Women in the War

A Very Underwood Christmas

A wonderful aspect of reading a published diary or journal, is the opportunity for comparisons across the months and seasons. While reading Josie Underwood’s Civil War Diary – a must for anyone looking to understand the division that occurred between families and friends during the conflict – I was able to make such comparisons between the Christmases of 1860 and 1861. Josie, the daughter of an outspoken Unionist, Warner Lewis Underwood, was prolific in recording the eventful days she spent in Tennessee and Kentucky in the first few years of the Civil War. Her hometown of Bowling Green became the Confederate capital of Kentucky, and her family became ostracized for their Unionist sentiments in the middle of a secesh community.

In 1860, though the tensions between North and South were at its height, Josie traveled to Memphis, Tennessee shortly after becoming a “full fledged ‘Young lady’.” There, she spent a lively Christmas with her sister and close friends. She wrote about the day’s events on December 26th.

I was dead tired yesterday when all the excitement was over and at last we could go to bed. Such a jolly day as we had, and in all my life I never got so many pretty things. By daylight all the darkies came tipping in, first one then another – poking their black heads in the doors – suddenly calling out “Christmas Giff Mars William-christmas giff Miss Jupe, Miss Jane-Miss Josie, Christmas giff, everybody.” So we were all “caught,” as we knew we would be – and had prepared presents for the occasion. There being no children in the house firecrackers were dispensed with but were popping all around the neighborhood. We had a great time unloading the stockings which we had hung up in sister’s room – Mr. Western playing Santa Claus. Breakfast was hardly over before the bell began to ring and we [began] to receive all sorts of pretty gifts, books, flowers, baskets of fruits, cards, and calls. After supper ever so many gentlemen called – We had egg nog with the brightest toasts – singing and playing, with a battle of wits between Mr. Crew and Mr. Western which kept us in uproarious laughter. The climax of fun was reached when about 11 o’clock the bell rang and Jack Henry who had left a little while before staggered in with a big gunny sack on his back – marked in white chalk – “For Miss Josie.” He put it down in the middle of the parlor – all gathered around whilst I untied the string – When up popped Ed. Norma’s [Eckstein Norton] head – like Jack-in-the-box. Out he stepped. Nobody except Jack knew he was in Memphis and they had planned this funny surprise. “What will you do with your present,” they all asked, making all sorts of fun at my expense – so I said “I’ll get Mr. [Thomas] Carrington (a banker) to lock it up in a safe deposit vault and he answered, “I’ll do it with the greatest pleasure.” So the day ended – all as merry and happy as Christmas could be – only I wish Ex hadn’t come. This evening he called again and asked me to go with him tomorrow to call on some sort of connection of ours 3 miles in the country. Much as I wanted to I could not refuse – but oh! I dread that ride.[1]

Josie had every reason to dread the marriage proposal of Mr. Norton, as she did not love him. Such proposals would pop up frequently in her journal as the months and years progressed, but I won’t give away the ending. In December of 1860, while the world slowly leaned in the direction of war and secession, Josie and her party were able to happily set aside any political differences and enjoy their holiday festivities. A year later, this would be even more difficult.

By December of 1861, Mount Air – her family home – would be overrun by Confederate troops camping in the yard, tearing down fences, stealing from the kitchen stores, and even dismantling slave cabins on the property. Kentucky had claimed neutrality, but as a border state, the war came quickly to their doorstep. The Underwood family was split, as some joined the Confederacy, like Mr. Western who had played Santa Claus, and another of Josie’s brothers-in-law, Mr. Grider, joined the Union army. One of the interesting contradictions in the Underwood family were their ardent Unionist views, while still embracing the institution of slavery with the rest of the South. Repeated many times through her diary, her family were loyal Southern Americans, not Southern Confederates. This only illustrates the wide range of political and social attitudes that colored the Civil War era. Such distinctions as Secesh and Union, North and South, or Slave and Free states were not as clear cut as it may seem.

As Josie wrote on December 25, 1861, her mind drifted back to the previous holiday seasons.

[Christmas] Night! What a sad contrast to all former Christmas’ days at Mount Air – No family gathering – only dear Pa, Ma and Me to make a strain of merriment – to make the children and negroes happy – Uncle Henry is with us – but the dear old man is much troubled for Virginia though he says so little – Last night the children hung up our stockings as usual in Pa’s and Ma’s room and all the little darkies hung theirs around the fire place in the dining room – and found them full bulging with candy and some simple gifts, an orange at the top. “Lady” and Mary were delighted with the dolls I had dressed for them and the boys and I had no cause to complain of our gifts – I had made Ma a soft Gray flannel wrapper and knit Pa a pair of riding gloves – and as one little darkie said – Old Santy Claus got through with his pack [in] spite [of the] secesh” – The older darkies came tipping in early, grinning and happy to catch Mars Warner and Miss Lucy – “Christmas gift” – “Christmas gift Mars. Warner” – “Chris’mas gif Miss Lucy” – Then tipping up stairs popping their heads into my door with “Chris’mas gif Miss Josie” – we had our egg nog which nobody can make so good as Ma – and the boys have a good time popping fire crackers, with soldiers helping them – so the day passed – till the children and Uncle Henry went to bed – and Pa, Ma, and I sat long into the night talking of those wont to gather with us on this day and of the sad condition of our country and our own home – and then we three knelt together – whilst Pa prayed earnestly for Peace, God’s guidance for us all and I kissed them, and left them and my heart almost breaking for their troubles. “Peace on Earth, Good will to men!” Alas! How the song of the Angels is mocked by the present condition of the country.[2]

She added the next day:

“In writing of Christmas day I forgot to say – we had kept one lone turkey gobbler[sic] to have for our Christmas dinner – keeping him in as secret confinement was compatible with turkey health – Last night when no soldiers were prowling about – “seeking what they might devour” – Uncle Lewis went to get the gobbler – when lo he was gone and no doubt some Army men had our Christmas dinner.[3]

While some elements remained the same, such as the enslaved coming to collect their gifts, the hanging of the stockings, the sound of firecrackers set off by children, eggnog, and the exchanging of gifts, the mood and joviality of the holidays was seriously lacking compared to the year prior. This is evident in the difference of conversation. Instead of witty banter and laughter, discussions over the grim affairs of war and disunion ended the day on a somber note. Josie and her family would spend Christmas of 1862 in Scotland, far from the war and progressively worsening state of their beloved Union. The tide would turn in 1863, but life would never be the same for the Underwood family, or any family.

Merry Christmas from the Bitikofer house!

It’s my sincerest wish to all the readers and followers of this humble blog, that you will have a joyful holiday season, no matter where you are or how life has changed for you in the last year.


[1] Josie Underwood (Nancy Disher Baird, ed), Josie Underwood’s Civil War Diary, University Press of Kentucky, 2009, pp. 31-32

[2] Ibid, pp. 133-134

[3] Ibid, pp. 134-135

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s