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I heard bells

December 22, 2013
Sue Eckhoff - Grundy County Heritage Museum , Reinbeck Courier

In the winter of 1864, optimism and good cheer was settling on the northern states. Although the Civil War continued, the news from the fronts was promising and hope was that spring would end the war. New Yorkers in particular were in a festive frame of mind. People skated in Central Park, and rode sleighs through snowy fields.

Christmas fell on Sunday that year. The churches were splendidly decked out, and attendance was high. Eight hundred miles to the south of New York, General William Tecumseh Sherman hosted a Christmas banquet for his staff. Days earlier his army had completed its legendary march to the sea, arriving in Savannah Georgia, and taking the town intact. Sherman penned a brief note to President Lincoln, which arrived in Washington on Christmas Eve stating, "I beg to present you as a Christmas gift, the City of Savannah, with 1590 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton." The president replied, "Many many thanks for your Christmas gift, the capture of Savannahbut what next?" But the next steps had already been taken. At 1 a.m. on Christmas morning, Union ironclad gunboats approached Fort Fisher, a Confederate stronghold guarding the approaches to Wilmington, North Carolina, the last substantial seaport still in rebel hands. A bombardment only did minor damage, and steamships began landing Union infantry along the beach three miles to the north of the fort. They soon came under fire from Confederate sharpshooters. The landings continued for hours and the troops moved steadily southward. 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. But the next day the fort was still in Confederate hands. Dawn found the Union troops departed, leaving behind equipment and freshly dug graves.

Far north outside Richmond, the Union siege was in its sixth month. Cold weather had given way to thaw and morale was elevated and the Union men were hopeful. Inside rebel lines the mood was less hopeful. Lee's army was anchored around the capital, Christmas came while they were fighting famine within and Grant without their lines. Further north still, in Cambridge Massachusetts, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow reflected on the day and of Christmas days past. The season had no joy for him, nor had it for the last three years, not because of the war, but because of the tragic death of his wife Fanny who died in 1861. She had been sealing a letter with paraffin, dropped the match on her summer dress which burst into flames. She died the next day. He spent December 1863 helping nurse his son's wounds, who had been severely wounded at the battle of New Hope Church Virginia. The following year, Longfellow's lifelong friend Nathaniel Hawthorne passed away unexpectedly in his sleep. These had been difficult times for the poet, but the promise of hope finally made Longfellow write his famous: "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."

As it was in 1864, and is now, service members long to join their families, and families look forward to the safe and swift return of their loved ones. May you hear the bells on Christmas Day!



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