Lincoln’s Best Christmas Gift: The City of Savannah and a Great Light

On December 22, 1864, Union General William T. Sherman wrote out the following now-famous note to President Lincoln: “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 note was sent by boat to Fort Monroe in Virginia and then telegraphed to the War Department in Washington, D.C. on Christmas Day.  It was written out and delivered to the President that same day.

Lincoln was elated to hear the news.  Responding the following day, he began: “My dear General Sherman.  Many, many, thanks for your Christmas-gift – the capture of Savannah”.  The President was likewise extremely relieved, given that Sherman had cut himself off from his supply lines and lines of communication when he undertook his risky “March to the Sea” more than a month earlier: “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”.

Lincoln may have also had doubts about Sherman’s “scorched earth” policy – making Southern citizens who supported the rebellion “feel the hard hand of war” – but he didn’t mention that now.  Instead, he wrote about the significance of the victory: “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.” [Union General George Henry Thomas had recently defeated Confederate General John Bell Hood in the battle of Nashville.]

This last phrase, written at a time when the general population – and no doubt the General himself – was biblically literate, would have brought immediately to mind a passage from the gospels.  The beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry is said to have fulfilled a prophesy by Isaiah regarding the land of Galilee, and regarding gentiles in general: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death a light has dawned” (Matthew 4:16).

Lincoln’s choice of this particular biblical reference, in the context of the Christmas season, was presumably intentional and certainly appropriate.  Christmas does mark, after all, the coming into the world of that great light, the Messiah, He who would later refer both to Himself as to his disciples as “the light of the world”.

In the immediate context, however, whom did Lincoln mean by “those who sat in darkness”?  It would seem to be all those in the North and indeed the rest of the world who had been “in the dark” about whether Grant, Sherman, Thomas, and company would ever be in a position to deliver that final, fatal blow to the resilient Confederacy.  This great victory allowed all “to see the light at the end of the tunnel”; the end of the war was finally in sight!

This also concords well with Lincoln’s gracious conclusion to his reply to Sherman: “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.”

May the same sensation of great light and hope which characterized Lincoln’s 1864 Christmas be ours as well in 2015.

Kevin J. Wood

December 23, 2015