“The Union Christmas Dinner”

December 31, 1864

Thomas Nast

“The Union Christmas Dinner”

Analogies, Bible; Civil War, Conclusion; Civil War, Reconstruction; Holidays, Christmas; Reconstruction; Symbols, Columbia; Wars, American Civil War; Women, Symbolic;

Davis, Jefferson; Grant, Ulysses S.; Lee, Robert E.; Lincoln, Abraham;

American South;

No caption.

As the Union military advanced across the South in December 1864, making Confederate defeat seem to be only a matter of time, artist Thomas Nast drew a holiday illustration betokening mercy for the vanquished and sectional reconciliation for the nation.  Under the Christmas proclamation of “Peace on Earth and Good Will Toward Men,” President Abraham Lincoln is the gracious host who generously welcomes the Confederates—President Jefferson Davis, General Robert E. Lee, and state governors—in from the cold, and gestures for them to return to their rightful seats at the sumptuous feast of the states.  Seated at the table are the governors of the Union states, and on the wall behind them appear portraits of leading Union generals. 

Framing the main banquet scene are four circular insets conveying the message that if the Confederacy will lay down its arms, surrender unconditionally, and be contrite, then the Union will be merciful and joyously welcome them back into the fold.  Viewing them clockwise from the upper-left, the symbolic figure of Victory, backed by the American Eagle, offers the olive branch of peace to a submissive Confederate soldier; the forgiving father from the biblical parable embraces his wayward son, whose sorrow for his past rebellion prompts the father to honor his son with a celebratory dinner; under the tattered American flag, the ordinary soldiers of the Union and Confederacy reunite happily as friends and brothers after the Confederate arms and battle standards have been laid on the ground; and, General Robert E. Lee, the Confederate commander, bows respectfully and offers his sword in unconditional surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant, the commander of the Union troops.  In the lower-center is a scene from a holiday table at which a Northern family drinks a toast to the Union servicemen.

The images of the illustration advocate firm commitment to the Union military policy demanding unconditional surrender of the Confederacy, and envision sectional reconciliation within the Christmas spirit of mercy and peace.  More subtly, but just as importantly, the artist is supporting the Reconstruction policy of President Lincoln, who had been contesting with Congress for a year over the content and control of reintegrating the seceded states back into the Union.  Written under the figure of Lincoln is a quote from the president’s recent annual message to Congress on December 6, 1864, which refers to his Reconstruction program: “The door has been for a full year open to all.”  The sketch was probably almost completed by the time of Lincoln’s address, with the quote added after the artist read the presidential message in the next day’s newspaper.  On December 12, Nast was allowed to meet briefly with Lincoln, although a record of their discussion does not exist.

During the Civil War, President Lincoln’s foremost task was to ensure military victory over the Confederacy, but he also began to consider the process for Reconstruction, or how to reintegrate the seceded states back into the political Union.  He assumed that his executive powers under the Constitution - primarily as commander in chief and secondarily through the presidential pardoning power - gave him the authority to establish Reconstruction policy with little Congressional assistance or interference.  He did admit, however, that Congress had ultimate authority to approve a presidential Reconstruction plan because Congress had the constitutional power to seat or not seat representatives elected from the states (senators and congressmen).  In formulating his Reconstruction policy, Lincoln realized the plan should not undermine Union military policy, and that it would need to appeal to Southern Unionists as well as to the diverse views of the Northern population.  Thus, there were strategic and political limitations, in addition to the constitutional ones, upon presidential Reconstruction policy.

Lincoln did not have to theorize about the future because there was a real-world example of Reconstruction early in the war.  Five days after the state of Virginia seceded from the Union on April 17, 1861, the 35 western counties of the state initiated the process for rejoining the Union.  They soon set up an interim government, held elections for representatives and a plebiscite approving creation of a new state in the fall of 1861, drafted and ratified a state constitution in the spring of 1862, and Congress responded by granting West Virginia statehood in 1863.  This process reinforced the president’s assumptions that Reconstruction should be carried out quickly, and that it should be guided primarily by Unionists in the seceded states.  Meanwhile, as the Union military gained Confederate territory in the South in 1862, Lincoln appointed military governors for Arkansas, Louisiana, and Tennessee. 

