Friday, December 20, 2013

Frontier Soldiers’ Christmas

Poinsietta divider Austerity, fear and monotony were routine at frontier army posts. Christmas offered a much needed break in that routine. Festivities and various amusements were often planned for enlisted men as well as the officers and their families. Sometimes soldiers would enact a play or tableau on Christmas Eve. If available, a Christmas tree might be set up, especially if a number of children lived on the post. Image from The Project Gutenberg Ebook of Campaigning with Crook and Stories of Army LIfe, by Charles King

Quoting from the Army and Navy Register in 1886:

Every child in the garrison, Officers’, soldiers’, laundresses’, civilian employees’ little ones were all there and each and every one found a toy, an apple, an orange, a bag of candy and popcorn ‘galore.’ Santa Claus appeared and appointed Major Brown and Lieutenant Barth, Twelfth Infantry, to distribute the gifts.

Twenty years earlier a Christmas ball was held at Fort McPherson, Nebraska. As reported in the Omaha Daily Herald, 

[The ball] was well attended . . . The decorations were extremely elegant and tasteful, and the floor in good order comfortable to dance upon. . . The soldiers behaved, as soldiers should, like gentlemen . . . The officers of the garrison were present and were noticeable for their urbanity toward private soldiers. (Sounds a tad condescending, doesn’t it.)

However, on other posts, Christmas passed without much fanfare. Pvt. Wilmot P. Sanford, Co, D, Sixth Infantry, said of Christmas at Fort Buford, North Dakota:

Monday, December 25, 1876. Clear and cold 28 below. Came off guard in the morning and to the quarters the rest of the day. Having a good drink. Corn, peaches, jelly, butter, duff (a stiff flour pudding) and roast beef and gravy and whiskey drinks. . . Half the company were drunk before night. Not a very merry Christmas!

Christmas in the field was even more dreary, miserable and sometimes dangerous. Sgt. Herman Werner recalled campaigning in Montana: 

Christmas eve of 1884 found us not in the Holy Land. The Bethlehem for troop L, First Cavalry, in the year of 1884 was within the fastness of the Little Rocky Mountains, Montana, on a day when a temperature of forty-two below zero painfully penetrated to the very marrow of man and beast.

In the field near Camp Verde, Arizona, contract Surgeon Henry R. Porter wrote a letter to his father at Christmas, 1872. 

I will close by wishing you all a Merry Xmas and Happy New Year. I should like to be there and eat one of Mother’s famous apple dumplings or plum puddings but I shall be obliged to content myself eating my Christmas dinner on the ground and made up of whatever we can get. Gen. George R. Crook

On a winter campaign led by General George R. Crook, Sgt. James Bryon Kincaid recorded: 

Christmas morning of 1876 was a morning that will be remembered by the men of the campaigns long as life exists. About two o’clock a.m. I awoke, being too cold to sleep longer; or as the boys term it – I froze out, and left the tent.The moon was shining and I saw the sentry was pacing back and forth in front of Gen. Crook’s Quarters. I went over to him and asked if he had any fire, he said he would say not for there was not wood enough in 20 miles to boil a cup of coffee. “Did you freeze out?” he asked, Well you might as well join the rest.” “What do you men,” I asked. “Why look down the valley; they are walking to keep from freezing to death.” I did and in the pale moonlight I could see five or six hundred men walking to keep life in the bodies.”

Let’s remember the soldiers who served then and now in far off places, away from their loved ones during the holidays, often under terrible conditions, and be grateful for their service to our country.


  1. LYN--this is wonderful!!! I loved reading about those Christmases on the frontier. Can you imagine how cold and dreary it was. I empathized with the soldier who was on patrol at 28 below, and even though they all had some nice food, they all got drunk by midnight.
    This is one of the best posts you've done--and all yours are good! This one hit the spot.
    Thanks, and Merry Christmas!

  2. Thank you, Celia. It seemed timely to remember all those who have and still do suffer a sad, miserable Christmas while serving our country. Whether they were on the western frontier or are now in Afghanistan.

  3. Oh wow, how terrible in much have been in some of those far outposts. I've never heard the term 'freeze out'. Very informative, Lyn.

    I pray our troops will receive a nice dinner for Christmas. I know in some areas they do not get a hot breakfast, but those packs with cold food in them. Not fair at all. Makes me very angry for the government to cut back funds for our military.

  4. Linda, I agree. Our troops deserve a Christmas feast AND the best we can possibly provide for them. Not only while they are on active duty, but after they return home.

  5. What a beautiful and informative post.I was so taken by the hardships and darkness of soldiers on the frontier. It reminded me to be mindful of today's soldiers who serve their country far from home.
    Well done, Lyn.

  6. Hey Mama, thanks for stopping in. Glad you liked!

  7. Sarah, that's exactly what I thought as I read these touching quotes from men who really walked the walk.

  8. Thank you, Margaret. Glad you could stop by.

  9. Great post, Lyn. I feel so sorry for all those men endured in that freezing temperatures. I also wish all our men and women in other parts of the world could be with their families for the holidays.

  10. Amen to that, Caroline! We owe our servicemen and women so much.

  11. Terrific post, Lyn. Thank you for letting us in on those Christmases past. Merry Christmas to you and yours!


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