A Civil War Christmas

The two brothers trudged through the hard-packed frozen road. Their weary feet were beyond feeling, frozen and having seen too many miles to count. Their uniforms once a proud bright blue, now almost beyond recognition. The shoulders burnished and shiny from the rifle and straps. Their pale blue eyes once twinkly and alive, now deadened with memories best forgotten. A bell rang through the frosty air, more of a tolling than a bright cheery ring. The men walked toward the sound almost as if on autopilot, not seeing anyone or anything around them. The bells drawing them like a horse on a lead.

As the bell’s final toll echoed through the village, the brothers reached the source of what pulled them along. A white spire stretched toward the gray sky. The wooden church doors shut out the cold air but allowed the sounds of singing to filter through them. The two men without a word walked up the front steps, pulled open the door, and slid into the back row. The wooden pews felt luxurious after what they had been through.

The carol ended, and the preacher stood.

“We welcome you to our Christmas Eve service. Tonight, I would like to share some words from a friend of mine.”

The audience sat in silence, other than a cough here or there or a baby fussing, as the pastor shared heart-wrenching words of a poem. The brothers nodded. Images of fallen comrades flashed before them—some reaching up through the bloody mess they lay in, while others stared sightlessly at them. The haunted look in their eyes deepened as the pastor continued reading:

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 made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

The brothers hid their despair by bowing their dark haired heads, but the visions moved ever faster. Was there no hope? Even here in rural America so close to home? Had they fought all for naught?

The preacher paused until every eye looked up at him. As if echoing the brothers’ thoughts, the pastor continued.

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 pealed 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!”

Another pause followed these triumphant words. “What brings my friend peace, brethren? It is the same thing that can bring peace to you. Our God has felt your pain. He lost His only Son, just like many of you whose sons have died in this terrible war. God’s Son died, but not in some senseless act of violence or a heroic deed of war. No, He died in your place to bring you peace. Will you accept His offer?”

The brothers hazard a glance at each other. They nodded. The words rang true and pulled at their heartstrings just as the bell had drawn them to the church. They could go home now. They had peace not just peace in their land but peace with God. Despite the ravages of war, they would be fine. Life would always have the scars of war. They wouldn’t forget their fallen comrades, but they could move on. Peace would come.

(This is a work of fiction. The song, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, was written after the author‘s son was seriously wounded in the Civil War. The two brothers are based on my ancestors. William and John Maher enlisted in the 7th Regiment NY heavy artillery during the Civil War. They both mustered out and returned home to New York state after the war. A special thanks goes out to all those families who have given of their sons, brothers, boyfriends, or husbands to serve in the military and for those who are currently serving.)

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