In December 1863, as the House was debating statehood for West Virginia, President Lincoln announced his Reconstruction plan to the nation.  It offered a general amnesty to all white Southerners who would take an oath of future loyalty to the federal government and would accept the wartime measures dealing with emancipation.  (High civil and military officers of the Confederacy, as well as those who mistreated black soldiers, were temporarily excluded from the general amnesty.)  Whenever 10 percent of the number of a state’s voters in 1860 took the loyalty oath, then those loyal voters could establish the state’s new government.  Lincoln’s plan was weighted toward local control in the hands of Southern Unionists, while requiring they abide by federal emancipation policies.  The president emphasized that his plan was open to change, and that he would listen to suggestions from Congressmen or anyone else with a practical alternative.  The immediate reaction in Congress and the Northern press was almost universally positive.

Congressmen began to work on the details of Reconstruction, but became suspicious that the president was ignoring their efforts.  They were also concerned that the governments being established under Lincoln’s plan in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Tennessee were curtailing the liberties of the freed slaves.  The angry reaction in early 1864 was spearheaded by a small but influential group known as the Radical Republicans.  Led by Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, these lawmakers had previously been critical of the president for being overly cautious on emancipation, the enlistment of blacks into the Union armed forces, and other wartime policies.  As Lincoln’s own treasury secretary, Salmon P. Chase, secretly worked to replace the president on the 1864 Republican ticket, the Radical Republicans formulated their own Reconstruction plan, the Wade-Davis bill.

Sponsored by Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio and Congressman Henry Winter Davis of Maryland, the Wade-Davis bill passed the House of Representatives, 73-59, on May 4 and the Senate, 18-14 (with only one Republican dissenting), on July 2.  The Wade-Davis bill agreed with Lincoln’s plan in the appointment of a provisional governor and a simple loyalty oath in the initial stage.  Otherwise, the congressional measure was more stringent in almost every respect.  Instead of requiring 10 percent to swear loyalty, it called for a majority; it then required that the electorate for a constitutional convention take an “ironclad” oath of never having fought against the Union; and it stipulated that the new state constitution must abolish slavery, disfranchise Confederate political and military leaders, and repudiate Confederate state debts.  When all these conditions were met, then Congress would readmit the state to the Union.  The Wade-Davis bill gave much more control to Congress and more protection to the freed slaves.  President Lincoln dispensed with it by a pocket veto.

In August, the outraged sponsors of the bill responded with the Wade-Davis Manifesto in which they accused Lincoln of acting like a dictator and usurping Congressional authority over Reconstruction.  This public spat came as Union military progress stalled and some Republicans talked of replacing Lincoln on the Republican ticket with General John C. Fremont.  However, Atlanta’s fall in early September 1864 and other Union victories on the field enabled Lincoln to win reelection handily in November.  Nevertheless, when Congress reconvened in December, it refused to count the Electoral votes or seat the representatives elected from the three states reconstructed under Lincoln’s plan.

In January 1865, with intense lobbying from President Lincoln, the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery passed Congress and was sent to the state legislatures for ratification.  The harmony between the president and Congress over abolition did not extend to Reconstruction.  Some historians have argued that during the months before his assassination in April 1865, the president was moving toward compromise with Congress.  Other historians contend that the Lincoln’s views on Reconstruction remained consistent throughout his presidency.  After his death, both conservative and radical politicians would look back to Lincoln’s ambiguous statements about Reconstruction in early 1865 to claim him as one of their own.

In his Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865, Lincoln expressed his sentiments about Reconstruction in the phrase “with malice toward none, with charity for all,” implying a conciliatory policy, although not necessarily one without demands on the former Confederate states.  His final public statement about Reconstruction came in remarks to a crowd on the White House lawn on April 11, 1865.  He objected to grounding Reconstruction on constitutional theories—“pernicious abstractions”—about the status of the former Confederate states.  (Unknown to his audience, he may have been reacting to a conversation earlier in the day with Salmon P. Chase, the new Supreme Court chief justice.)  Lincoln defended his Reconstruction plan, but reiterated that it was open to change, and again promised to consider Congressional contributions.  He also expressed the hope that the states would enact limited black suffrage—the first public statement in favor of black voting rights by an American president. 

How Lincoln would have reacted to changing circumstances in the South, and to what extent he would have compromised with Congress over Reconstruction, will never be known.  On April 14, 1865, assassin John Wilkes Booth mortally wounded Lincoln, who died the next day.  The duty of administering Reconstruction fell to the new president, Andrew Johnson, a Southern Democrat who Lincoln had appointed as military governor of Tennessee before he became vice president.  Johnson’s Reconstruction plan would also be criticized by Congressional Republicans who would eventually take over the process.

Robert C. Kennedy

“The Union Christmas Dinner”
June 17, 2024

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