Politics & Policy

Can You Hear The Bells?

Christmas 1864.

In the winter of 1864, an unexpected sense of optimism and good cheer settled on the northern states. The Civil War continued, but the news from the fronts was promising, and hope flourished that with spring the end would come and peace would return. New Yorkers in particular were in a festive frame of mind, of a like unseen since the before the war began. People skated in Central Park, and rode sleighs through the snowy fields. They stopped at shops for warm cider, confections, nuts and dried fruits. Florists, three dozen shops on Broadway alone, sold fragrant blooms that struck a cheerful note of defiance to the winter chill.

The city was prospering. Stores were decked out in seasonal decorations, and newspapers were packed with advertisements. Shoppers crowded Hinrichs at Broadway and Liberty in search of toys from all over the country and the world. The shelves were filled with dolls, tea-sets, menageries; toy guns, swords and drums; baseball gear, and sets for the latest craze sweeping England, croquet. Down the street, shops with music boxes and watches, fashionable clothing, or goods made from the wondrous invention India rubber. At Tiffany’s, one diamond necklace sold for $15,000–around $175,000 in today’s currency. More affordable pieces could be found across the street at Ball and Black’s. The most sought-after gift for young women that season was a sewing machine, of which many models were available. For men, cigars and hats were perennial favorites. Yet, the war was not far from people’s minds. At Williams’s Fine Arts near Franklin Street, prints and paintings of scenes of battle and camp life, “an appropriate present for the wife of some brave soldier in the field,” the Times noted.

The holiday fell on a Sunday that year; the churches were splendidly decked out, and attendance much higher than usual. The bells at Old Trinity Church rang with familiar seasonal tunes. The following day was declared a civic holiday so that those who thought it improper to celebrate on the Sabbath could hold parties and banquets. At the New York State Soldier’s Home on Howard Street a feast was laid on for 800 servicemen, and a volunteer chorus regaled them with song. Vice Admiral Farragut stopped by for a visit and was met with wild cheers. “This noble effort,” one writer observed, “to add to the comfort and entertainment of those who have sacrificed so much for our sakes is beyond praise.”

Eight hundred miles south, General William Techumseh Sherman was hosting a Christmas banquet for his staff. Days earlier his Army had completed its legendary–or infamous–march from Atlanta to the sea, arriving at Savannah, Georgia, and taking the town intact. Sherman dashed off a brief note to President Lincoln, which arrived in Washington on Christmas Eve: “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.” The terse message was reprinted in newspapers across the country. After a Christmas reception at the White House on the 26th, the president wrote back, “My Dear General Sherman: Many, many thanks for your Christmas gift, the capture of Savannah. … But what next?”

By then the next steps had already been taken. At 10 A.M. on Christmas morning, Union ironclad gunboats approached Fort Fisher, an earthen-walled Confederate stronghold guarding the approaches to Wilmington, North Carolina, the last substantial seaport still in rebel hands. A bombardment commenced, continuing a process begun the day before, but doing only minor damage to Ft. Fisher, which was called the Gibraltar of the south. The Union ships made several attempts to force the inlet but were beaten back by Confederate battery fire. After four hours’ exchanging shells, steamships began landing Union infantry along the beach three miles to the north of the fort. Men in blue swarmed onto the shore and began moving steadily southward along the sandy spit towards the earthworks and parapets. They soon came under warm fire from Confederate sharpshooters. The landings continued for hours and soon the Union forces had occupied the unfinished outer works of the fort. Defenders poured from the sally ports to occupy rifle pits, and rebel cannon opened with grape shot. In the heat of battle, the fort’s flagpole was sundered, and the flag fell into enemy hands. The telegraph went silent at 4 P.M.–the last dispatch received by Confederate General Braxton Bragg read, “A large body of the enemy have landed near the fort, deploying as skirmishers. May be able to carry me by storm. Do the best I can.”

Bragg began to make contingency plans for the collapse of the entire coastal defensive system. But the next day the fort was still in Confederate hands. Fighting had continued until nightfall, and the defenders stood at their posts through the darkness, in a torrential rain. Dawn found the Union troops departed, leaving behind discarded equipment and freshly dug graves along the stretch of sand. More than 30 Medals of Honor were awarded to Union soldiers, sailors, and Marines in that two-day engagement. For the weary southern defenders, the most valued reward they received was a reprieve from the fighting.

For Catherine Anne Edmondston of Halifax County, North Carolina, Christmas brought a general muster of the remaining men who could bear arms, and her husband left to join the militia. “A sad Christmas!” she wrote to her diary, “In place of Santa Claus bringing me anything he takes my husband from me for an indefinite time. When will we see a ‘Merry’ one? ‘Merry Christmas’ it seems a mockery thus to salute one in this war torn country. How can we be ‘merry’ with one’s best & dearest gone, exposed to Yankee bullets, to danger & to sudden death!”

