband or Confederate propaganda.

 

Two reenactors discussing the contents of a box mailed to a fellow Union soldier stationed in Harpers Ferry.
Credit Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Bates gets some warm clothes, a welcome reminder of home especially at this time of year, but it wasn’t always like this for soldiers during the Civil War. Sometimes they might get a letter saying their child or wife died from disease. Or sometimes it was the other way around.

 

“Today, UPS rolls up to our door, that makes us happy at Christmastime, because we think joy is wrapped up inside of a box," Melinda Day explained, "but during the Civil War, it’s gonna be Adam’s Express that might send you a notice in the mail that you have a package waiting down at the depot, and you need to get down there and pick it up. Well it’s your son’s pocket watch; it’s a small Bible that he carried in his pocket, maybe it’s a pocketknife that you gave him one Christmas long ago; now you’re getting it back, it’s the reverse effect, there is no joy in this, but that’s a Christmas of 1864.”

 

Still, the soldiers stationed in Harpers Ferry in 1864 tried to make merry as best they could even if some of them were far away from home at Christmas.