December is a month of special music. Music has a way of bringing a peaceful reassurance and tranquility during times of crisis and sorrow. I recall as a young lad hearing in my church the melodic music of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Not only did the musical notes move me, but the words also brought tears to my eyes as I sang them, even though I did not know the history or have yet a deeper understanding of why I felt moved.
I did know the words and music caused me to become reflective, even melancholic, as I thought of the many at that time heeding the call of freedom and commitment to their country by serving in Vietnam. I too wished for the refrain’s invitation of peace and good-will to men.
This carol was written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In 1861 at the outset of the Civil War he had lost his wife “Fanny” in an accident where her dress caught on fire and left her severely burned. Despite Henry’s best efforts to use a rug and his body he could not get the fire extinguished in time, and his wife ultimately succumbed from the burns. He too was burned badly enough that it took months to recover. He wore a beard ever after to cover the facial scars that resulted from that event.
Henry was left a widower with five children, the oldest age 14 and the youngest age 5. The Longfellows were partial to abolition and the union cause. “Longfellow’s daughters supported the war effort by making socks and bandages for soldiers and collecting patriotic souvenirs. Family correspondence exhibited a constant state of worry about events on the battlefields and in Washington. And the war fueled Longfellow’s poetry, acting as the impetus for poems with themes covering national unity, bravery, sacrifice, and tragedy.” (The Longfellow Family in the Civil War (U.S. National Park Service). nps.gov)
In 1863 Henry received this letter from his oldest son.
You know for how long a time I have been wanting to go to the war 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 God Bless you all.
How could a father not be proud of such a patriotic son exhibiting such love for his country?!
A Search For His Beloved Son
“Later in the war, Charley was shot through the back as he reconnoitered along the front lines. He was brought to New Hope Church, now serving as a field hospital, where the wound was inspected and dressed. Fortunately for Charley, the bullet did not lodge in his body, but passed through his back, nicking the spine on its way. He tersely recorded the event in his journal “got pluged [sic]”. (nps.gov)
Charley spent four days recovering at New Hope Church, where Lieutenant Nathan Appleton, Jr., his mother’s half-brother, visited him. He then undertook an uncomfortable ride by wagon-ambulance and train to Alexandria, Virginia, where he was met by his anxious father and younger brother Ernest. Henry W. Longfellow had rushed from Cambridge to Washington as soon as news of Charley’s wounding was received (the telegram inaccurately reported that Charley was severely injured in the face). He then set about trying to locate Charley, and even obtained a military pass allowing him to go through army lines into Virginia to search for his wounded son. After Charley had a few days in bed to gather strength for the trip home, the Longfellows left Washington by train on December 8, arriving in Boston late the following evening. Charley was fed, inspected by the family’s doctor, and put to bed. His part in the war was over.” (nps.gov)
During that difficult December after finding his wounded son Henry wrote this 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."
The power of this story and these words suggests the Providential superintendence of God to assure us of His peace. The war for our liberty was secured by Him; the question remains if we will win our individual battle for faith, hope and peace. “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” John 14:27
And please enjoy a beautiful rendition of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” performed by Casting Crowns.
Image attribution: Home of Longfellow Cambridge, Mass.