Further north outside the Confederate capital of Richmond, the Union siege was in its sixth month. Cold weather earlier in the week had given way to sunshine and some thaw. Among the besiegers, the mood was light; “jollity and mirth were the order of the day,” a correspondent with the Union V Corps wrote. Camps were decorated with green boughs and planted shrubs. The men feasted on abundant quantities of roast turkeys and chickens, exceeding even the feasts of the vaunted Soldier’s Thanksgiving a month prior. Morale was elevated and the men were hopeful. There were rumors that the Confederates would sue for peace, and they could return home with the spring. “This is Christmas,” trooper J. C. Williams wrote, “and my mind wanders back to that home made lonesome by my absence, while far away from the peace and quietude of civil life to undergo the hardships of camp, and maybe the battlefield. I think of the many lives that are endangered, and hope that the time will soon come when peace, with its innumerable blessings, shall once more restore our country to happiness and prosperity.”

Inside rebels lines the mood was less hopeful. General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was anchored around the capital, holding firm but immobilized. Richmond’s defenders hung on tenaciously, knowing their position was perilous, but having no other alternative. “Christmas came while we were fighting famine within and Grant without our lines,” Rebel General John Brown Gordon noted. “To meet either was a serious problem.” The single railroad line sustaining the city could not bring in sufficient supplies; civilian and soldier alike suffered the hardships. There was no talk of feasts, or of gifts. The Confederacy was everywhere in need. “The brave fellows at the front, however, knew that their friends at home would gladly send them the last pound of sugar in the pantry, and the last turkey or chicken from the barnyard,” Gordon noted. “So they facetiously wished each other ‘Merry Christmas!’ as they dined on their wretched fare.” At Gordon’s headquarters, his wife prepared a pot of coffee from the small remaining supply from a bag she had been nursing through the four years of war. “She could scarcely have made an announcement more grateful to a hungry Confederate,” he wrote “Coffee–genuine coffee!” Gordon and his staff savored the aroma while they waited to fill their cups, their concerns momentarily and fully dispelled by the unexpected holiday cheer.

In Richmond, Confederate War Department Clerk John Beauchamp Jones noted in his diary, “We have quite a merry Christmas in the family; and a compact that no unpleasant word shall be uttered.” His wife and children spent the afternoon making pies from the stores they had saved for the occasion. Elsewhere in the city the mood was mixed, defiant exuberance and unconcealed pessimism. “There is much jollity and some drunkenness in the streets, notwithstanding the enemy’s pickets are within an hour’s march of the city. A large number of the croaking inhabitants censure the President for our many misfortunes, and openly declare in favor of Lee as Dictator. … it is still said they invested the President with extraordinary powers, in secret session. I am not quite sure this is so.”

Even if President Jefferson Davis had been granted extraordinary powers, there was little more he could have been doing. His country was under assault on every front, and each passing day its prospects for survival became more doubtful. On Christmas morning Davis walked with his family to St. Paul’s Church for services, then distributed toys and apples to the children at the Episcopalian Orphanage. It was a pleasant day, free from politics, free from war, free from the fears of the inevitable. That evening the Davis’ hosted a “starvation party” at a friend’s house, with music and dancing but no food or drink. Young people crowded the rooms, and officers rode in from the siege lines to partake in the festivities. They “rode into town with their long cavalry boots pulled well up over their knees, but splashed up their waists, put up their horses and rushed to the places where their dress uniform suits had been left for safekeeping,” Mrs. Davis wrote. “They very soon emerged, however, in full toggery and entered into the pleasures of their dance with the bright-eyed girls, who many of them were fragile as fairies, but worked like peasants for their home and country. … So, in the interchange of the courtesies and charities of life, to which we could not add its comforts and pleasures, passed the last Christmas in the Confederate mansion.”

Far to the north in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow reflected on the day, and Christmas days past. The season had held no joy for him for the past three years–not because of the war, but the tragic death of his wife Fanny in the summer of 1861. She was the love of his life, and they were splendidly happy, but on July 9, 1861, while sealing a letter with paraffin, Fanny dropped the match on her summer dress, which burst into flames. Henry heard her screams and ran to her, trying to help smother the fire and burning himself severely in the process. Fanny died the next day. In December 1862, Henry noted in his journal, “A Merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more from me.” He spent December 1863 helping nurse his son’s wounds; Lt. Charles Appleton Longfellow, who had run away to fight for the Union, was severely wounded at the battle of New Hope Church, Virginia, and Henry had rushed south to bring him home. The following spring, Longfellow’s lifelong friend Nathaniel Hawthorne passed away unexpectedly n his sleep. These had been difficult times for the poet; but sometimes it is only through great adversity that the promise of hope makes itself felt most strongly. Longfellow began to write:

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.’

I thought how as that day had come

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along th’ unbroken song

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.

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.

The poem was put to music by Jean Baptiste Calkin in 1872, and became the familiar carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” This year the group TrueHeart has rerecorded the song as a tribute to the men and women fighting the Global War on Terrorism. You can hear it here.

It was in 1864 as it is now, service members abroad long to join their families, and those on the home front look forward to the safe and swift return of their loved ones. The Civil War ended, as all wars must. Could this be the last holiday season of this war? It is too much to believe, though maybe not too much to hope.

James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, a trustee for the Leaders for Liberty Foundation, and an NRO contributor.

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