Four Christmases – Holiday excerpts from Henry Keiser’s Civil War diary

The following vignettes are taken from posts I put together for the National Museum of Civil War Medicine’s Facebook page in December 2015.

We’ve written quite a few articles about Henry Keiser, a Civil War soldier from Wiconisco Township. These posts examined his varying Christmas experiences while serving with the 95th and 96th Pennsylvania regiments during the Civil War. Keiser served from 1861 to 1865 and experienced four holiday seasons in the US Army. The accounts are taken from Keiser’s remarkable war-time diary.

Corporal Henry Keiser and his wife in 1864.

Christmas 1861

December 25, 1861. We rested well last night and feel like wishing all a “Merry Christmas” this morning. Each of us received a new blanket this day as a Christmas gift, I suppose (each to pay for his own).

I was invited to take dinner with neighbor Hans as he had a chicken and did not know what to do with it, but we soon found a way to get rid of the fowl. Received a letter from sister Lizzie of Wiconisco [Pennsylvania].

Turkey - Civil War Boston Public Library
Civil War soldiers eating a turkey during the Civil War at Christmastime. (BPL)

December 1861 marked the first Christmas at war for Henry Keiser and the 96th Pennsylvania. They found themselves encamped for the winter on the side of a hill just west of Alexandria, Virginia in a place they nicknamed “Camp Northumberland.”

The 96th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry
The 96th Pennsylvania at Camp Northumberland in early 1862. (NARA)

This entry in Keiser’s war-time diary shows he and his fellow soldiers still have the optimism and naivete of those who hadn’t yet “seen the elephant.” The next year would morph these men into hardened veterans. Battle and disease would ensure that many fewer men of the 96th Pennsylvania would be around to celebrate the Christmas season in 1862.

Christmas 1862

December 25, 1862. Got another order for whiskey and got a canteen full. Spent a very poor Christmas. The day was fine.

A soldier’s Christmas during the Civil War (Edwin Forbes)

Henry Keiser and his comrades in the 96th Pennsylvania witnessed tremendous suffering in 1862, as did many soldiers in both Union and Confederate armies. The year saw the carnage escalate to levels thought unimaginable when the war broke out a year earlier.

The 96th saw its first major combat on the Virginia Peninsula in June, losing 13 men killed during the Battle of Gaines Mill. It also saw fighting as the Union Army cut a retreat back to the James River.

Their next major combat came during the Maryland Campaign in September, when the regiment was tasked with pushing the Confederates off the slopes of South Mountain. They lost 20 men killed, including a beloved field officer, and close to 100 wounded in the fight at Crampton’s Gap.

Crampton's Gap 1
A colorized illustration of the fighting at Crampton’s Gap on September 14, 1862

They escaped major combat at the subsequent battles of Antietam and Fredericksburg, but were nonetheless impacted by the Army of the Potomac’s low morale in the wake of the disaster in front of Marye’s Heights on December 13, 1862.

Keiser’s short diary entry on Christmas Day, 1862 came amid Union soldiers’ bitter feelings and anger toward their officers, the Army’s high command, and the Lincoln administration in Washington.

As Keiser and his comrades drank their whiskey on the wrong side of the Rappahannock River that Christmas, prospects looked bleak for 1863.

Christmas 1863

December 25, 1863. Was not relieved from guard until 12 o’clock last night and at 9 a.m. came off of guard. It was again very cold. J. Alvord received a box from home in which were two shirts for me. Wrote a letter to mother and sent part of my Diary – written on short papers. Got an order on the Suttler from our Lieutenant for $2.00 Jno. Shollenberger had a box from home this after-noon and we had sausages for supper.

Civil War Christmas 1861
Civil War soldiers opening Christmas packages and boxes (Harper’s Weekly)

Henry Keiser had gotten lucky in 1863. He missed his regiment’s only major fight of the year at the Battle of Salem Church in May. He was at home in northern Dauphin County on a short furlough when that battle took place.

The 96th Pennsylvania, and the VI Corps to which it was attached, was largely inactive during 1863. The regiment played a minor role in the Chancellorsville Campaign in May. It arrived late in the evening of July 2nd at Gettysburg after weeks of incredibly hard marching, but was held in reserve. The rest of 1863 was largely filled with long marches and little combat for Keiser and his comrades.

Like Christmas 1862, the Union Army was again on the wrong side of the river, only this time it was outside Culpeper, VA in December 1863.

Keiser and his messmates settled in for a cold Christmas with a number of comforts from home: mail, clothes, and food. They could not know that their most dire challenge was yet to come, and that their greatest sacrifices were to be made in 1864.

Christmas 1864

December 25, 1864. This morning I went over to the 210th Pa. a distance of three miles, and spent my Xmas with cousin Edwin Umholtz. It was dark before I got back to camp. Received a letter from my wife. It was cloudy all day.

The year 1864 changed everything for Sergeant Henry Keiser. During the intense fighting of the Overland Campaign in May 1864, he had watched as several of his best friends were cut down by Confederate bullets and shells at Spotsylvania Court House.

The 96th Pennsylvania lost 31 men killed, another 32 listed as missing, and brought back more than 100 wounded during a single charge on May 10 near the Mule Shoe Salient. Keiser personally helped identify the bloated, decaying corpses of several of his comrades, including a set of brothers who died side-by-side.

The spring and summer of fighting bled the regiment of still more men and by September 1864, when the unit’s enlistment came to an end, the 96th Pennsylvania was disbanded.

Many men went home to Pennsylvania and attempted to rebuild their lives. Others like Henry Keiser stayed the course, now a member of the neighboring 95th Pennsylvania.

Keiser was almost shot down during the Battle of Cedar Creek on October 19, but his ammunition pouch stopped the speeding bullet. He suffered only a minor wound and refused hospital care to stay with his regiment.

Christmas 1864, his last Christmas in the Union Army, was spent near the front line at Petersburg. Everyone could feel the war nearing its conclusion. But there was more fighting to be done to ensure that Christmas 1865 could be spent among friends and family back in Pennsylvania.

December 25, 1865 marked Keiser’s first Christmas at home in four long years. He surely celebrated the holiday surrounded by friends and family. Yet, as many veterans surely noticed, the holiday only exasperated their feeling of loss for the many friends and comrades lost in the camps and on the battlefields of the Civil War.

For Keiser, this meant the loss of his best friend, John Gratz, to typhoid during the brutal winter of 1861-62.

On May 10, 1864, he lost much, much more.

His brother-in-law, Joseph Workman, was taken prisoner and died in enemy hands.

He helped bury the decomposing corpse of his friend James Feree, who could only be identified by the wound he received and the contents of his pocket.

But most devastating of all, he was forced to leave his friend Henry Romberger behind at the enemy earthworks. Mortally wounded, Romberger was left to die alone within enemy lines, his remains destined for an unknown grave.

Henry Keiser and his wife Sallie on their 50th wedding anniversary in 1914.

Keiser never forgot those he lost in those brutal four years at war. He carried their memory with him for the rest of his days. He died in 1933 at the age of 92, one of the last surviving Civil War veteran in the coal mining towns of northern Dauphin County.

Featured Image: Christmas 1862 – Boston Public Library 

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One thought on “Four Christmases – Holiday excerpts from Henry Keiser’s Civil War diary

  1. As we sit in our warm homes on this Christmas Day and think of our distant family and friends, separated from them by the fear of Covid, Henry Keiser’s Civil War Christmastime diary reminds us of true travail and personal loss. Thank you, Jake, for sharing it and putting our situation in perspective.


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