The year was 1863, and the holiday season must have seemed grim. Blood was running thick on the battlefield as the American Civil War moved into its final stages after the summer’s definitive Battle of Gettysburg. By December, Confederate forces were withdrawing from Knoxville, Ky., leaving Tennessee under Union control. On Dec. 8, President Abraham Lincoln issued a Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, offering a pardon to Confederates who agreed to take a loyalty oath.
It was in these dark times that the modern image of Santa Claus was created in the pages of Harper’s Weekly by cartoonist Thomas Nast. The original St. Nicholas had been a fourth century bishop —depicted as tall, slender and elegant, an image that endured for centuries before that fateful 1863 cartoon. Over the years, Nast’s Santa Claus evolved from a pudgy, diminutive, elf-like creature portrayed in the 1860s to the bearded, potbellied figure of popular imagination Nast perfected in the 1880s. But it was that original 1863 cartoon that brought the modern Santa into existence — and it is also the inspiration for the centerpiece of Fort Ward’s "Christmas in Camp" program that will be Dec. 8 from noon to 4 p.m.
"That original Thomas Nast cartoon in Harper’s Weekly from 1863 was the inspiration for our patriotic Santa," said Susan Cumbey, director of the Fort Ward Museum. "The whole idea is that the costume is inspired by the Union flag."
DESPITE BEING UNDER military occupation from the Union Army, the city of Alexandria struggled to retain a sense of holiday spirit. This newspaper carried a wide array of advertisements during the 1863 holiday season alerting shoppers to gift ideas for their loved ones. Robert Bell’s store at 61 King Street advertised writing desks, gold pens, juvenile books and photographic albums. The Old Dominion Bakery at the corner of King and Royal streets boasted a selection of French candies, pies, cakes, toys and fireworks. The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary let readers know it was the only store in town where people could purchase the Grover and Baker sewing machine.
On Christmas Day, the newspaper reported, a fire destroyed tenement houses at the corner of Royal Street and Wolf Street and a dispute at the city’s wharf ended in tragedy when one man died after being shot with a pistol. And then there was the military force that had been occupying the city since the outset of the war in 1861. Nevertheless, the newspaper tried to keep a sense of the holiday spirit.
"Christmas Day was observed in the usual manner," wrote editor Edgar Snowden in the Dec. 28, 1863 edition of the Alexandria Gazette. "It is a holiday which has always been kept in Virginia by persons of almost every denomination with all rites of hospitality and friendship."
SEVERAL MILES AWAY, beyond what was then the western edge of the city limits, a Union artillery unit was stationed at Fort Ward —an earthwork fort constructed after the first Battle of Manassas with a perimeter of 540 yards and emplacements for 24 guns. By the end of 1863, the soldiers were engaged in a federally mandated enlargement project to expand the fort to 818 yards with 36 guns. Between constructing the addition and performing military drills, soldiers at Fort Ward probably enjoyed some holiday cheer of their own.
"One of the highlights of the Christmas in Camp program is the reenactment of the arrival of a package from home," said Cumby. "The idea is to portray the soldiers in their role at the fort."
Participants of the Dec. 8 program can take a soldier-led tour of the fort and interact with Union forces. Inside the museum, they can hear readings of "The Night Before Christmas" and enjoy a tree decorated in the Victorian style popular in the 1860s. Children can take lessons from a 19th-century schoolmarm and make their own tree ornaments. Holiday musical selections will be performed by the Colonial Recorders, and children will be able to sit on the lap of the Nast-inspired patriotic Santa to communicate their Christmas wishes.
"Seeing the kids interact with Santa is my favorite part of the program," said Staci Largen, curator at Fort Ward Museum. "His outfit is great because it’s kind of a cross between a Union army officer and the traditional Santa outfit."