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Longfellow’s ‘I Hear the Bells on Christmas Day’ has two stanzas you rarely hear

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The words for one of Christmas’s most beautiful carols was written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Dec. 25, 1863, in response to the near fatal wound his son, Charles Appleton Wadsworth, received at the Mine Run campaign in Virginia.

Unbeknownst to his father, the younger Longfellow had slipped away from his home in Cambridge, Mass., early in 1863 to join the Union military in Washington. He was a 2nd lieutenant in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry when injured on Nov. 27. A bullet had entered his left shoulder, traveled across his back, passing near his spine, before it exited under his right shoulder blade.

His father received a telegram on Dec. 1 about Charles’s injuries and immediately set off for Washington, where he awaited his son’s arrival by train on Dec. 5.

The first surgeon Longfellow spoke with said Charles might be paralyzed from the bullet’s damage, but other doctors told him later that the bullet had missed his spine and he would eventually recover. His father later wrote a friend, saying that experience caused him, “a great deal of trouble and anxiety.”

On Dec. 25 of that year, he wrote from his Cambridge home, “I Hear the Bells on Christmas Day,” addressing the horrors of the Civil War. However, when it was put to music several years later, the two stanzas that speak to the war were dropped.

The little-known fourth and fifth stanzas are:

“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 make forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth and good-will to men.”

Here is a performance of Longfellow’s carol: