Christmas in St. Louis 1861

2011 has been a difficult year for thousands of St. Louisans, as it has been for millions of Americans outside of St. Louis who have seen the companies they worked for close or cut back dramatically on staff. The hopes of many who saw their jobs disappear in 2010 dimmed as the New Year brought no full-time employment opportunities and not enough part-time work to compensate. The number of children living in poverty swelled throughout the U.S. as here, and local food pantries struggle to fulfill the needs of their families. But if anything, the December of 1861 was even worse. And it’s sometimes well to recall the past in order to endure the present.

Violent skirmishes in the streets of St. Louis in May and June of 1861 resulted in numerous deaths.¬† Martial Law was declared in August, lasting until the end of the Civil War. Citizens were forced to take an oath of loyalty to the United States and residents had to obtain a pass from the Provost Marshall to enter and leave the city.* The Confederacy’s blockade of the Mississippi River south of Memphis brought river traffic to a standstill putting tremendous strain on the people and the commerce of St. Louis, the nation’s second busiest port.

Over 2,000 of the 4,000,000 Americans held in slavery lived in the St. Louis area. Slavery had become unpopular in St. Louis but the city remained the largest market for slave trade in Missouri; the seeds sown so deeply that they encompassed four generations of some black families – families torn and dessicated by trade.

The first Confederate prisoners of war began arriving at the 7th Street Train Depot on Christmas Eve and were marched to the Gratiot Street Prison (formerly McDowell’s Medical College).

Over four years of war it grew horribly overcrowded, becoming the largest Union prison in Missouri for Confederate soldiers and spies, many of whom died of exposure to extreme heat or cold, and of disease.

Christmas 1861 found the fathers and sons of many St. Louis families away at war; some families split right down the middle for the Union or the Confederacy. Mothers, wives, sisters could be arrested, imprisoned or deported for aiding – sending food, bandages and letters – to Confederate family members.

But St. Louisans did what they could to keep Christmas in the festive way revived by Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in 1843. “Jingle Bells”, “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Deck the Halls” were popularly sung.

Homes like the Campbells’ in Lucas Place, where no one went to war, were festooned with bright ribbon and greenery.

With Missouri ranking third in the number of Civil War battles fought within its borders and forty-five percent of those fought in the first year of the war, St. Louis was inundated with refugees – former slaves and rural inhabitants whose homes

and farms had been destroyed. Aid societies were formed to feed and clothe the destitute and St. Louisans were not only asked but required to contribute.* It was a desperate time and it would continue to be. If New Year’s celebrations were subdued on December 31, 1861 they nevertheless endured in hopes of a brighter future.

As 2011 draws to a close, may the specter of a Christmas one hundred and fifty years past, remind St. Louisans how much we have to celebrate, not the least of which, that we survived civil war. And that we remain in the 21st century one nation under God, more ethnically diverse than ever, and resolve to make whatever future we are given better.

* Christmas in St. Louis 1861 – December 4, 2011 Blog Post by Douglas Harding of the National Park Service – The Old Courthouse, St. Louis, MO.

Photo Credits: Confederate Soldiers at POW Camp Douglas (Chicago) – photographer possibly D.F. Brandon, in the public domain at; Four Generations of a South Carolina Slave Family – photographed by Timothy H. O’Sullivan, circa 1862, in the public domain at; Campbell House Parlor at Christmas and Christmas in Citygarden St. Louis – Maureen Kavanaugh, author of this blog.

Illustrations: First Commercially Produced Christmas Card – John Calcott Horsely, in the public domain at; St. Louis Riot 1861 – Missouri Historical Society Exhibit in the Missouri State Capitol – in the public domain at; Title Page, First Edition of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol illustrated by John Leech, 1843 – in the public domain at; Battle of Wilson’s Creek Mural in the Missouri State Capitol – N.C. Wyeth, in the public domain at; The Ghost of Christmas Past – John Leech 1843, for A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – in the public domain at


About stltourguide

I am a walking tour and narrated coach tour guide in St. Louis, Missouri specializing in the history of the area.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, Christmas in St. Louis, Civil War, History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Christmas in St. Louis 1861

  1. Pat Treacy says:

    Maureeen — Great read.
    Happy New Year to you and Tom.

    Pat Treacy

  2. Susan says:

    Once again you have put our lives in perspective. Very insightful and cause for hopes for a happier 2012. Happy New Year to you and yours.

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