The turn of the year from old to new has long been celebrated in a variety of ways sometimes with frivolity and sometimes with spirituality, and sadly, sometimes on the battlefield. This is true of the Civil War period also.
Celebrating with Frivolity
According to Alexis McCrossen, writing for We’re History, men and women belonging to what were then known as the “sporting fraternity” caroused much as they did throughout the year by visiting taverns, drinking, dancing, and singing. However, in 1862, a group of celebrants dubbed themselves “The Baxter Muffins” ( the name likely used for comedic ragtag militia – see Minstrels Gags and End Men’s Handbook 1875), added some wild costumes to the mix and paraded through the streets of New York playing horns and drums.
Celebrating with Spirituality
Meanwhile, other people gathered in churches to pray the new year in. Attending church services and holding Watch Nights was a tradition in many denominations. But on December 31th, 1862 a special event occurred. Abolitionists and the free black community waited for President Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, which he did on January 1st, 1863.
One such vigil occurred in Tremont Temple in Boston where Frederick Douglass, Anna Dickinson, and other notable abolitionists spoke to a mostly African-American crowd. By the morning of the 1st, thousands had gathered, and when word was received, Douglass led the audience in singing Blow Ye Trumpet, Blow. For many years after, African American congregations held Watch Nights , a practice that has continued to this day in some churches.
Celebrating While at War
But we must remember that while some rejoiced, in 1862, a war was going on to make the freedom for the slaves a reality. In Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the battle of Stone’s River was being raged on a chill, foggy New Year’s Eve. The forces of General Bragg and General Rosecrans met from December 30th to January 1st in a battle involving over 80,000 men with casualties numbering 23,500.
However, even in the midst of battle, the soldiers took time to mark the occasion. The night of New Year’s Eve, the Union troops played Yankee Doodle, followed by Hail Columbia. The Confederate soldiers hearing the music played Dixie in return. Songs when back and forth across the battle lines throughout the night. The exchange of music ended with the Union playing Home Sweet Home and the Confederate band joining in.
For more details on this battle see New Year’s Hell.
More Thoughts on New Year’s
In the 1860 January to June volume of the Home Monthly Magazine, the editor William M. Thayer wrote an essay on the celebration of New Year’s which artfully captures the various meanings of a new year still relevant for today. Here is an excerpt:
THE NEW YEAR 1860
EDITORIAL by Wm. M. Thayer
New things are novelties to many, so that they are sought after with a keen relish. To them, a new thing is better than the old, though it be not half so valuable really. But how is it with a New year? Does old time lose its charms, so that any say the new is better? Yes; this is true to some extent. How many last year hopes are to be realized during the new year? Thousands formed plans, started enterprizes, and began labors, that are expected to be consummated, and their fruits enjoyed, within the next twelve months. The old year unbosomed seed, the flower and fruit of which the new year will hold and gather. Many disappointments have sobered by-gone hours, so that their recollection even, is unpleasant. They will be remembered, as we remember accidents and calamities; but new time, that promises a brighter and happier experience, how much more attractive it is! In this respect, a new year is worth more to many than the old. It promises more to them than the past, as one air-castle after another rises to their view, but oh! how it may cheat them! Hundreds never realized their expectations in time past, and yet they fully believe they shall in time to come. They are hopeful, and often hope against hope, and therefore each new year is hailed as the harbinger of expected good.
How many fortunes there are to be made in eighteen hundred sixty! If we could enter the marts of trade, and have the Great Revealer disclose the secrets of all hearts to us, how many we should find expecting to be made rich or influential before another December shall have passed. Aye, this would be a more remarkable year than any since time was born, if all human projects should result as men anticipate. How natural, then, for such persons to hail with joy the coming years!
Pleasure-lovers appear to value new years. They are wont to celebrate their arrival with festive demonstrations. They institute parties and balls, and, with music and dancing, inaugurate each one to rule over its predecessor. As if it were a light thing for their years to be numbered one after another, they join to commemorate this flight of time. Though each passing year makes their number less, and carries them nearer to the eternal world, a new year more than overbalances the somber view, by the joys which it brings.
Properly considered, the flight of time is a subject of serious reflection. As our days are numbered, we have less and less time for prosecuting the mission of life. We are nearer to the world of spirits, with all its momentous realities, prepared or unprepared, to meet God. One would think, judging from the pleasure-scenes of a New Year’s Eve, that it was a matter of great joy that life is so rapidly passing away, and its close hastening with the speed of a weaver’s shuttle. Look in upon the merry groups that gather at this season of the year, for frolic and fun; listen to the music of song and dance, and hear the ring of the youthful laugh, and say if young hearts do not rejoice that an old year is gone and a new one come.
For more on Civil War holiday celebrations see:
How will you be celebrating your New Year’s?