1864 : Christmas Eve in Georgia

December 24, 2020 all-day

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21st Michigan Infantry During the Civil War

Many of William T. Sherman’s “bummers” surely deserved the poor reputations they received as they plowed through Georgia in December 1864, raiding the farms that fed Confederate armies as they marched. But their arrival in Savannah during Christmas week, where they were greeted by fresh food and supplies from up north, brought out the more human side of many of the war-hardened soldiers.

On Christmas Eve, 18-year-old Captain Charles E. Belknap from Grand Rapids, leading Company H of the 21st Michigan Infantry, received orders to muster 90 men and 100 mules with all the food they could carry and deliver it to a small Georgia town northwest of Savannah. The village had been repeatedly ransacked by soldiers from both armies and had no food left. Belknap led his men down a palmetto-lined road through rice marshes to the village, while several of the Michigan soldiers saw alligators for the first time along the way.

For most of Belknap’s men, this was their third Christmas of the war away from their homes. As they marched along, one jovial soldier began to sing Christmas carols to “drive away the homesickness that was eating his heart out.” Belknap approved, and ordered the man to fall out by the roadside and to encourage the other men to sing along. Soon, the entire column was singing familiar carols to the accompaniment “of the clank of the bell on the lead animal and the shouts of the drivers.”

As the soldiers approached the village, the residents hid behind locked doors fearing another raid. The Michigan men unpacked their wagons, built a fire and cooked pork and coffee. The hungry citizens of the village cautiously emerged from their homes, many with small children. Soon the entire village joined the soldiers around the campfire for a hot meal. Belknap recalled: “There was such a touch of home about it all – the women and children and the campfires, the Christmas Spirit – that those bummer boys fairly bubbled over with happiness. Men joined in with songs who had never tried a note before in their lives.” That night the Yankee soldiers slept well, rolled up in their blankets in their bivouac on the village green and returned to Savannah the next day.

Reposted from Michigan History Blog, December 23, 2020.

Source:  James Genco.   Into the Tornado of War: A History of the 21st Michigan Infantry.  Bloomington, IN : Abbott Press, 2012.

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