Alexandria History

Celebrate a Civil War Christmas at Fort Ward This Season

Making ornaments at Fort Ward. (Historic Alexandria)

Alexandria, VA – Readers can learn more about Christmas and the Civil War on Saturday, December 9, at Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site. The program features a Civil War-era Union Santa Claus, based on an 1863 cover of Harper’s Weekly by artist Thomas Nast, who will interact with the public, welcome children to the reconstructed Officers’ Hut, and visit soldiers in camp.

Reenactors will interpret army life in winter camps decorated for the season, celebrate by opening Christmas boxes from home, sing carols of the period around the campfire, and prepare holiday meals. The museum will be decorated with festive greenery and a Victorian parlor tree. The program offers soldier-led tours of the historic fort, and children can make a Christmas card or ornament. 

Winter accommodations were far from luxurious. (Historic Alexandria)

The American Civil War standardized the concept of an American Christmas. Much like how concepts of time-keeping and canned food were changed and made uniform by the Union Army, a new idea of Christmas tradition took hold in the post-1861 United States. The widespread use of Thomas Nast images of Santa Claus and the adaptations soldiers made to accommodate their surroundings and fellow soldiers allowed soldiers, many of whom were recent arrivals to the United States, a template for a standardized celebration of the holiday.

What was in some parts of the country a very strictly religious holiday began to represent a time of laughter, a community that didn’t necessarily mean family, and gift-giving that evolved to a more commercial concept of the holiday by the mid-20th Century.

Thomas Nast published his illustration of Santa Claus in the winter of 1862 for Harper’s Weekly. The depictions of a jolly gift-bringer were so successful that President Abraham Lincoln once mused that Nast’s depictions of the war and his annual tradition of drawing Santa Claus were “the best recruiting sergeant the North ever had.” An article in the December 26, 1863 edition of Harper’s (with the cover illustration by Nast of Santa Claus visiting soldiers in camp) argued:

“Ought it not be a merry Christmas? Even with all the sorrow that hangs, and will forever hang, over so many households; even while the war still rages; even while there are serious questions yet to be settled – ought it not to be, and is it not, a merry Christmas?”

Thomas Nast illustration from Harper’s Weekly. (Library of Congress)

Nast continued to build his interpretation of Santa Claus after the end of the war, including the residence at the North Pole in 1866. Illustrations of the workshop and the naughty and nice list followed in later years.

One soldier, Alfred Bellard of the 5th New Jersey Infantry, was camped on the Potomac, south of Alexandria, when he wrote about his 1861 Christmas (from Gone for a Soldier: The Civil War Memoirs of Alfred Bellard):

“On Christmas Day, Co. H of our Reg. were well supplied with good things as their friends had sent them about 18 boxes containing plenty of poultry and various other good things, making mouths of the less fortunate companys water. As I received a box myself about this time it did not affect me quite so bad as some of the rest. In order to make it look much like Christmas as possible, a small tree was stuck up in front of our tent, decked off with hard tack and pork, in lieu of cakes, oranges, etc. Our band of 15 pieces arrived about the time and the boys were highly elated at the prospect of plenty of music.”

Santa Claus in 1862. (Historic Alexandria)

Get a taste of how Christmas was observed during the Civil War at Fort Ward Museum’s annual Civil War Christmas in Camp program on Saturday, December 9, 2023, from 12-4 p.m. 

The suggested donation is $2 per person and $5 for families. Fort Ward Museum & Historic Site is located at 4301 West Braddock Road in the City of Alexandria. For more information about this program, please call 703.746.4848, or visit

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