A fearful father took pen in hand on Christmas Day 1863


Library of Congress Political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew for Harper's Weekly this poignant image of a family separated by war at Christmas. As the wife kneels and prays by her children's bedroom window, on a far-off campground her soldier husband reads the latest letter from home.

Library of Congress
Political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew for Harper’s Weekly this poignant image of a family separated by war at Christmas. As the wife kneels and prays by her children’s bedroom window, on a far-off campground her soldier husband reads the latest letter from home. Surround the separated couple are wartime images, including a scene from the “Mud March,” soldiers’ graves, and a storm-tossed ship.

His impulsive behavior has cost Charley dearly as he lays recovering — hopefully — from a war wound on Christmas Day 1863.

The eldest of six siblings, Charley became the apple of his father’s eye when he was born in Cambridge, Mass. on June 9, 1844; Henry adores all the surviving children, but adventurous Charley warrants his special attention.

Henry remembers when Charley accidentally blew off his left thumb while shot gunning in 1855. And on this sad Christmas when his oldest boy suffers the pain caused by an enemy’s bullet, Henry remembers last March 14, when a Portland-postmarked envelope arrived at the family’s Cambridge home.

Henry reads the letter to discover that Charley has gone and done a foolish thing. He has run away to join the Army.

“Your letter this morning did not surprise very much, as I thought it probable you had gone on some such map-cap expedition,” Henry later writes “My Dear Charley” that March 14. “Still you have done very wrong; and I hope you will so see it and come home again at once.

“I have always thought, and still think you, too young to go into the army,” Henry informs his son.

“All join in much love to you. I have not yet told anyone of your doings (enlistment), but have said only that you are in Portland [Maine], that being the postmark on your letter,” Henry closes.

The same day Henry writes his sister Anne that “last Tuesday Charley disappeared, and nothing has been heard of him till this morning; when a letter comes from him without date … this letter I enclose.”

Henry describes Charley as “under a strange delusion … he is altogether too young to go into the army.”

Three days later the worried father writes Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner that “you will be surprised, and not surprised, to hear that Charley has joined the Army, and is now in Washington!” Hightailing to Battery A, 1st Massachusetts Artillery, Charley “has applied to Capt. W.[illiam] H.[enry] McCartney for enlistment, who will take good care of him till he hears from me.”

Henry has given up convincing his impulsive son to return home; “he has so decided a taste for this kind of life, I think it would be unwise to recall him by any coercive means,” Henry admits to Sumner.

Charley enlists as a private.

On March 21, Henry “started this morning … to town to see you” he writes James Thomas Field later that day. While en route “I met a military funeral and it has quite upset me.”

Henry asks Fields “to see Gov. [John] Andrew, to-day if you can” and ask “if it possible to get a commission of any kind for Charley.” Then two days later Henry informs Fields about receiving “a telegram from the Potomac” with news “that Col. [Horace] Sargent has nominated Charley for promotion already,” so Fields need not bother the governor.

Henry hopes that Charley “will stick to the Artillery. I have a weakness for the Artillery, of the longest range; so as to keep as far from the enemy as possible. But I am afraid Charley has not as much prudence as I have.”

Upon learning of his commission on April 1, Charley joins the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry Regiment at Potomac Falls, Va. He later acknowledges receiving the two horses his father had sent (and Charley believes the mounts actually came from Charles Sumner), and his unit misses the battle at Chancellorsville in early May.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” after his son, Charley, was wounded while fighting with the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry. (DigitalMaine)

A month later Henry learns that sickness — ostensibly malaria and typhoid fever — has sent Charley to Washington, D.C., where he obtains medical care in a private home. Henry arrives by train at 10 a.m., June 13 and quickly finds his son; although Charley “has the Camp-fever,” a “doctor says there are no alarming symptoms,” Henry writes home.

The next day, “while I sit here by Charley’s bed, and he lies asleep in bed,” Henry tells his daughter Alice that “I will scribble you a few lines as I can with a pencil.” He often write relatives and friends, updating them on Charley’s condition.

