Christmas Bells: A Yuletide Story

Christmas 1863

Henry was awakened abruptly from his nap by his wife’s screams. By the time he reached Fannie, however, her form was completely engulfed in flames. Henry grabbed a rug and threw it over her to douse the fire. When that failed, he used his own body to smother the blaze. In due course he was able to douse the fire but the injuries to his wife would prove fatal. The next day, July 10, 1861, Fannie would perish from her burns.

Henry was himself severely charred. Burns to his face and extremities were so serious he was not able to attend his wife’s funeral. Henry would soon be forced to grow a beard to cover up his own disfigurements. The physical wounds, however, would be much easier to recover from than the emotional and psychological scars left behind. Henry would never fully recover from those.

Henry’s oldest son Charles, now eighteen years of age, had yearned to join the war effort. He repeatedly appealed to his father to allow him to enlist. Still struggling day to day with grief and depression over the loss of his wife, Henry refused to even consider giving Charles permission to join the army.

Undaunted, young Charles slipped away undetected from his home on March 14, 1863. He left a note behind for his dad informing him of his decision. Charles wrote: “I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave but I cannot any longer.” “I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good.”

Charles Longfellow

Charles Appleton Longfellow

Charles joined the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant. His regiment would play a minor role at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May of 1863. In early June, though, Charles came down with “camp fever,” which, by today’s medical standards of terminology, would mean typhoid or typho-malaria. As a result, he missed the Gettysburg campaign, but would return to his regiment following a two-month leave of absence. He arrived just in time to participate in the Mine Run Campaign.

The initial stages of the operation immersed Charles in his first heavy combat missions of the war. Many of these engagements took place near Culpeper, Virginia. Casualties were significant and several of his comrades were victims. In writing home to his father, he avowed “they may talk about the gaiety of a soldier’s life but it strikes me as pretty earnest work when shells are ripping and tearing your men to pieces.” The romanticism of war was wearing thin.

Charles was himself was severely wounded at the Battle of New Hope Church on November 23, 1863. A bullet “entered Charles’ left shoulder, passing through his back and clipping the spine before exiting under the right shoulder blade.” It was thought the wound would prove fatal. A telegram was sent to his father, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, on December 1, 1863, notifying him of the incident. Henry was overwhelmed with anxiety over his son’s well-being.


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In company with his son Ernest, Henry took the first train to Washington D.C. to be with Charles. On December 5th the three of them were reunited at a hospital outside Washington. One of the surgeons told Henry “the wound was a very serious one and paralysis might ensue.” A second doctor was more optimistic and said “he will be long in healing” but he will recover.

Within a week the three found themselves aboard a train winding their way back to Cambridge. Charles survived his wounds and would live a full life, but he never again returned to his regiment. Charles Appleton Longfellow was honorably discharged on February 15th 1864.

On Christmas Day, 1863, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow sat down at his desk and put to verse a poem that he called Christmas Bells. In writing the rhyme he conveyed the “trouble and anxiety” he had experienced over the course of the last few years. You can feel the darkness and you can witness for yourself Longfellow’s personal reflections on the Civil War. The poem would prove popular and by 1872 it had been adapted into a Christmas Carol. The song would be titled I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.

Here are the words to the poem.

Christmas Bells

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

It is true this is not a Shenandoah Valley Civil War tale. It is, however, a Civil War story. In many ways it is representative of the experiences of the thousands of families who lost, or nearly lost, loved ones during its course. The next time you hear the song, though, you can truthfully say, “now you know the rest of the story.”

Pete Dalton

Merry Christmas.

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