In 1897 writer Wallace Putnam Reed (author of History of Atlanta, Georgia) published an article in the Atlanta Journal sharing his memories of the Christmas of 1863. That was the last Christmas before a particularly unwelcome visitor by the name of William Tecumseh Sherman, along with about 100,000 rowdy friends, came to town. 1863 would mark the last care-free holiday season in Atlanta for decades to come.
Atlantans knew that since the Confederates lost the battles of Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge some weeks earlier, there was a huge Union army based in Chattanooga just waiting for the right time to swoop down on them. But during that Christmas season, no worries about such a possibility disturbed anyone’s holiday cheer. The city was confident that General Joseph E. Johnston, keeping vigilant watch up near the Tennessee line, would never allow a Yankee army to get anywhere near Atlanta.
Christmas was no less commercial then than now
At that time Atlanta was one of the Confederacy’s thriving commercial hubs. Although its population as reported in the 1860 census was under 10,000, Reed says that by 1863 more than 30,000 people called the city home. In addition, as a military center, Atlanta hosted a large cadre of soldiers either stationed in the area, or constantly passing through.
All that bustle meant there was money to be made that Christmas season. In addition to all the soldiers around the city, thousands of civilians were employed either by military facilities in the area, or by the many foundries and factories that were kept busy churning out the materiel of war. And though it took 20 Confederate dollars to buy one gold dollar, and four or five for a U. S. greenback, there were plenty of those Confederate bills floating around in potential customers’ pockets.
Well before the holiday season arrived, Atlanta merchants had prepared themselves. They sent their buyers to cities throughout the Confederacy to procure the goods they knew would fly off their shelves when Christmas shopping began in earnest. In addition, customers who had the money had placed their orders for luxury goods with blockade runners (remember Rhett Butler?) months before. All in all it was a very vibrant Christmas shopping season in Atlanta.
Show me your papers!
Besides the blockade that made it difficult to find that perfect stocking stuffer, there seemed to be only one way in which the reality of civil war intruded on Atlanta’s festive holiday atmosphere. With military manpower needs getting harder to fulfill, the Confederate government had instituted a draft in April of 1862. Now there were stringent rules in place to insure that men who should be in the service didn’t evade their responsibility.
In Atlanta that Christmas season, guards were stationed, sometimes it seemed on every street corner, to demand that any man walking the streets of the city show a pass, a furlough, or exemption papers to prove his right to be there rather than in an army camp. For men who came to Atlanta to do their Christmas shopping, having to produce papers over and over again became, to understate the case, quite annoying.
A Christmas fixed indelibly in memory
Despite the war and the storm clouds the more perceptive inhabitants could discern just over the horizon, that Christmas of 1863 was uniquely memorable. It even snowed on Christmas Day!
Atlanta would see one more holiday season with the Confederate government still reigning in Richmond. But, given the events that would shadow the Christmases of coming years – Sherman in 1864, Confederate surrender in 1865, and Reconstruction thereafter – for decades after, Atlantans remembered that Christmas of 1863, some with fondness, others with relief, as the last Confederate Christmas their city ever experienced.
© 2015 Ronald E. Franklin
Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia