Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas in Georgetown, 1861

150 years ago, Christmas was observed by soldiers encamped around Washington, including those in Georgetown. (See All Not So Quiet Along the Potomac for a good overview of how Christmas was observed throughout the military camps)  Somewhere between 7,000 to 15,000 Union soldiers-- including those in hospitals-- would be quartered in Georgetown, a town whose residents' loyalty to the Union was suspect.  For many soldiers, this would be their first Christmas away from home and for some it would be their last.

The Washington Evening Star reported that the holiday was "very generally and very properly observed" in Georgetown.  The Baltimore Sun noted that the retail stores on both sides of the Potomac were doing brisk business and that despite the war, "it seems all are bent on the full enjoyment of the holiday season, and there is every indication of a merry Christmas among our citizens and in the camps of the soldiers."  The day opened with celebratory gunfire and firecrackers, according to Washington diarist Horatio Nelson Taft.  To preserve the public peace, saloons in Washington were closed all evening.

In Union camps and hospitals near Georgetown, soldiers decorated their quarters with evergreens and held religious services.  The Catholic Church's Christmas services were well attended.  Soldiers were relieved from the monotony of drill on this day and feasted on turkeys, chickens and other meats.  Many were able to open packages delivered from home.

Less fortunate that Christmas Day were the workmen employed on converting the Aqueduct Bridge, which connected Georgetown to the Virginia shore, into a military roadway.  They were yielded to "military necessity" by working on the holiday to lay the bridge's flooring.

A 1861 view of Georgetown taken from the Virginia side of the Potomac..  The Aqueduct Bridge, located just north of today's Key Bridge, was being retrofitted with a plank roadway in December 1861 to facilitate military traffic.  Georgetown University is in the background up on the hill.  The Union soldiers in the foreground are posing on Mason's Island (now known as Roosevelt Island). (Library of Congress)

The Baltimore Sun
Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, December 24, 1861 (online at Library of Congress)
Washington Evening Star, December 26, 1861.


  1. By coincidence, I went today to find this rock, after seeing the picture in the Washington Post. The big flat end makes it still recognizable; it is at the NW end of the island, the first rock outcrop as you go east. I estimate it to be at coordinates 38.899863,-77.06523

  2. Thanks Josh. I went out to Roosevelt Island a few weeks ago and was going to see if I could find the rock in the photo and get a similar vantage point, but it was too muddy. I will go out using your estimated coords.

  3. You can get the same angle, but across a little patch of water, with a tree in the way. Still, you can line things up using the end of the rock to replicate the photo.