Christmas 1861 – Robert Gould Shaw’s Holiday Letter From Frederick, Maryland

When I first came across this letter as I was writing a blog post for the Gratz Civil War Blog in December 2013 about Christmas in the Civil War. I was floored by the details.

The soon-to-be-martyr, Robert Gould Shaw, wrote this letter to his mother while sitting in his guard tent three miles east of Frederick, Maryland in the early morning hours of Christmas Day 1861.

Robert Gould Shaw in 1861 (Public Domain)

In this excerpt from that letter, you get a picture of his everyday experience as a junior officer in the 2nd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, but also the extreme environment he found himself occupying. He, like many other volunteer citizen-soldiers, found themselves marveling at their circumstances.

Few could have imagined in Christmas 1860 that a year later they would be occupying Army encampments scattered across the American countryside.

Below are excerpts of Shaw’s letter, written from Camp Hicks near the Monocacy River east of Frederick, Maryland.

Guard-Tent Second Massachusetts

Camp Hicks, near Frederick, Md., 3:30 AM

December 25, 1861

Dearest Mother,

It is Christmas morning, and I hope it will be a happy and merry one for you all, though, it looks so stormy for our poor country, one can hardly be in a merry humour…

My Christmas Eve has been very much like many other eves during the last six months. On the whole, I have passed quite a pleasant night, though what our men call the “fore-part” of it was principally occupied in taking care of two drunken men (one of them with a broken pate), and in tying a sober one to a tree.

After this was over, I did a good deal of reading, and towards, 1 o’clock, A.M., had some toast and hot coffee, – having previously invited my Sergeant to take a nap, so that I might not be troubled by hungry eyes, and made to feel mean, for there wasn’t enough to give any away.

The drummer (who, with the Sergeant of the Guard, for some reason which I never discovered, sits and sleeps in the officers’ tent) kept groaning in his sleep; and I couldn’t help imagining that his groan always came in just as I took a bite of toast, or a large gulp of coffee. This diminished my enjoyment; and when he suddenly said, “Martha! There isn’t any breakfast,” I was certain that my proceedings were influencing his dreams!

It began to snow about midnight, and I suppose no one ever had a better chance of seeing “Santa Claus”; but, as I had my stockings on, he probably thought it not worth his while to come down to the guard-tent. I didn’t see any of the guard’s stockings pinned up outside their tent, and indeed it is contrary to army regulations for them to divest themselves of any part of their clothing during the twenty-four hours [they are on guard duty.]…

“Merry Christmas” and love to all, dear mother…

Your loving son,

Robert G. Shaw

Shaw left the 2nd Massachusetts after receiving a wound at the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. He was appointed as Colonel of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment in March 1863. Among the first units to be made up of African-American recruits, the 54th Massachusetts proved itself in an ultimately futile charge on Confederate earthworks near Charleston, South Carolina on July 18, 1863.

Colonel Robert Gould Shaw died in the attack, along with hundreds of his men.

Shaw was portrayed by actor Matthew Broderick in the 1989 film, Glory

Matthew Broderick as Robert Gould Shaw, 1989 (Tri-Star Pictures)

(Photo at Top – Camp Hicks near Frederick, Maryland in 1861)

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