Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Civil War Poem “Christmas Bells”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) one of America’s most popular poets both in his time and today, is remembered for poems such as Paul Revere’s Ride, Evangeline, and The Song of Hiawatha. While Longfellow didn’t write a lot about the Civil War, he watched it unfold as everyone did and was personally affected by it. And he did write one very memorable piece.

In the spring of 1863, Longfellow’s son Charles enlisted in Battery A of the 1st Massachusetts Artillery. Longfellow, who had many connections with the well placed in government and elsewhere, sought out an officer’s commission for his son, and on April 1st of that year, Charles joined the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry as a 2nd Lieutenant. In the late November-early December Mine Run Campaign in Virginia west of Fredericksburg, Lieutenant Longfellow was shot in the back during a skirmish. Although he recovered, the wound was serious enough to end Charles’ military career.

On December 25th, 1864, (some sources say a year earlier), Longfellow wrote the poem “Christmas Bells”. The poem begins by describing Christmas bells ringing out the message of “peace on earth, goodwill to men”, but then goes into how the war had ended that and how the writer had plunged into despair. The poem ends on a hopeful note, saying that “the wrong shall fail, the right prevail”.

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.”

Christmas 1863 by Thomas Nast, Harpers Weekly, Dec. 26, 1863

The Poem Inspires the Christmas Carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

The poem was set to music as early as the 1870s. It really took off in popularity as a Christmas carol called “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” in the 1950s, when an arrangement by songwriter Johnny Marks was recorded first by Bing Crosby, and followed by many others including Harry Belafonte, Johnny Cash, and the Carpenters. Not every verse of the poem is incorporated into the song (war reference verses are removed) and it continues be recorded and sung as a popular Christmas carol.

Here’s The Carpenters recording:

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