The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The forgotten civil war history of two of our favorite Christmas carols

A group of volunteers and staff members of Caring Hearts of Wyoming Valley gather to sing Christmas carols and hand out gifts to residents at ManorCare in Kingston, Pa., on Dec. 2. (Mark Moran/The Citizens' Voice/AP)
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Even a socially-distanced holiday cannot silence the omnipresent Christmas songs that form the season’s soundtrack. As part of our collective subconscious, these tunes may even serve to distract us from this year’s tragic hardships. But, two of our most playful holiday songs — “Jingle Bells” and “Up on the Housetop” — are products of an even more profound national crisis, the Civil War.

While the songs themselves carry little of that era’s fraught politics, their authors were deeply embedded in the causes of both sides and used their songwriting talents to try to shape the conflict raging around them. In that way, they show the potential power of songs not just to spark our emotions, but also to shape our ideas.

The seemingly innocuous and beloved song “Jingle Bells” was written by James Pierpont, a mildly successful songwriter living in Savannah. In 1857, a prominent Boston music publisher, Oliver Ditson & Co., published Pierpont’s holiday tune as sheet music under its original title, “The One Horse Open Sleigh.”

Like many of America’s earliest commercial songsmiths, Pierpont hailed from an evangelical New England family. Aside from his songwriting, he had found work in Savannah as a clerk and the organist in his brother’s Unitarian church. His brother and father were ardent anti-slavery ministers and would continue to champion the cause during the war.

Yet James took a different path. As he sat to write this enduring song, the politics of slavery were wrenching the nation apart. The Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision had been announced that same year, potentially nationalizing the institution and stating that Black Americans “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

A year earlier, the Republican Party had run its first presidential candidate, John C. Fremont, on a pro-Northern platform. Anticipating the Civil War, violence was breaking out in “Bleeding Kansas” between pro- and anti-slavery advocates, including John Brown, who would later stage the ill-fated abolitionist raid in Harpers Ferry in Virginia.

All of this swept Pierpont into the proslavery, secessionist ranks, despite his family’s ideals. He served for about two years in what eventually became the Confederacy’s Fifth Georgia Cavalry Regiment, and his politics were even more evident in his songwriting.

He penned pro-Confederate songs urging the White South to defend itself against Yankee “invaders” as in “Our Battle Flag!” (“It stands to guide us to success, / Or to the hero’s grave”) and “Strike for the South” (“Strike for the South! for Liberty’s sun / In darkness and gloom has not set”). His most popular anthem was the boldly titled, “We Conquer or Die,” which equated Union victory (and presumably the end of slavery) with physical and cultural death — a far cry from the jaunty tone of “Jingle Bells.”

Pierpont survived the war but remained in the South. He also seems to have given up on his songwriting career. The family remained prominent, most notably his nephew, banker J.P. Morgan, but Pierpont faded into obscurity, with “Jingle Bells” — a minor hit in his own time — his primary legacy.

“Up on the Housetop” provides an interesting counterpoint. Unlike “Jingle Bells,” it is a product of the war itself — written in 1864 by Benjamin Hanby. Though, like Pierpont, he was not a New Englander, he did have a similarly abolitionist background. Growing up in Ohio, Hanby’s family reportedly worked on the Underground Railroad.

Hanby also began writing popular songs in the 1850s. But unlike Pierpont, Hanby used his songs to attack slavery. We mostly remember him for his Christmas carol — originally titled merely “Santa Claus” — but Hanby’s biggest contemporary hit was the explicitly anti-slavery “Darling Nelly Gray.”

Most popular Southern songs that dealt with slavery comically depicted Black men yearning for plantation life (think “Oh! Susanna” or “Dixie”). In “Darling Nelly Gray,” Hanby turned this trope on its head to reveal the horror of family separation. He assumed the voice of an enslaved man so broken by his eponymous wife’s sale that he ultimately died, perhaps by suicide. Published in 1856, it remained a hit for years. The chorus says:

Oh! my poor Nelly Gray, they have taken you away,

And I’ll never see my darling anymore,

I’m sitting by the river and I’m weeping all the day,

For you’ve gone from the old Kentucky shore.

During the Civil War, Hanby wrote songs to support emancipation. His biggest wartime hit was “Ole Shady,” which claimed to have lyrics written by an actual enslaved man but were probably products of Hanby’s imagination written in the era’s popular, racist “Negro dialect.” As with “Darling Nelly Gray,” it touched on the theme of family separation but celebrated the Union victory’s potential for reunion. Hanby dedicated it to Union Gen. Benjamin Butler, showing his approval of Butler’s practice of “confiscating” enslaved people held by Confederates.

It’s difficult to fit “Up on the Housetop” into the political activism of Hanby’s other songs. Essentially it shows how 19th-century songwriters often worked in various genres, searching for that elusive hit wherever they could find it. In its immediate context, the most noteworthy element of Hanby’s carol was not his politics, but its focus on the emerging figure of Santa Claus, setting the events of “'Twas the Night Before Christmas” (originally published in 1823) to a jaunty holiday tune.

Taken solely as a song, “Jingle Bells” similarly has little to do with the Civil War. In fact, the absence of historical context has helped both carols endure. For listeners today, they convey only the spirit of the season, and we pay no attention to the politics or racial attitudes of their authors.

But during the Civil War, music operated in a highly politicized environment. Pierpont and Hanby were two of many songwriters trying to make a living by engaging with the war, but much of their energy also went into trying to shape its outcome.

How ironic then, that we mostly remember them (if we remember them at all) as the authors of two holiday larks? Repetition and celebration have rubbed their songs clean of any political context, showing how often an individual piece of culture can live a life far removed from its author’s intent or context. Whether revealing that missing context changes how we hear such songs is ultimately up to each listener.