Civil War Christmas at Fort Ward

I recently stopped by my local historic site to visit a Civil War encampment, with a Christmas theme. Wasn’t really sure what that meant. Fort Ward sits just outside of Alexandria, Virginia and was one of 68 major earthwork forts built to protect Washington during the Civil War.  It was the fifth largest installation in the ring of forts surrounding the capital city and was considered a model of 19th century military design and engineering. It featured five bastions and 36 guns. Named for the first Union naval officer killed in the Civil War, Fort Ward was dismantled in November 1865. Its earthworks are well-preserved and the fort’s northwest bastion was restored by the City of Alexandria as part of the Civil War centennial. The city also reconstructed the ceremonial gate on its original site. Close to this entrance sits a reconstructed Officers’ Hut representing typical quarters at the fort.  

I pulled into the parking lot and instantly noticed something wrong with the picture. The encampment included both Union and Confederate troops. What? This was a Union fort throughout the war and never saw any action. Do we have to include both sides when we’re in Virginia? Is that how it works? Where is the accuracy? I was taking a photo of the entrance gate and one of the Rebs asked me if I wanted him to stand in front to show scale. I agreed, but knew if I posted the photo, people would call me on it. Here it is, along with one showing the correct inhabitants.

On this cold day, re-enactors were huddled around several small fires. The officers’ quarters were decorated with a simple Christmas tree and the scene brought to mind stories from one of my favorite Christmas books, Our Simple Gifts: Civil War Christmas Tales by Owen Parry. The four stories featured in the book are fiction, but heartwarming and worth reading year after year.

Inside the museum, designed to represent a Union headquarters building, I found a Civil War Santa Claus wearing stars and stripes. Someone explained that the January 3, 1863 cover of Harpers Weekly featured Santa Claus visiting the troops and was the first depiction of Santa by Thomas Nast, the artist who because famous for his renderings of Santa and is often given credit for creating our popular image of Santa Claus. Supposedly President Lincoln himself requested this drawing of Santa as political propaganda designed to improve morale in the North and demoralize the South. According to the Harper’s Weekly archives, “His [Nast’s] first Santa (in the postdated January 3, 1863 issue) is a small elf distributing Christmas presents to Union soldiers in camp.  Santa dangles by the neck a comical jumping jack identified in accompanying text as Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president.  There was no doubt in Nast’s illustration whose side Santa favors in the war.”  Follow this link for a fascinating look at an 1866 Santa cartoon by Thomas Nast.

The Santa on duty during my visit brought much joy to the little girl (below) and thankfully he wasn’t in first person — playing a 19th century Santa would confound any 21st century child. Like a good Santa, he promised her exactly what she wanted and she left with a big smile on her face, her mom reinforcing the fact that Santa really wasn’t scary.

About Tim

Author, public historian, and consultant. Author site: - My fifth book, Star Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, was published in May 2020. Consulting site: I specialize in exhibition development, interpretive planning, education strategy, and history relevance. I'm passionate about helping history organizations of all sizes and kinds make history more relevant for their communities and the people they engage with. I'm happy to consider many types of writing projects for informal learning organizations. Reach me at or
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5 Responses to Civil War Christmas at Fort Ward

  1. John says:

    Well now, I think maybe you just don’t like them rebels. When will you be posting from the site of a great confederate victory, haha?
    Thanks for the post. Here’s a map of the civil war defenses of Washington:

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