The Story of the Christmas Pickle

The Story of the Christmas Pickle

by Melissa Trombley-Prosch, Friends of Grant Cottage Site Historian

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As Christmas approaches, my family looks forward to their annual opportunity to be hailed as “The Great Pickle Finder.” This American tradition of hanging a blown glass pickle ornament on the family Christmas tree became popular at the end of the nineteenth century and a favorite one in my family for generations. Originally imported from the Lauscha region of Germany (renowned for its blown glass), ornaments of glass in the shapes of fruits and vegetables found their way into many U.S. homes of the period. How the pickle specifically became a favorite, however, is a compelling story with a setting of Christmas in 1864. It has an additional intriguing element bringing the founder of this tradition into a shared experience with Grant Cottage’s first caretaker – one that would profoundly affect both men. The story begins at the infamous Confederate prison camp (Camp Sumter) at Andersonville, Georgia.

The camp’s enclosure of 19 acres was initially built in January 1864 and enlarged during the summer to 25.75 acres. It consisted of a quadrangle stockade (1,295 by 865 feet) made of pine logs, 20 feet in length and about 8 inches in diameter, sunk 5 feet in the ground.  In the inner stockade were 52 sentry boxes, raised above the palisades with an armed guard stationed in each box. The camp was built to hold a maximum of 10,000 prisoners but within 6 months held 30,000 men. A total of almost 13,000 Union prisoners eventually died from communicable diseases, malnutrition, overcrowding, poor sanitation and exposure.

O.P. Clarke.  Image courtesy Walt and Wendy Upham collection.

O.P. Clarke.
Image courtesy Walt and Wendy Upham collection.

One of those prisoners struggling for survival was twenty-year old Sgt. Oliver Pendleton (O.P.) Clarke of the 94th New York Volunteer Infantry. Sgt. Clarke was taken prisoner during the assault on Cold Harbor in June 1864. He would survive his imprisonment and become first a telegrapher, then an attorney, and finally Grant Cottage’s first caretaker in 1889, despite never recovering his health after his imprisonment.  No shelter was provided to the prisoners. Survivors all had some things in common – something to protect them from the searing Georgia heat and driving rain (army blankets, quilts, horse blankets, articles of clothing), a buddy to depend on, and creative strategies for getting extra food and safe supply of water.

The rations given the men were inadequate, and many times were distributed uncooked and riddled with bugs. O.P. knew the Confederate guards coveted New York uniform buttons in particular and, like many others, bartered all his buttons for extra food.  

One of O.P.’s fellow prisoners was Pvt. John C. Lower. A Bavarian-born immigrant, Pvt. Lower enlisted in the 103rd Pennsylvania Infantry and was captured at Plymouth, North Carolina in April 1864 and joined the prison population at Andersonville shortly thereafter. By Christmas Eve 1864, Lower, like many others, was starving. He begged one of his Confederate guards for some food and was given a pickle. Lower later credited this simple token of humanity for giving him the clarity of purpose to continue his fight to survive. He was released, like O.P., in the spring of 1865 and returned to his family. The Lower family then began a tradition of hiding a pickle ornament on the Christmas tree for the most observant child to find – that child would have the reward of good fortune for the coming year.

Did John Lower and O.P. Clarke ever meet during their imprisonment?  Did stories shared around Union veteran campfires (a favored activity among Grand Army of the Republic members) help spread the story of how a family celebrated a humble pickle’s inspiration of hope in a desperate soldier, resulting in the creation of countless joyful Christmas memories for generations of children? I wonder…

Happy Holidays!