Longfellow’s melancholy Christmas of 1863

Longfellow with his wife, Frances “Fanny” Elizabeth Appleton with Charles and Ernest, ca. 1849. (Photo from the National Park Service, Longfellow National Historic Site)

The Christmas song “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” was arranged and set to music by John Baptiste Calkin, but it was based on a poem that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote on Christmas Day 1863. Calkin removed the two stanzas relating to the war, thus gutting the meaning in order to add to an already over-filled canon of treacly Christmas tunes.

The war of course had by that time turned out much more brutally than any of the New England abolitionists had imagined. Even after the Union was required to resort to arms, the objectives were only slowly realized. On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, but it did not cover the 800,000 slaves outside the rebelling states. And every military victory cost so much blood, yet didn’t seem to bring an end closer. By the end of 1863, despite the victories of Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July, the war was proceeding with grim and determined ferociousness. By winter the Union optimism of summer had turned into discontent.

Longfellow, though he condemned slavery, was never the fire-breathing abolitionist that most New England intellectuals were. But his close friend, Senator Charles Sumner, certainly was. He not only harshly condemned the slave measures pursued by the Southern Democrats and the violence that slavery supporters incited, he delivered scathing descriptions of pro-slavery politicians, including fellow Senators. In his famous “Crime against Kansas” speech in May 1956, Sumner described Senator Andrew Butler as the Don Quixote of the slavocracy and Senator Stephen Douglas his Sancho Panza. He also pointed out Butler’s physical deformity and claimed Douglas had a mistress–“the harlot Slavery.” On reading the speech, Longfellow wrote his friend: “At last the spirit of the North is aroused.” Southern chivalry was also roused. Two days after the speech, Butler’s cousin, Preston Brooks, a congressman from South Carolina, approached Sumner who was writing at his desk in the nearly empty Senate chamber and clubbed him repeatedly with his cane. Sumner nearly died. The incident sealed the Northern view of Southern Democrats as irrational thugs who would stop at nothing to spread slavery.

Years before, in 1842, Longfellow had published for Sumner a very thin book of abolitionist poems, Poems on Slavery (Cambridge: John Owen: 1842). It contained only eight poems, all very mild by Sumner’s standards. In fact, Longfellow himself said that the poems were “so mild that even a slaveholder might read them without losing his appetite for breakfast.” Nevertheless, activist Elihu Burritt proposed to print selections from the volume and distribute them in tracts in hundreds of thousands of copies. He wrote: “When the millions of our American bondsmen are brought out of their Egyptian prison-house by a mighty hand & outstretched Arm, they shall sing your ‘Slaves Dream’ ‘The Witnesses’ & ‘Quadroon Girl’ by the other shore of their Red Sea of captivity.” (November 6, 1843; quoted in Merle E. Curti, “Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Elihu Burritt,” 7 American Literature 315, at 318-19 (November 1935).) As a result of this book, Longfellow was asked to take a more active role in the anti-slavery movement, but he declined. Privately, however, Longfellow used funds from royalties of his popular poems to buy freedom for slaves.

Longfellow would closely follow the politics of the impending dissolution carefully over the years from Sumner’s caning. He in fact wrote “Paul Revere’s Ride,” a clarion call for the Union which had just elected Lincoln, in time for Christmas 1860 (and published in The Atlantic Monthly). There would be a new Revolution, wrote Longfellow.

Fanny Appleton. “My morning and my evening star of love!” Longfellow wooed her for 7 years. The fire that took her is said to have started when she was melting wax to seal envelopes containing her childrens’ hair. Longfellow couldn’t save her though he tried. (from Wikipedia)

But the war did not quickly solve the moral crisis. Rather, it brought long anguish to the country and deep personal grief to Longfellow. In April shortly after the bombardment of Fort Sumner, Virginia voted to join the rest of the seceding states, striking a deep blow at the prospect of a quick resolution of the treason. In May Britain ominously declared its neutrality. But for Longfellow the greatest tragedy of all took place in July when his wife Fanny died in an accident that caught her clothes on fire. Longfellow tried to put the fire out, but she had severe burns all over her body. She lived through the night, and died the next day. Longfellow had been burned trying to smother the flames, so was unable to attend the funeral. He tried to drown his grief in laudanum upon which he became so dependent that he feared he would be committed to an asylum.

And even that was not the end of his sorrows. In 1863 his son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, ran off to join the Union Army. “I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave but I cannot any longer,” he wrote his father. “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.” He apparently was not accepted into the infantry, owing to an accident years before when he shot off his thumb. So he applied to Captain W.H. McCartney, commander of Battery A of the 1st Massachusetts Artillery and asked to enlist. Captain McCartney, a friend of the family, wrote Longfellow, who gave permission even though he was greatly concerned. Longfellow tried to obtain preferment for his son by approaches to Sumner and others, but in the end, it was unnecessary;  Charles had been appointed lieutenant on his own merits.

Lt. Charles Appleton Longfellow

Lt. Longfellow’s first brush with combat came on the outskirts of the Battle of Chancellorsville, that great debacle which nearly crushed the vastly overwhelming Army of the Potomac. In early June Charles contracted typhoid fever and malaria and was invalided home to recover. He could not rejoin his unit until August 15, 1863, and thus missed Gettysburg. In September at Culpepper he witnessed an artillery round take off the legs of a man standing next to him. On November 27, he himself was severely wounded. In the Mine Run Campaign, while in a skirmish during the battle of New Hope Church, Virginia, he was shot in the left shoulder. The bullet traveled across his back, and exited under his right shoulder. He was carried by ambulance to the Rapidan River. On December 1, 1863, Longfellow learned of the catastrophe and immediately took his other son Ernest to Washington to recover Charles. They brought him home, reaching Cambridge on December 8. The wound proved too severe to allow Lt. Longfellow to return to his unit, and he was discharged on February 15, 1864.

And so Christmas 1863 was a time of great national and personal sorrow for Longfellow. But that morning he heard the church bells which would give him the hope that justice in the end would prevail.

Christmas Bells

from Flower-de-luce (Boston: Ticknor and Fields: 1867)

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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!”

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    • Variety, Spice, Life
    • December 20th, 2010

    As former Editor of the Longfellow House Bulletin, I am delighted to happen upon such a fine post.

    – Marilyn Richardson

    • Thank you for your kind words and also many thanks for not pointing out the major proof-reading error in calling our mutual friend William rather than Henry in the first paragraph. I can only attribute this to the building excitement over the upcoming lunar eclipse. And shoddy proof-reading.

      I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to hyperlink to your Art + History blog, because we share many of the same interests (Abbey Lincoln, John Coltrane, George Russell and Garcia Lorca, are a couple of examples). Anyone who reads the ramblings here should head over there for some interesting posts. I was particularly interested in the story of your encounter with Nadia Boulanger. I had read once that Daniel Barenboim said that when he first went to study with her she gave him one of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier preludes and told him to play it in a different key. Then she proceeded to wrap his hands with a ruler every time he made a mistake. I take it you met a mellower Boulanger?

  1. I didn’t know any of this; thanks very much! I like knowing about it even though it’s so sad — perhaps it suits the mood of New Year’s, 2017.

    • I fear that our current crisis is more like 1856 than 1863. But maybe we can take comfort in considering that no one in 1856 could foresee that there would be a Lincoln in 1863. Happy New Year!

  1. January 10th, 2011
    Trackback from : Longfellow poems | Leasembe
  2. December 25th, 2013

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