Cannonball

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Beloved Christmas carol stemmed from Civil War incident

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) is one of the most beloved poets in American history. Most school children for more than 100 years learned his classic “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” and books such as The Song of Hiawatha became popular.
Yet, for all of his literary and cultural triumphs and influence, Longfellow suffered through several personal tragedies that scarred him. and perhaps deepened his poetry and writings. His first wife, Mary Storer Potter, was a childhood friend. In October 1835, while the couple was sailing to Europe, Mary, six months pregnant, suffered a miscarriage about the ship and died a few weeks later. She was only 22.
In 1843, after a seven-year courtship, Longfellow married Frances “Fanny” Appleton, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. They had six children, beginning with a son they named Charles Appleton Longfellow.
Shortly after the beginning of the Civil War, Fanny Longfellow tragically died when her dress caught fire while she was sealing some envelopes with hot wax. She had placed locks of hair of her children in the envelopes; it was to be her last act. Burned over most of her body, she died the next morning. Longfellow suffered severe facial burns in trying to save his wife; he took to wearing a long beard to hide his marred appearance.
Fast forward to Christmas, 1863.


On Christmas morning, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was melancholy. Undoubtedly the deaths of his two beloved brides haunted him. He also suffered emotionally from the news that his oldest son, 19-year-old Charles, had been wounded while serving in the Army of the Potomac in fighting at New Hope Church during the Mine Run Campaign.
Hearing the sound of the town’s bells pealing that Yuletide morning, Longfellow sat at his desk and picked up his pen, the anguish still gripping his very soul.
He composed three quick stanzas of a poem he entitled “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!

His mind and heart turned to the war that showed no signs of stoppage, one that had nearly cost him another beloved family member.
He penned two more verses, ones that are not often heard or read, as they were later not incorporated into what became the popular Christmas carol, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”
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!

Longfellow’s thoughts were broken by the sound of passersby in the streets outside. Rising from his desk, he peered outside and discerned new hope in the bells ringing the Christmas message.
Returning to his poem, he scrawled what became its signature stanzas.
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!

Longfellow never truly recovered from Fanny’s death, dancing with depression much of the rest of his life. Yet, his brief moment of divine inspiration on December 25, 1863, at the height of the Civil War remains one of the most cherished messages of hope for the human race, born out of tragedy and conceived in the anguish of a father’s concern for his wounded soldier boy.
Photograph from the Library of Congress.