May 26, 2018
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Fearful father took pen in hand on Christmas Day 1863

Harper's Weekly | BDN
Harper's Weekly | BDN
Artist Thomas Nast created this poignant art depicting a soldier and wife separated on Christmas Eve during the Civil War. As the Union infantryman sits beside a crackling fire and reads a letter from home, his wife kneels by her children's bedroom window and prays beneath a full moon. Different wartime scenes frame the two main images.
By Brian Swartz, Special to the BDN

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 his surviving children, but adventurous Charley warrants his special attention.

And on this sad Christmas when his oldest boy suffers the pain caused by an enemy’s bullet, Henry remembers last March 14, when an 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 mad-cap expedition,” Henry writes “My Dear Charley” later that March 14. “Still you have done very wrong; and I hope you will so see it and come home again at once.

“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.

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.”

Charley enlists as a private.

On April 1, 1863, Charley learns he has been commissioned a lieutenant in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry Regiment. He immediately joins the regiment at Potomac Falls, Va.

A month later Henry learns that sickness has sent Charley to seek medical care in Washington, D.C. 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.

Charley misses the shellacking dealt the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry at Aldie, Md., in mid-June.

On June 27 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. 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 paralysis.

On Dec. 5 Henry writes daughter 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 [to Cambridge] at ten. Have Dr. Wyman there.”

On Dec. 18 Henry informs a friend 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 another friend 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 good way off!”

Yet on Christmas Day 1863 Henry wonders if Charley will really recover this time. Cambridge church bells toll this joyous Christian holiday, but 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

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 recover slowly from his near-miss wound, which ends his military career. To his father’s relief, the Army medically discharges Charles on Feb. 15, 1864.

He will live for many years to come.

Brian Swartz is the BDN special sections editor. He can be reached at or visit his blog at

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