Christmas 1862: awaiting a brother’s fate at Fredericksburg

Pointing to the culprits responsible for the slaughter, Columbia demands, “Where are my 15,000 sons — murdered at Fredericksburg?,” Abe Lincoln says, “This reminds me of a little Joke —” and Columbia shouts, “Go tell your Joke at SPRINGFIELD!” On Christmas Day 1862, many families still had no news about the fate of their soldiers who fought at Fredericksburg. (Harper’s Weekly)

Her stomach probably tied in a knot, sometime on Sunday, Dec. 21, 1863 a sister of Samuel Franklyn Parcher sat at a desk while writing her brother. Blood-soaked Fredericksburg was eight days past, and Maine newspapers had already published casualty lists. The sister (either Eliza or Mary) worried deep in her heart about “Frank,” whose name was not yet listed among the dead, dying, wounded, or missing.

The short (5-4½), hazel-eyed, and brown-haired Frank Parcher had joined the 5th Maine Infantry Regiment as a “1st Class” musician on June 24, 1861. Born in Saco in 1833 to Samuel and Eliza Merrill Parcher, the dark-complected Parcher had mustered in Portland.

Union soldiers celebrate Christmas in their camp with gifts and a Santa Claus character. (Thomas Nast/Library of Congress)

Prior to attacking the Confederates defending Fredericksburg, Ambrose Burnside had created three “grand divisions” Right, Center, and Left), each containing at least two Army corps. Into the Left Grand Division (Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin) went I Corps and VI Corps, the latter bringing with it the 5th Maine Infantry (Col. Edward A. Scammon). The Saturday, December 13 battle cost the Union 12,500 casualties, including many Maine men.

Some were already identified, but relatives knew that dead or wounded men dropped through the cracks, their names often not appearing in print. In this pre-telephone (much less pre-Internet) era, a soldier could not mimic ET and “call home” and let the folks know that “I’m okay” — or not.

War focuses attention on those in harm’s way. Christmas 1862 came and went without word from Parcher. His sister did not know that he had already received her Dec. 21 letter, “in which you express great anxiety about my safety,” he summarized her concerns.

You needn’t feel any alarmed if you don’t hear from me for a few days after such a time as we had at Fredericksburg, for we are so very busy that we hardly to stop to think of anybody outside of our camps,” he responded.

Did he flippantly dismiss her fear? No, not by a long shot. “I am well aware that at these and similar times our friends are worried and anxious to hear from us at once,” Parcher clearly understood his sister’s concern. He also explained that even when soldiers found time to write, outgoing mail could be hit or miss.

The 5th Maine Infantry Regiment celebrated Christmas Day 1862 with whiskey, claimed Frank Parcher, making no mention about a Christmas tree. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Parcher shared his recent movements. Rather than crossing the Rappahannock River prior to December 13, he had stayed on the Stafford County shore, “in a far better place from which to see all that was going on there, and in comparative safety.”

As for Christmas Day, William Franklin had “issued an order … relieving all soldiers from duty of all kinds except what was actually necessary for the public service, and all hands had the day to serve their own tastes,” Parcher wrote.

He made no reference to a Christmas tree, caroling, sleigh rides, or other mid-19th century holiday pastimes promoted in Currier & Ives’ lithographs. The 5th Maine lads “received an issue of one gallon of whiskey per company in the evening, and every thing went ‘merry as a marriage bell,’” Parcher quoted Lord Byron. “I spent the evening with Capts. [Robert M.] Stevens & [Samuel H. Pi[l]lsbury.”

He promised his sister that he would do better next time. “If we should have another battle I will try to write immediately after — but if I don’t[,] you needn’t fret, because I’m all right any how,” Parcher closed, signing himself “fraternally & affectionately yours, Frank.”

He survived the war and returned to his family.

Sources: Samuel Franklyn Parcher Soldier’s File, Maine State Archives; Samuel Franklyn Parcher to unidentified sister, December 28, 1862, author’s possession

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Brian Swartz can be reached at He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at