Henry had married Frances Appleton on July 13th 1843, and they settled down in the historic Craigie House overlooking the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They were blessed with the birth of their first child, Charles, on June 9th 1844, and eventually, Henry and Fanny's household numbered five children-- Charles, Ernest, Alice, Edith, and Allegra.
But in 1861 tragedy struck both the nation and Henry's family. The American Civil War started on April 12th and on July 9th Fanny recorded in her journal: "We are all sighing for the good sea breeze instead of this stifling land, one filled with dust. Poor Allegra is very droopy with heat, and Edie has to get her hair in a net to free her neck from the weight."
On July 10th Fanny was in the library of Craigie House trimming some of seven year old Edith's beautiful curls. When she was done she decided to preserve the clippings in sealing wax. While melting a bar of sealing wax with a candle, a few drops fell unnoticed upon her dress. Because of the stifling heat they had the widows open. Just then the longed for sea breeze gusted through the window, igniting the light material of Fanny's dress-- immediately wrapping her in flames. In her attempt to protect Edith and Allegra, she ran to Henry's study in the next room, where Henry frantically attempted to extinguish the flames with a nearby, but undersized throw rug. Failing to stop the fire with the rug, he tried to smother the flames by throwing his arms around Frances-- severely burning his face, arms, and hands. Although he was able to eventually put out the fire Fanny was severely burned and she died the next morning. Too ill from his own burns and grief, Henry was not able to attend her funeral. Because of damage to his hands Henry wore a full beard from that time forth because of his inability to shave.
The first Christmas after Fanny's death, Henry wrote, "How inexpressibly sad are all holidays." A year after the incident, he wrote, "I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace." Henry's journal entry for December 25th 1862 reads: "'A merry Christmas' say the children, but that is no more for me."
Almost a year later, Henry received word that his oldest son Charles, a lieutenant in the Union Army of the Potomac, had been severely wounded with a bullet passing under his shoulder blades and taking off one of the spinal processes. The Christmas of 1863 was silent in Henry's journal.
Finally, on Christmas Day of 1864, Henry made an entry in his journal that reflected his somber mood. He wrote:
"I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play.
And wild and sweet their words repeat 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 peeled 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."
When Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned the words to his poem, America was still months away from Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9th 1865; and, his poem reflected the prior years of the war's despair. The original poem contained seven stanzas. Since then two stanzas have been omitted, which contained references to the American Civil War, thus giving us the carol we know in its present form. The remaining five stanzas were slightly rearranged in 1872 by John Baptiste Calkin (1827-1905), who also gave us the memorable tune.