Christmas Bells: A Poem of the Civil War


In 1863 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem about the Civil War.  The poem was Christmas Bells.  Later it was adapted into the classic Christmas song “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”.

There are two stanzas of the poem which were not incorporated into the song.  They dealt with the black cannons and how the thunder from their accursed mouths drowned the carols of peace on earth and good will to men.

He continues with

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!”

Lincoln and Longfellow:

For a war-weary President Lincoln each name on the casualty list was another loss for the grieving nation.  He often thought of the parents who would face the empty chairs at the breakfast, lunch and supper tables.

His hope had been that Gettysburg would be the final battle, but once again his generals failed to grasp the opportunities before them.  So the nation continued on its bloody course where the boys in blue and gray would continue to baptize the earth with their precious blood.

To the Northeast another man was troubled by the growing loss of precious life. Longfellow knew that many boys who spent last Christmas with their families would never do so again.  On the battlefields of the nation, especially Gettysburg, young boys laid spewed like chaff after harvest.

Come Christmas many a home hearth would have an empty stocking which could not be claimed.  Many mothers would weep at Christmas dinner for their lost son or sons.  Fathers would stand in their windows or by the fence posts remembering the jovial boy child in his pristine innocence skipping across the field with his dog or walking down the street with his buddies.

From his house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow paced the grounds of Craigie House, which had been a wedding present from his father-in-law Nathan Appleton. As he watched the River Charles, he thought of history as a river running its course.  A river was the life blood of a town or city.  So were the boys.

The river had seen many boys playing and fishing on its banks who had given their lives in the Union cause after reaching the age where a young man could fight and die; some would fight and die below the legal age as well.  How many others along this river and all the rivers of the nation would have to pay the price of war?

When would there be peace once again in this land and good will toward all men North and South, East and West?  When would the incessant despair end?

Where was God in this civil conflict?  Did he not care or was He too preoccupied to take notice?

Returning to his writing room, he opened his Bible to Luke 2. As he read, the following words kindled the poetic muse in him.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Longfellow picked up his pen and wrote the words below.  All seemed hopeless, but Longfellow knew that Right would prevail regardless of the darkest night of Wrong.

The coming Christmas was indeed bleak and sadness was the snow in which many would be enrobed.  He truly believed that God would have the final say in the matter, and peace on earth and good-will to men would be a reality “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Lincoln and Longfellow both endured the long night of twenty more months where despair eventually gave way to hope.  Longfellow would live to see the Union reunited once more, but Lincoln would never live to see his hope expressed on March 4, 1865:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”


When you hear or sing the song, I Heard the Bells On Christmas, please remember its context.  A lot of precious blood has been given for you to sing that song this Christmas.

Heritage is a precious treasure entrusted to the current generation.  Let’s strive to live the words of the song and pass it to the next generation.

May all the rich promises of Divine Providence be yours this season and in 2014.  Not only live life, but thrive each day. Always help a fellow traveller on the road of life.

G. D. Williams © 2013

POST 524

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.”