“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”


Dear Reader:

As a lover of stories and history…I have long recognized the power of the ‘story behind the story.‘ If one simply recites facts about an incident and never takes time to question the personal reasons behind courageous undertakings and accomplishments…one never hears the true story, the lingering message, that should stay with us long after the classroom bell rings.

Today’s story falls into both categories…it is the story behind a poem (later turned into a Christmas Carol)  and it teaches a powerful lesson about the true meaning of Christmas.

Cindy Ashley sent it to me yesterday and asked if I had ever heard the story…I had not and after reading it and listening to the original music about the (now popular carol) “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” I knew it needed to be shared. Thank you Cindy for the best gift of all…a story!


In March of 1863, 18-year-old Charles Appleton Longfellow walked out of his family’s house on Brattle Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and—unbeknownst to his family—boarded a train bound for Washington, D.C., traveling over 400 miles across the eastern seaboard in order to join President Lincoln’s Union army to fight in the Civil War.

screen-shot-2014-12-21-at-9-05-31-am-300x392Charles (b. June 9, 1844) was the oldest of six children born to Fannie Elizabeth Appleton and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the celebrated literary critic and poet. Charles had five younger siblings: a brother (aged 17) and three sisters (ages 13, 10, 8—another one had died as an infant).

Less than two years earlier, Charles’s mother Fannie had tragically died after her dress caught on fire. Her husband, awoken from a nap, tried to extinguish the flames as best he could, first with a rug and then his own body, but she had already suffered severe burns. She died the next morning (July 10, 1861), and Henry Longfellow’s facial burns were severe enough that he was unable even to attend his own wife’s funeral. He would grow a beard to hide his burned face and at times feared that he would be sent to an asylum on account of his grief.


When Charley (as he was called) arrived in Washington D.C., he sought to enlist as a private with the 1st Massachusetts Artillery. Captain W. H. McCartney, commander of Battery A, wrote to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow for written permission for Charley to become a soldier. HWL (as his son referred to him) granted the permission.

Longfellow later wrote to his friends Charles Sumner (senator from Massachusetts), John Andrew (governor of Massachusetts), and Edward Dalton (medical inspector of the Sixth Army Corps) to lobby for his son to become an officer. But Charley had already impressed his fellow soldiers and superiors with his skills, and on March 27, 1863, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry, assigned to Company “G.”

After participating on the fringe of the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia (April 30-May 6, 1863), Charley fell ill with typhoid fever and was sent home to recover. He rejoined his unit on August 15, 1863, having missed the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863).

While dining at home on December 1, 1863, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow received a telegram that his son had been severely wounded four days earlier. On November 27, 1863, while involved in a skirmish during a battle of of the Mine Run Campaign, Charley was shot through the left shoulder, with the bullet exiting under his right shoulder blade. It had traveled across his back and skimmed his spine. Charley avoided being paralyzed by less than an inch.

He was carried into New Hope Church (Orange County, Virginia) and then transported to the Rapidan River. Charley’s father and younger brother, Ernest, immediately set out for Washington, D.C., arriving on December 3. Charley arrived by train on December 5. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was alarmed when informed by the army surgeon that his son’s wound “was very serious” and that “paralysis might ensue.” Three surgeons gave a more favorable report that evening, suggesting a recovery that would require him to be “long in healing,” at least six months.

On Christmas day, 1863, Longfellow—a 57-year-old widowed father of six children, the oldest of which had been nearly paralyzed as his country fought a war against itself—wrote a poem seeking to capture the dynamic and dissonance in his own heart and the world he observes around him. He heard the Christmas bells that December day and the singing of “peace on earth” (Luke 2:14) but he observed the world of injustice and violence that seemed to mock the truthfulness of this optimistic outlook. The theme of listening recurred throughout the poem, eventually leading to a ‘settledness’ of confident hope even in the midst of bleak despair.

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!

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.”


Isn’t that still our hope and prayer today in a world filled with conflict and turmoil? Peace on earth, good-will to men?

This short video clip (below) has been set to original music re-telling Longfellow’s story behind the story. So moving! You won’t forget it any time soon.

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (Civil War background) – YouTube

So until tomorrow…Isn’t it amazing when we discover that it is only when we come to really know someone, the human point of view, that the real story behind historical events begins to make sense?

“Today is my favorite day” Winnie the Pooh

downloadYesterday was the winter solstice…the shortest day of the year…but do not fear…be of good cheer…days will start getting longer and longer. Merry Christmas!

0f46e1fa-9e31-452e-95b9-8adfa2c16b7b-1Joan sent me this picture of her modeling a scarf I gave her a few months ago on her birthday…thought the colors would be good for Christmas and they are! (Of course anything looks good on Joan!)

I had just gotten off a Christmas photo of all the grandchildren in the family and Joan emailed that it had arrived…and she had added it to her Grandmother Refrigerator “Gallery”! Merry Christmas Joan!


*We can’t leave the blog today without listening to the beautiful (more modern melody) of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”  from St. Peter’s Choir!

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day — St Peter’s Choir – YouTube

img_6390*Happy Birthday Mother! I love you! Thanks for my life! You were my anchor of hope and I miss you very much!



There are quite a few white anchors on the SBC Christmas tree this year. The books we used for directions named them “the cross of hope.” The ladies had lots of fun decorating them with gold braid and pearls.

About Becky Dingle

I was born a Tarheel but ended up a Sandlapper. My grandparents were cotton farmers in Laurens, South Carolina and it was in my grandmother’s house that my love of storytelling began beside an old Franklin stove. When I graduated from Laurens High School, I attended Erskine College (Due West of what?) and would later get my Masters Degree in Education/Social Studies from Charleston Southern. I am presently an adjunct professor/clinical supervisor at CSU and have also taught at the College of Charleston. For 28 years I taught Social Studies through storytelling. My philosophy matched Rudyard Kipling’s quote: “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” Today I still spread this message through workshops and presentations throughout the state. The secret of success in teaching social studies is always in the story. I want to keep learning and being surprised by life…it is the greatest teacher. Like Kermit said, “When you’re green you grow, when you’re ripe you rot.”
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2 Responses to “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

  1. Timelesslady says:

    What a lovely post. I didn’t know the history of this carol, nor had a I heard all the verses. Thanks for opening up my eyes…now I will never forget it.


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