The 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry’s 1862 “Christmas foraging expedition”
Soldiers’ letters, diaries, and memoirs reveal that Christmas in Civil War camps took on many forms.
Some men spoke of receiving gifts from their kin, while others dourly wrote about discovering no treats in the mail. Many veterans later recalled that the holiday enabled them to feel a sense of familial love among their comrades as if they were still at home, while just as many complained that the day passed off as any other, rife with the monotony of boredom and drilling. But despite the relative lack of winter campaigning throughout the rebellion, some men even experienced armed combat.
For the latter reason, December 25, 1862—the second Christmas Day of the war—was a particularly eventful occasion for some troopers in the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry.
The regiment mustered into United States service several months earlier, when Capt. William Jackson Palmer recruited a battalion of horse soldiers across the Commonwealth and rendezvoused at Carlisle that August. In its brief stint with the Army of the Potomac, the 15th Cavalry picketed the environs around Greencastle, Pennsylvania, and Hagerstown, Maryland. During the Battle of Antietam on September 17, the unit “was employed in bringing up stragglers and scouting,” Pennsylvania State Historian Samuel Bates chronicled, then “led the advance of the Pennsylvania Militia...to Williamsport,” Maryland, a few days later, before returning to Carlisle.
On November 7, 1862, the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry shifted to the Western Theater of the rebellion, where it initially settled between Louisville and Bowling Green, Kentucky. On Christmas Eve, December 24, the cavalrymen trekked further south to Nashville, Tennessee, now as members of the U.S. Army of the Cumberland under Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans. The following day, the troopers received a blunt holiday welcome to the Volunteer State as they embarked upon their new assignment.
Regarding the soldiers’ first Christmas in camp, Bates reported, “On the 25th, a detachment of two hundred and fifty men was sent out as guard to a foraging guard, and while beyond the lines, on the Hillsboro Pike, was attacked, and one man killed; but the enemy was driven back, and the laden train brought safely in.” A handful of 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry veterans eventually penned their recollections of that day. In vague terms, First Sgt. Wilmon Blackmar remembered, “We had a dreary Christmas,” and Adj. Josiah Reiff testified, “Thursday, December 25th (Christmas) the Regiment remained in camp, but details were sent out as escort to a forage train and had a fight with the rebels.”
“December 25th, Christmas—the first one I ever passed away from home,” recorded Pvt. George Neil. “My Christmas dinner was served in four courses: 1st. Beans, boiled. 2d. Salt pork, boiled. 3d. Hard-tack. 4th. Coffee; no cream.” After listing his supper menu, Neil further explained the martial affairs of that day.
“In the morning a foraging party was sent out for corn for the horses,” Private Neil noted. “They went about ten miles from town, when they were attacked by rebel cavalry. They had a brisk little fight; one man of Company F was killed. The party returned to camp, bringing all the wagons and the forage.”
C. Lewis Diehl (elsewhere identified as Lewis C. Deihl, Jr.), a private in Company L, provided a bit more detail. In a diary entry written in camp that night, he journaled as follows:
“December 25th, Christmas.—Was detailed with twenty-four others of my Company to forage for corn. Went out on the Hillsboro pike about eight miles, then turned into a side road to the left for a short distance and found plenty of corn in the fields. While the wagons were being loaded, I, with others of the escort, passed the time eating hackberries, small fruits that at this season were shriveled and tasted like dried cherries. The trees also resembled cherry trees. About 3.30 P.M. the wagons and escort were called in. We had hardly gotten to the pike when we heard sharp firing and shouting, and shortly a party of our men came running in along the pike, followed helter-skelter by the loaded wagons, scattering corn in all directions in their hurry to reach shelter. They reported an attack by about 500 rebel cavalry. Confusion reigned supreme. Our squad of twenty-five remained and formed in line of battle. When the last wagon had passed we were ordered to cover the retreat slowly, but were soon thrown into confusion by those retreating from behind us. Soon the rebels were visible on the brow of the hill and fired volley after volley at us. We rapidly formed in line of battle in a field facing the hill, when the enemy retreated. One man was killed on our side. Arrived in camp by dark.”
