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A Christmas carol written from the pain of war

Ned Jilton II • Dec 25, 2018 at 1:00 PM

Christmas can be a lonely time for soldiers on deployment.

Our modern soldiers can find some relief by talking with family via telephone, satphone, e-mail and face-to-face internet communication with loved ones via programs like Skype.

But for soldiers in the Civil War, the only hope might be a rare letter from home. Christmas cards as we know them today were just beginning to catch on in Europe.

In the spirit of Christmas, the front of the Jan. 3 1863 Harper’s Weekly showed a drawing by Thomas Nast of Santa Claus visiting the troops.

Nast, who is known as the father of the editorial cartoon, is credited with drawing the modern version of Santa, and this Harper’s Weekly cover marked his début.

Sadly for the soldiers in camp, Santa couldn’t be everywhere.

President Abraham Lincoln tried to help. He would visit the wounded soldiers in the Washington hospitals on Christmas Day, and in 1863 soldiers got presents from Tad Lincoln. Inspired by a visit to the hospitals with his father, the younger Lincoln gathered gifts like books and clothing for the soldiers.

But for the soldiers in the field, a Christmas celebration might be sitting around the campfire singing Christmas carols.

Many of our classic Christmas carols that we sing today came about just before, or during, the Civil War. Songs like “Deck the Halls” (1862), “Jingle Bells” (1857), “We Three Kings of Orient Are” (1857) and “Up on the Housetop” (1864) are still as popular today as they were during the war.

Then there is the story of another classic carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

Written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the poem that would become the song was composed during a sad time in his life.

Longfellow was opposed to the war and much to his dismay, his oldest son, Charles, enlisted in the Union army against his wishes and without telling him.

“I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave but I cannot any longer,” Charles wrote in a letter telling his father what he had done. “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.”

In November 1863, Charles was severely wounded in the Battle of New Hope Church, Virginia.

The Civil War had been tough for Henry Longfellow. His wife had died in 1861 from burns received in an accident. Now, in 1863, with Christmas approaching and his oldest son in a hospital, Henry began to compose the poem that would become the carol.

The thing is, though, he really wasn’t writing a Christmas poem. He was writing a poem in opposition to the war he hated.

The poem starts much like the song we sing today.

“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!”

But by the fourth stanza, the tone of the poem changes.

“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.”

The poem does end on a hopeful 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.”

The poem wasn’t set to music until 1872, and over the years the war stanzas were either dropped or replaced. In 1956, Bing Crosby recorded the song and it became a hit and a Christmas classic.

But now you know the story of how this Christmas carol came to be from a distraught father who was begging for an end to the war.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at njilton@timesnews.net.

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