From the front, Christmas Day, 1863
Photo courtesy of Martha's Vineyard Museum
Martha's Vineyard's history is a rich narrative of people and events. The Times has invited the Martha's Vineyard Museum to draw on its unique cache of photos and first-person accounts to describe interesting people and unfamiliar moments in Island history, in a series called to mind sometimes, but not always, by present dates.
The letter below was written by Charles Macreading Vincent. Known as Charlie Mac, he was born in Edgartown in 1843 and worked as a printer at the Vineyard Gazette for a year before enlisting as a private in August 1862. Charlie Mac served for three years, stationed from near Washington and then, near the end of the war, near Richmond. His Christmas day 1863 experience detailed here was from his posting in South Carolina.
The Martha's Vineyard Museum collections contain three diaries and almost 60 letters. These materials were organized by a former museum curator and director, Marian Ragan Halperin, and, with an introduction and notes, were published as a book by the museum in 2008. "Your Affectionate Son, Charlie Mac" is available at the museum.
This Christmas letter testifies to the humanity and nearly universal experiences that gave the troops relief from the tough side of war and fighting. Food and fun dominated this soldier's day, even while he was so far away from loved ones. Nevertheless, Charlie Mac's letter suggests a young man counting the days before his life might return to normal.
Charlie Mac survived and returned to the Island, where he returned to newspapering at the Gazette.
Sunday, Dec. 27th 1863
My Beloved Mother—
Some time has elapsed since the date of my last note to you, longer than I usually allow myself to be silent. But we have been extremely busy preparing for Christmas. Since we came back from Otter Island, we have had a great deal of hard work to do. The first thing on the docket was to build a house for the company to eat their meals in. The other companies in the regiment had built theirs for a similar purpose. D company, being the last on the list, we concluded we would have something that would take the starch out of the rest of them. For a long time we have borne the reputation of being the best company in the 40th, & we resolved that our reputation should not suffer for lack of a good "eating house." Our principal trouble has been the lack of tools, but we put our wits at work and with the use of axes, hatchets & one saw, have got up quite a building, of the following dimension, 23 ft. long, 20 ft. broad, 10 ft. rafter, with a little portico in the front. The house is covered with palmetto leaves, windows are of the gothic style with lattice work, and a white curtain inside. We are to have five tables inside, capable of seating 12 men each and have got a fine building take it all the way round. By dint of hard exertion we completed it sufficiently to allow us to take our first meal Christmas noon. Well, we had a big dinner, I can tell you. The best I have seen since I entered the service of Uncle Sam.—We had roast beef, turnips, potatoes, tomatoes, and all the "fixin's" such as horse radish, pepper sauce, &c. Then come on a great plum pudding, and mince pies, and a dessert of apples, raisins and nuts. Our officers were very kind, and tried their best to give us an opportunity to enjoy ourselves, and we did just that thing I can tell you. By orders from headquarters the day was set apart as a holiday (no duty to perform.)—The officers of the Reg't. for the purpose of having some sport had contributed funds for prizes in several games and races, as follows.
Mock Dress Parade at 11 A.M. Prize for the most absurd character $5.00. A "Sack Race." Prizes $5.00, $3.00, $1.00. "Wheelbarrow Race," (blindfolded) prizes same as in Sack Race. "Foot Race" prizes $5.00 &c. A "Greased Pole" prize $10.00.—They were all carried out in good style, and afforded some rich sport. No one would try the "Pole," for the reason that it would have been useless. It was as smooth as glass before they greased it, and was about twenty feet long. The Dress Parade was the most laughable feature of the day. Some of the most ridiculous looking personages I ever saw, and the most of them acted their parts to perfection. "Taps" were not sounded until 10 P.M. giving us an hour and a half more than usual. I did not take an active part in any of the games, except for dinner, and I think I carried out my part of this performance as well as any of them. I ate all I wanted, I'll bet. Take it all the way round, and I think I may safely say, I enjoyed myself better than ever I did in the army before or since, and Christmas, 1863 will always be reckoned as an era in my army experience.
The weather to-day is comfortably warm, but cloudy, and looks favorable for a storm soon. Christmas morning the rebs. made a demonstration at Stono Inlet, and attempted the capture of the gunboat Marblehead. They were unsuccessful, and went away with less men than they came with. I understand there were one or two men killed on board the gunboat and four or five wounded. Thomas Fisher is aboard of the Marblehead. I had a note from him the other day inviting me to come & see him. Shall avail myself of the first opportunity. Tom is acting Master's Mate, now. He was well and hearty. Said he had just learned for the first time that I was in the department.
I am kept busy nearly all of my time writing. Have been making out the clothing account for the Company, and this week have got to make the muster and payrolls for Nov. & Dec.
Have just returned from dinner. Had "salt hoss" & boiled potatoes. Have had a good smoke, and concluded I will go on with my letter.
I had quite a mail, Christmas afternoon, a circumstance that made the day all the more pleasant. A letter from you, one from Frank dated Gay Head, Dec. 9th, one from Photographer Schute, papers from some of you, Allen Weeks and Capt. J. Sprague Smith. The box will probably be here this week. Shall inform you as soon as possible after its arrival. Have not the slightest doubt but what I shall enjoy it when it does come. I wrote a letter to Aunt West the other day, hope she will get it safe.
Well, it is almost sixteen months since I left you, but I am in hopes to be with you in the flesh ere another sixteen shall elapse. One thing is pretty certain, if I am alive in about twenty months from the present day, I shall be with you. My health continues to be of the first rate and I am thankful it is so. I look but little as I did a year ago at Minor's Hill, that's certain. Give my love to all the dear friends. I was extremely sorry to hear of the death of Susan Maria Norton. It must be a sad blow to all her friends. I always entertained the idea that she is what might properly be termed a lovely woman. Was glad to hear that Freddy was quite smart again. I want to see you all and wish I could hear Gracie's little tongue fly. I prize her picture highly, it would take considerable greenbacks to induce me to part with it. You will probably receive a bundle from me, ere this reaches you. I refer to the "Soldier's memorial." I want a good frame to it, and I'll foot the bill. I think it is quite pretty. Cost me a dollar. It is a complete roll of the Company.
Shall close for this time
The travels and travails of Charlie Mac form only part of the story of Vineyard history, as it relates to the Civil War during the celebration of the sesquicentennial. More of Charlie Mac's story and those of other islanders who fought and died are told in the museum's current exhibition entitled "We are Marching Along: Martha's Vineyard and the Civil War", now open through April 21, 2012.
The Martha's Vineyard Museum, at 59 School Street in Edgartown, is open Monday through Saturday, 10 am to 4 pm in the winter. Closed from Christmas Eve day, December 24, through the Monday holiday, January 2, the museum re-opens January 3 and maintains regular hours once again. For more information, visit www.mvmuseum.org or call 508-627-4441.
David Nathans is executive director of the museum.