On December 1, 1863, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow sat down to a quiet dinner with his children in his home near Cambridge, Massachusetts. Henry had been widowed in a tragic accident two years prior when his wife’s dress caught on fire. Henry, awoken from a nap, desperately tried to extinguish the flames first with a rug, then with his own body. But he was too late. His wife suffered severe burns and died the next morning. Henry’s facial burns were so severe that he was unable to attend his own wife’s funeral. He would later grow a beard to hide the scars and feared being sent to an asylum because of his grief.
Earlier that spring in 1863, his oldest son, Charley, had enlisted as a private with the 1st Massachusetts Artillery, and he had advanced quickly to second lieutenant. So far he had survived, but on this night in early December, a telegram came in. Charley had been severely wounded four days earlier in a skirmish. A bullet had traveled across his back, narrowly missing his spine. He was being transferred to Washington, DC.
Immediately, Henry and his younger son boarded a train and arrived in Washington, DC, on December 3 to visit Charley. Charley arrived a few days later and surgeons began working on him. Henry was alarmed to hear that his son might be paralyzed. The surgeons later thought he might be able to make a recovery, but it would be a long process, at least six months.
This was the situation for Henry Longfellow on Christmas Day 1863: a 57-year-old widower stricken with grief, father of six children, the oldest of whom might be paralyzed for the rest of his life, as his country fought a war against itself. As the Christmas bells rang, as he heard carolers sing “peace on earth,” ...
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