23 December 2006

Christmas Book Review

Our Annual Christmas Pick for Civil War Book Buffs ~

God Rest Ye Merry Soldiers ~ A True Civil War Christmas Story

By James McIvor

Published by Viking/The Penguin Group, 2005

Hardcover, 162 pages, $19.95

Reviewed by Richard G. Williams, Jr.

“Christmas has come once more and it is a very beautiful morning, but O! how changed the scene to what it was last Christmas. Today twelve months ago I was home where I could enjoy the blessings of a comfortable house and home of parents and friends and of religious worship, but this Christmas I am surrounded by warriors, cannons, and guns . . . But I hope and pray that the good Lord in his tender mercy may soon bring this state of things to an end and restore Peace and prosperity to our beloved Country again and turn the hearts of the rulers to peace for ever instead of war.”

This soldier’s heart-wrenching plea for peace and home could have been written by one of our soldiers in Iraq. But it wasn’t. The words came from the pen of North Carolina soldier Constantine A. Hege on Christmas Day in 1862 and his letter home is how James McIvor opens his wonderful book, God Rest Ye Merry Soldiers ~ A True Civil War Christmas Story.

Recounting the events that transpired at Christmas time during the Battle of Stones River (Tennessee) in 1862, this little volume packs a lot of insight into what Christmas was like during the four terrible years that engulfed the Nation from 1861-1865. Ironically, as McIvor points out, it was during those devastating years that Christmas became “a truly American holiday in a way that it had never entirely been before.” (p. 153)

Perhaps it was, in the words of Confederate Hege, “the blessings of a comfortable house and home of parents” that first made Christmas time so special for those lonely, homesick soldiers. As those thousands of veterans, both North and South, returned home after the war they doubtless looked forward to enjoying that first Christmas of peace with loved ones—thankful to have survived a war that took the lives of so many of their comrades. Yet those painful memories of the war also contained some poignant recollections.

McIvor recounts one such event as the Union and Confederate armies camped near each other at Murfreesboro, Tennessee. It was just after Christmas, on the night of December 30th, 1862 that an unusual event occurred. The opposing armies’ bands began playing their favorite melodies; the Union band first striking up a taunting rendition of “Yankee Doodle.” The Confederates fired back with “Dixie” and “The Bonnie Blue Flag”. The duel continued as the Yankees played and sang “Hail Columbia”—“another song from the Revolution that the North had adopted as an anthem of its new fight in the Civil War.” (p. 101)

Then something unplanned and unexpected happened. McIvor writes:

“Finally one of them struck up ‘Home! Sweet Home!’ As if by common consent, all other airs ceased, and the bands of both armies, far as the ear could reach, joined in the refrain. . . Soon the men of both sides, North and South, were all raising their voices to sing the familiar words together.” (p. 102-103)

The final words of the familiar tune must have reminded the soldiers that they might not see home again: “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home, Home! Home, sweet Home!” McIvor recounts the words of one Tennessee soldier:

“And after our bands had ceased playing, we could hear the sweet refrain as it died away on the cool frosty air on the Federal side.” There would be more dying in the days to come yet the men who experienced this very special Christmas—and survived—would carry those special memories home to their loved ones. As the author points out, “The mass migration and social dislocation the war had left in its wake made a holiday tied to the timeless cornerstones of family and children all the more important to a restless and growing nation.” (p. 156)

If you need a last minute Christmas gift for that Civil War buff on your list, readers would do well to consider this delightful book. (This review appeared in The Washington Times on 23 December 2006 - Used by permission)


Joshua blair said...


I picked up this book at the beginning of the Christmas season this year. I will probably reread it every December. On October 31, 2006 a paperback edition was released as well.



Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks Joshual. The review was supposed to have appeared this past Saturday in the Washington Times. I'm not sure why it didn't - maybe next week.