A number of significant military events have occurred during the Christmas season. George Washington's crossing of the Delaware River on the night of December 25, 1776, to attack unsuspecting Germans partaking in a little too much Christmas cheer became one of the most legendary events in history. Less known than Washington's holiday feat, the annual Christmas celebration at West Point in 1826 deteriorated into a mutinous "eggnog riot" involving more than a third of the corps of cadets. Following a decree that the holiday should be observed without alcohol, high-spirited Southern cadets (in particular) smuggled whiskey into the academy barracks and holiday festivities deteriorated into violence, including attempted murder. Cadet Jefferson Davis led the riot, while Cadet Robert E. Lee managed to remain aloof.
The Mexican War saw the sharp Christmas-day Battle of Bracito, which left sixty-three Mexicans dead. The victorious American troops, who suffered no deaths, celebrated Christmas night by throughly enjoying captured Mexican food, wine, and cigarillos. A generation later in 1864 General William Tecumseh Sherman sent a "Christmas card" in the form of a telegram to President Lincoln presenting the city of Savannah as a Christmas gift. The frontier army itself carried out several campaigns around the Christmas season, and the reality of bloodshed provided stark contrast to the usual joyous festivities. A dramatic example was the Indian survivors of the Wounded Knee Massacre, who were taken to a makeshift chapel hospital still decorated with Christmas finery.
As the army moved to foreign soil in more recent times, so did Christmastime conflicts. American-held Bastogne withstood a Christmas-day attack by the Germans in 1944. The Vietnam War had dragged on throughout many Christmases before President Nixon ordered the "Christmas bombing" of Hanoi and Haiphong in 1972, an effort which failed to produce victory. And you may recall Christmas 1991 and seeing the video of American soldiers bringing food to starving children in Somalia.
Clearly, Christmas is woven into the fabric of our military history. Nowhere was this history more charming, tragic, elegant, and memorable than in our own frontier army of 1865-1900. As you will see in A Frontier Army Christmas, these celebrations of Christmas were frequently dependent upon the whims of history and the fortunes of war.
Lori A. Cox-Paul and Dr. James Wengert
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