Christmas 1864 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

Setting aside the affliction occasioned in families, by the loss of dear ones sacrificed in the war, the people of the free and loyal States have cause for abundant joy on the return of merry Christmas. 

In the midst of a great war – a war of most prodigious consumption – a war demanding all the energies of the Government and all the devotion of the people to carry it on successfully – in the midst of such a war, the nation finds itself more prosperous than ever it was before. Labor of all description is better paid than ever it was – there is no just cause for the idleness of men or women – the mechanic and the merchant have more to do than they can accomplish – the former is reaping a magnificent harvest of liberal profits – indeed, prosperity and abundance bless the land.

While we are filling up old armies and recruiting new forces, there seems to be no falling off of the active population of the land The places of the dead who have perished in glory and passed to immortality, are filled up by active men emulous of the noble deeds of their brethren. Victory, prosperity and real joy, greet the nation as it prepares to welcome merry Christmas. Never did any people present such a spectacle of greatness while engaged in so formidable a struggle for their existence. Engaged in the solution of a great principle and passing through the fiery ordeal of war, we yet preserve in vigor and freshness all the blessing of peace – all the benefits and the advantages of a prosperity not equaled, today, by any nation on earth!

Respecting the sorrow of the afflicted, and sincerely sympathizing in the loss of those who have been bereaved by the casualties of war, we still believe that every heart in the land, which beats responsive to loyalty, will have cause to be gratefully happy as Christmas is ushered in tomorrow.

The nation stands forth, today, disenthralled and vindicated. The traitor assumption of a lack of power to preserve its own life, has been beaten down; and on the ruins of rebellion, as grand a nationality now rears itself as ever reflected the glory of Heaven since the angels sang on the plains of Galilee, “Peace on earth and good will to men.” A merry Christmas to all! A merry Christmas to the soldiers’ widow and the soldiers’ orphans, for by their losses we have preserved to us a home and a country, and our joy can only be unadulterated as we know that they have all that earth can afford to alleviate their sorrow. A merry Christmas to all – to the poor as well as the rich. A hallelujah to God for his blessings, and a shout of congratulations for the country on its victorious redemption from rebellion – are due from all hearts.”

This passage comes from the Christmas Eve edition of Harrisburg’s Daily Telegraph  in 1864. The message speaks of the tremendous strain nearly four years of war placed on the country. The fourth year of the war also proved to be especially painful. With campaigns grinding on throughout the South, thousands of names were added to the already vast casualty lists. With little hope of a breakthrough, frustration in the North grew as Ulysses Grant’s prolonged siege of Petersburg slogged on into its sixth month.

Pennsylvania witnessed the damage unrestrained warfare could produce when in the late summer of that year, sixty percent of Chambersburg burned following a Confederate raid into the Keystone State. Photographs of the destruction illustrate how vengeful rebels laid waste to the seat of Franklin County.

Positive news, however, trickled in around Christmas 1864 that Sherman was on the verge of capturing the port city of Savannah, Georgia. The path Sherman and his troops cut through the Georgian countryside on their March to the Sea speaks to the destructive nature of “total war.” On December 22, Sherman telegraphed President Abraham Lincoln with the news that Savannah had fallen. “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition and also about 25,000 bales of cotton,” the famous telegram read. 

The overall message, as written by George Bergner and company, is that the war seemed to be nearing its bloody conclusion. A merry Christmas could be had with the knowledge that a war that had already claimed more than a half-million lives would soon be at its end. War, the editor notes, had been very good to the industry and economy of Central Pennsylvania, and bestowed “all the benefits and the advantages of a prosperity not equaled…by any nation on earth.”

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