From 1861 to 1865 appx 850,000 Americans died in battle in the most deadly war in American History. The Civil war claimed more than double the lives of the next deadliest war (406,000 in WWII). In just the battle of Gettysburg over 50,000 men and boys died on the battle field. This was not a war that would resolve itself with diplomacy or negotiations. Both sides were willing to kill and die to win and that is exactly what happened. President Lincoln, in his first ever political office, directed the Union forces to fight in battle and crush the confederate armies.
Now, go back before the Civil war started and meet a promising man named Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Henry was born in 1807 in modern day Maine and attended college at Bowdoin. Later he would go on to be a professor at Bowdoin and eventually Harvard. He was considered the most popular American Poet of his day and would eventually find his face on a US Postal Stamp. Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke at his funeral. Like most northerners Henry sided with the Union cause in the Civil War but soon after the war started he was struck with tragedy.
In mid 1861 his wife's dress caught fire. Despite best efforts to put out the fire by all in the house she was badly injured and died within 24 hours from the injuries. Henry was also injured and grew a long beard the rest of his life to hide the scars on his face obtained when trying to beat out the fire that killed his wife. Henry was so strucken with grief that we was virtually unable to write poetry for the remained of his life, essentially retiring after her death.
Almost two years later, Henry's oldest son Charles was in his 19th year, had decided to join the Union army against his father's wishes. He wrote home in a letter on March 14th 1863, “I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave but I cannot any longer. 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.” Not too long later he was appointed to the office of lieutenant but was severely injured in the Battle of Mile Run on Nov 26th 1863.
30 days later, Henry found himself trying to nurse his son back to health, in the middle of the worst American conflict in all our history. His wife dead, his oldest child barely alive, and the world around him crumbling. In that day, Christmas 1863 he sat down and wrote a poem he titled “Christmas Bells.” Today we know his poem as the carol, “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day.”
Life is difficult. We all live through hard trials. Can any of us begin to understand the true misery and suffering endured by Longfellow or others of that Civil War era? As his poem suggests, we make it through these difficult times by remembering Jesus Christ who “descended below them all” suffering both body and spirit on our behalf.
Christmas is special because we remember the Savior who makes our lives easier and worth it. As the angels sang, and as Longfellow's poem suggests, Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men.