As the Civil War began to drag on, there was little to celebrate for many residents of northwest Alabama, with privation and battlefield deaths becoming more common each year.
Much of what we know about Christmas locally during that period is gleaned from contemporary newspapers. Lee Freeman, director of the Genealogy and Local History Department at the Florence-Lauderdale Public Library, said Christmas celebrations were similar to those we know, but not so focused on lavish gifts.
"It seems in some sense they were more somber, but they did know how to put on a party," he said. "The editor of one local paper describes going to a party hosted by a local citizen and describes the dancing and fun they had."
In the Jan. 1, 1862, edition of the Florence Gazette, a thank you note to the "ladies of Florence" appeared from several companies of Confederate volunteers. The women prepared a Christmas dinner for the troops while stationed in town. "... the companies, above mentioned, individually and collectively, will long and ever remember, with gratitude, pleasure and affection, the honorable, kind and hearty welcome they have received in Florence," the note read, in part.
Celebrations of this kind became a thing of the past as the war progressed. In fact, the Christmas of 1864 might have been one of the worst ever for local residents. Gen. John Bell Hood's shattered Confederate army retreated through the area after major defeats at the battles of Franklin and Nashville.
According to research by the late William McDonald, who was Florence's historian, Gen. Philip Roddey's 4th Alabama Cavalry floated pontoon bridges down the Tennessee River from Decatur to Bainbridge Ferry, where present-day Indian Springs subdivision is located.
The pontoons were in place on Christmas Day, and the remnants of Hood's army successfully crossed to the relative safety of the area outside Tuscumbia during the next three days. Confederate artillery kept Union gunboats at bay during the crossing, and Gen. Nathan B. Forrest's cavalry helped fight a rear guard action that held Union cavalry in check.
McDonald wrote that Bainbridge, just east of Florence, narrowly avoided becoming a battlefield.
"There certainly wasn't much for local people to celebrate that Christmas," Freeman said.
By the winter of 1864, northwest Alabama had been stripped of food and factories, and mills had been burned, leaving residents with little to provide for themselves. Hunger was common, and lawlessness descended on the area as the war drew to a close because civil authority had broken down.
After the war, newspaper clippings reveal Christmas traditions most modern Shoals residents would recognize. The most popular form of communal celebration appears to have been balls and dances.
"They did some of the same things we do," Freeman said. "Children looked for a visit from Santa Claus, but they might get just one toy. If it was a poor kid, they might not get a store-bought toy but something made by mom or dad, or some fruit."
For slaves, Christmas probably wasn't so bright.
Freeman said his research of Lauderdale County slave owners has not turned up tales of cruelty toward slaves, though the information is scant.
"Slaves might have had their own version of a feast," Freeman said. "The owners might even have provided meat for them, or nicer fare. Some may have gotten new clothes."
Robert Palmer can be reached at 256-740-5720 or robert.palmer@TimesDaily.com.