Civil War Profiles: ‘I heard the Bells on Christmas Day’


The 19th century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow experienced tragedy during his lifetime. His beloved wife Fanny died in a fire, and his son Charles sustained a devastating wound as an officer in the Union army during the Civil War.


Longfellow’s poem “Christmas Bells,” written on Christmas Day in 1863, conveys the trauma that spread throughout the country when the Southern states went to war against the North, and echoes his personal misfortune in life.

The opening stanzas reflect nostalgia for the traditional spiritual commemoration:

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 though 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!

The mood of Longfellow’s poem wanes as he conveys the national upheaval occurring once war erupted between the states in 1861. His life experiences foster his ability to convey this vivid contrast:

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!

Longfellow shared the anxiety of many parents of that era when his son Charles enlisted in the Union army in March 1863, and became a member of the 1st Massachusetts Artillery. However, family influence obtained a commission for him as a lieutenant in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry.

Charley soon contracted a malarial fever that required several months before recovery and return to active duty. In November 1863 during the Mine Run Campaign in Virginia, Lt. Longfellow sustained a debilitating wound in the back while on patrol. The near-fatal experience ended his service in the military.

The next stanza of “Christmas Bells” expresses Henry’s distress over his son’s wartime-induced incapacity, as well as the heartache of innumerable families throughout the country who were experiencing similar misfortunes:

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!

Employing verse to lament the divided nation in conflict well into its third year, he added the next stanza:

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!”

Given that President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863 designed to free more than three million enslaved people in designated areas of the South, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac defeated Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg in July 1863, and the prospects for a Northern victory that would bring the seceded states back into Union were enhanced considerably, the more positive temperament of the citizenry was evident in Longfellow’s concluding stanza:

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!”

Longfellow’s poem was the basis for the popular carol he composed one year later, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” As Christmas week ends, the sentiments contained therein underscore our nation’s aura of division and uncertainty; yet, following the presidential election, signify a strain of optimism for the future as we approach the New Year.

Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts, and Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com, or visit his website www.tomryan-civilwar.com.M