Hymns and the Battle of Nashville

My friend and faculty colleague Donna King serves as our regular "go to" authority on helping us sort through song and music possibilities befitting any given theme for Tokens Show. She recently worked on gathering materials for the tolling of the bells in Nashville marking the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Nashville, and we asked her to share a bit of her findings. Also of interest may be this week's podcast episode on the Battle of Nashville, and some segments from our show on the Civil War, "Singing Down the Pain," recorded in 2011.

Pax, LCC

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One of the events commemorating the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Battle of Nashville is a citywide tolling of bells beginning at 4:30 today and continuing for four minutes—marking the close of the bitter and deadly battle on its second day, at dusk.

As I began collecting hymns to play on Lipscomb University’s 35-bell carillon after the tolling, I was struck again by the great sadness of that Civil War, and the great need to discover that in tragic and desperate times our humanity--or some piece of it--is still intact.

More than thirty camp books that included hymn texts were printed for soldiers; knowing the actual number distributed is problematic, but some estimates are easily more than one million.* Books, sized smaller than regular hymnals to easily fit into pockets, were printed by various Christian denominations, other Christian organizations, and even government agencies. The U.S. Sanitary Commission, for example, distributed The Soldier’s Friend, where a Union soldier could find information about burying a body, procedures for getting an artificial limb, and a substantial appendix of hymn texts. Facts like this, and titles like The Soldiers Hymn Book for Camp and Hospital, I find especially poignant—little pieces of paper crying out for the humane amidst the horrific.

These titles also explain why, for the most part, the contents were not songs written during or about the war, though Union hymnals, especially, included traditional patriotic songs. Mostly, the soldiers carried, read, and sang hymns already familiar and meaningful to them, no matter which side of the conflict. Common themes were duty, the authority of Christ, and assurance of comfort. Titles printed in many books, and still sung in many churches today, were “Come Ye Who Love the Lord (Marching to Zion),” “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” “Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy,” and “Am I a Soldier of the Cross?” Yes, clearly, conflating the Army of the Lord with the Battle at Hand has a long history, but the acknowledgement of not knowing, while placing faith in the God who does, is also timeless, as Cowper’s eighteenth-century words remind us:

God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform; He plants his footsteps in the sea And rides upon the storm.

One seasonal hymn that was penned during the Civil War years, and has become timeless, was not included in any of these soldiers’ hymnals. In fact, its use in hymnals of the nineteenth century was minimal, though its popularity as a hymn increased with each successive American conflict, peaking during the 1960s and 1970s. When Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” in1863, his recent life was one of conflict and sorrow. His wife had died tragically in 1861, and he had disagreed sharply with his oldest son about participation in the war. Charles, the son, finally feeling bound by duty, had joined the army early in 1863 without telling his father, leaving only a note; then, he was seriously injured in a November battle. Longfellow’s reasons for despair must have seemed many, and his despair is little restrained this text: “Hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men.” Yet, by the end the poet turns, like the psalmists and prophets, to hope, to the Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. These best-known verses continue to resonate in our time as they did in his:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day Their old, familiar carols play, and wild and sweet The words repeat Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come, The belfries of all Christendom Had rolled along The unbroken song Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

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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!

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."

For further, excellent reading on this topic, see Mark Rhoads’s website: Singing the Songs of Zion.