The Perfect Gift for the President - and Unexpected Guests for Dinner

By Wendy Swanson

Washington, D.C.

Saturday, December 25, 2021


General Sherman's troops enter Savannah, after a long "March to the Sea." (Photo credit: image from Harper's Weekly, courtesy the Library of Congress)


One hundred and fifty-seven years ago, the nation was experiencing its last Christmas of the Civil War. And for once President Lincoln had cause for celebration. The end of the war finally appeared to be in sight. General William T. Sherman had completed his march from "Atlanta to the Sea," ending in Savannah, Georgia. The Confederates had already left by the time Union troops entered the city and Savannah surrendered without the need for a siege.


General Sherman shared the good news with Lincoln, sending the following dispatch to him on December 22, 1864:


I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah with 150 heavy guns & plenty of ammunition & also about 25000 bales of cotton.

The dispatch traveled via Fortress Monroe in Virginia and then was wired to Lincoln in Washington. The timing of the message receipt – Christmas Day, December 25 – ensured the perfect holiday gift for the president. Lincoln, in turn, replied to Sherman on the following day:


To William T. Sherman
Executive Mansion, Washington, My dear General Sherman. Dec. 26, 1864.
Many, many, thanks for your Christmas-gift---the capture of Savannah.
When you were about leaving Atlanta for the Atlantic coast, I was anxious, if not fearful; but feeling that you were the better judge, and remembering that ``nothing risked, nothing gained'' I did not interfere. Now, the undertaking being a success, the honor is all yours; for I believe none of us went farther than to acquiesce. And, taking the work of Gen. Thomas into the count, as it should be taken, it is indeed a great success. Not only does it afford the obvious and immediate military advantages; but, in showing to the world that your army could be divided, putting the stronger part to an important new service, and yet leaving enough to vanquish the old opposing force of the whole---Hood's army---it brings those who sat in darkness, to see a great light. But what next? I suppose it will be safer if I leave Gen. Grant and yourself to decide.
Please make my grateful acknowledgments to your whole army, officers and men. Yours very truly A. LINCOLN.

The news of the “gift” spread rapidly throughout the nation. The Wisconsin State Journal reported that Washington celebrated with a 300-gun salute. Newspapers announced the news with such headline banners as “Savannah Ours. Christmas Gift to the Nation.” Frank Leslie’s Weekly predicted that “the 25th of December [will] recall the splendid ‘Christmas gift’ of Gen. Sherman to ‘Old Abe’ for many generations to come.”


That indeed has been the case.

Meanwhile, how did the Lincolns celebrate the day? Christmas was not the big production at the time that it became in later years and, in fact, was a normal workday, although many prepared special dinners. Lincoln’s Christmas Eve schedule for 1864 was meeting-filled. Mrs. Lincoln had returned from a shopping trip in Philadelphia earlier in the week. Lincoln had telegraphed her “Do not come on the night train. It is too cold. Come in the morning.”


According to the White House Historical Society, the Lincolns hosted a reception for the cabinet on Christmas day, a Sunday. Thanks to Tad Lincoln (shown at left), who knew how to liven up a holiday, some surprise guests were at the Christmas dinner. Tad invited several newsboys – paper sellers who worked outside in the chilly seasonal weather – to join the Lincolns' holiday dinner. The guests "came as a surprise to the White House cook but the president welcomed them and allowed them to stay for dinner." The association concludes that "the meal must have been a memorable one for the newsboys at least."


Certainly, Christmas 1864 was a memorable day for Abraham Lincoln as well. Sadly, however, the day marked the last Christmas he would celebrate.


(Photo credit: Tad Lincoln photograph by Charles DeForest Fredericks, Library of Congress)