Charley misses the shellacking dealt the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry at Aldie, Md. in mid-June. Yet “Charley kicked in his bed” on June 22 “when he heard his regiment had been in action, and he not there,” Henry writes his son Ernest.

Five days later Henry and Charley board an outbound train; they arrive in Nahant, Mass. on June 30, and that night Charley “had … a return of fever.” His recovery takes a while; not until mid-August does Charley return to his regiment.

Father and son exchange letters that summer and fall. Henry occasionally sends Charley “a box” (the modern “care package”) containing clothing and food; on Oct. 2 Henry has a Cambridge grocer pack such a box with such items as “1 Bologna Sausage, 1 Dutch cheese,” and “1 parcel lamb’s tongues.”

Charley fights with his regiment through the waning summer. He serves well under fire.
Then on Dec. 1 Henry receives an official telegram informing him that Charley “was sever[e]ly wounded in the Face” at New Hope Church in Virginia on Nov. 27. Henry and son Ernest catch a train south and arrive in Washington, D.C. the next day.

“You will all be very glad to know that” Charley “is not wounded in the face,” Henry happily informs his daughter Edith on Dec. 4. “A bullet struck him in front; but instead of going through him, glanced round upon his ribs and came out his back. A pretty narrow escape!”

Henry incorrectly describes his son’s wound in that letter. Charley had caught a Confederate bullet that struck his left shoulder and passed beneath the skin under his back before exiting beneath his right shoulder. The bullet supposedly touched his spine, but he shows no sign of paralysis.

A day later Henry again cares for his son. Henry writes Alice that “Charley’s wound is worse; right through the back, the ball going in under one shoulder-blade and coming out under the other. No bones shattered; a miraculous escape.” And in a Dec. 9 telegram Alice learns that her father and brothers “shall be home at ten. Have Dr. Wyman there.”

On Dec. 18 Henry informs George Washington Greene that “so serious is the [Charley’s] wound,” the “surgeons say he will not be able to rejoin his Regiment for six months. He is doing well.”

By now Henry suffers from a terrible cold that has left him “generally in such bad plights,” he writes Sumner on Dec. 18. Charley “whistles, and sings, and is in very good spirits … You would think he was going back tomorrow. That tomorrow is a goof way off!”

A follow-up letter to Sumner on Dec. 22 brings news that Charley “has his ups and downs; but upon the whole is getting on very well.” Henry’s cold deteriorates into influenza, but he marvels at his son’s improvement.

Yet on Christmas Day 1863 Henry wonders if Charley will really recover this time. His prognosis looks good. But other wounded soldiers have similarly appeared well on the way to recovery, only to suddenly plunge into infection and death. Henry must watch and wait.

Cambridge church bells toll this joyous Christian holiday. The melancholy Henry disregards the “bongs” and “dongs” as he has every Christmas since 1861. His beloved wife, Fannie, had literally burned in his arms on July 9 that year, then died the next day, leaving her fire-damaged husband to passionately mourn his loss and to find no joy in Christmases 1861 and 1862.

Now his eldest child suffers for the Union, and Henry finds no joy on this Christmas morning. Yet the church bells persistently ring out this Christmas Day. Their message penetrates Henry’s sadness; emotion stirs within him, and Henry takes a pen in hand and composes a poem.

Words flow across the page as he recalls that first Christmas, when a savior promised by God was born in a Bethlehem stable to bring peace and joy to humans. Henry pours his pent-up fears — for his own beloved son and his beloved country shattered by a bloody Civil War — into the verses.

“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 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!”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lays aside his pen. He has given the world “Christmas Bells,” a favorite Christmas carol to be sung, sans verses 4 and 5, by choirs into the 21st century.

Charles Appleton Longfellow will slowly recover from his near-miss wound, which ends his military career. To his father’s relief, the Army medically discharges Charles on Feb. 15, 1864. The next Christmas will find him touring in Europe and Henry no longer about worrying the impulsive youth who ran away and joined the Army before Easter 1863.

The Cambridge church bells will toll again on Christmas Day 1864. Less than four months later, those same bells will peal joyously to announce the war’s end.

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.