Likely the most descriptive overall firsthand account of the action was written by Pvt. Arthur Granger. Under the title, “The Christmas Foraging Expedition in 1862,” Granger penned his version of events as follows:
“On December 25, 1862, the day after the Regiment arrived at Nashville, twenty men were called for from our Company E to go on a foraging expedition, and I was one of the number who volunteered. There were also squads from the other companies, the whole under the command of Captain [Alfred] Vezin.
“We took all of the wagons belonging to our Regiment and joined a large train of about 100 wagons, with an escort from a Tennessee regiment. About nine miles out we halted, near a large corn field, and the mounted men were put on picket duty in different directions, while the infantry loaded the fodder into the wagons. I was left in Corp[oral] Cha[rles] H. Kirk’s squad, along a narrow road to the left of the pike.
“I had been on picket an hour or so, when I was relieved and rode back to the farmhouse, where I found a late Christmas dinner going on the table. I told the lady of the house that I would dine with them, and went out on the back porch to wash up and get ready for a square meal. Just then I heard a volley of rifle shots, and, regretting to miss the feast, I ran through the kitchen and seized a long-handled skillet at the back of the stove, and, holding up the tail of my overcoat, flopped the big, hot “johnnycake” into it, and that was all of the Christmas dinner I got. I jumped on my horse and soon joined our men on the pike. The rebels were coming over a low hill and down toward the corn field and seemed to outnumber us. We retired along the pike a short distance, when, under the inspiration of Albert Coleman, of Company E, we were drawn up in line near a blacksmith shop and held the enemy in check; there was very sharp firing for a while. The wagons were getting out of the field and started down the pike on a full run.
“One of our men was mortally wounded, Martin L. Hill, of Company F, being shot through the temples. He was a bright, talented young man, and was a student at Washington and Jefferson College [in Washington, Pennsylvania], leaving there to join our Regiment. He was the first of our boys killed after we went West. H.C. Fry, of Company B, and some others moved him into a blacksmith shop and placed him on a quilt borrowed from a colored family near by. The wagons having gone on toward Nashville, he was left there in the shop. Later, I think a detail, under Lieutenant Musselman, went out and buried the brave soldier boy beside the road.
“The command lost two wagons, but brought off all the rest, loaded with corn, fodder, etc.
“Shortly after noon a man in citizen’s clothes had been to Corporal Kirk’s post and asked to pass through the lines to see a sick daughter. He was refused and wandered off, getting out to one of the videttes and telling him he had the Corporal’s permission. The green cavalrymen passed him, although against orders. In less than an hour the attack came, and no doubt that man carried the information to the enemy.”
In his own right, Cpl. Harry Fry of Company B dedicated his published account, titled “Death of Martin L. Hill,” to the memory of the only member of the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry killed in action that holiday. His comprehensive and lengthy recollection will be reprinted in a subsequent installment on this site. Stay tuned for more.
 Samuel P. Bates, “One Hundred and Sixtieth. Fifteenth (Anderson) Cavalry,” in History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5 (Harrisburg, PA: B. Singerly, 1870), vol. 4, 902-903.  Bates, History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5, vol. 4, 903; Wimon W. Blackmar, “The Charge on Infantry at Stone River,” in History of the Fifteenth Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry, edited by Charles H. Kirk (Philadelphia, 1906), 111; J.C. Reiff, “Fifteenth Cavalry (Anderson) Cavalry at Stone River,” in History of the Fifteenth Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry, 80.  George Neil, “Our First Campaign,” in History of the Fifteenth Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry, 69-70.  15th Pennsylvania Cavalry roster, in Bates, History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, vol. 4, 944; C. Lewis Diehl, diary entry, Dec. 25, 1862, reprinted in “Among the Killed and Wounded at Stone River,” in History of the Fifteenth Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry, 131-132.  Arthur O. Granger, “The Christmas Foraging Expedition in 1862,” in History of the Fifteenth Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry, 75-76.  H.C. Fry, “Death of Martin L. Hill,” in History of the Fifteenth Pennsylvania Cavalry, 77-79.