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Intro

In a Nutshell

In the summer of ‘69, tens of thousands of people gathered for a five-day music festival. No, not Woodstock. The year was 1869, and this festival, called the National Peace Jubilee, took place in Boston. A new poem written by Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes and attached to the music of Mathias Keller was premiered on the first day. Summing up the larger purposes of the festival, “A Hymn of Peace” celebrated the end of the Civil War and prayed that war would never return to America.

In 1869, the war was four years in the past; no soldiers had marched since April 1865. Yet four years later, the war remained a gut-wrenching memory for Americans. More than 600,000 people had been killed, 2% of the total population. The contemporary equivalent would be six million lives. Perhaps no generation would have been prepared for this scale of violence, but Americans of the mid-19th century were particularly unprepared. They struggled to understand the new technologies and scale of war that converged to shatter older ideas of honor and revolution. Holmes’s “Hymn of Peace” was meant to assuage America’s anguish over the loss of so many lives and help move the people into a new era of post-war happiness and prosperity.

About the Song

Artist Musician(s)
Album
Year1869 (music composed in 1866 and titled “An American Hymn”)
Label
Writer(s)Oliver Wendell Holmes (words), Matthias Keller (music)
Producer(s)
Buy this song: Try Listen and Learn (BETA)

Shmoop Connections

Explore the ways this song connects with the world and with other topics on Shmoop
Most fundamentally, “A Hymn of Peace” is about the Civil War. Written four years after its end and introduced at the National Peace Jubilee, the song can only be fully appreciated when placed within the context of the deadly conflict that claimed more than 600,000 American lives.

Many new technological and organizational developments made the Civil War exceptionally deadly. New weapons were introduced, and new methods of transportation were developed to deliver men and resources to the battlefield. These industrial and organizational methods would be later put to use in the rapidly expanding industrial sector of the American economy, but they were developed and practiced first during the war, to terrible effect.

Another important aspect of the Civil War that made “A Hymn of Peace” so influential is the evolution of public feeling before, during, and after the war. When the fighting began, Americans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon embraced their cause enthusiastically. However, as the war—which they believed would be short—stretched into a second, third, and fourth year, and as the casualties mounted, this enthusiasm waned. By 1864, the crowds that initially cheered Lincoln’s troops as they marched off to battle had grown small, and Lincoln faced intense political opposition, even from within his own party.

Although Holmes was a physician and medical lecturer for most of his life, he was also a poet, so it should come as no surprise that the words he wrote for his “Hymn of Peace” are so eloquent. In fact, Holmes was known during his lifetime as one of the “Fireside Poets,” a distinction he shared with his friends William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and James Russell Lowell, a distant relative of the famous 20th-century poet Robert Lowell. Holmes was also a very close friend of both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Rumor has it that Holmes even gave money to Walt Whitman when he found out that the aging poet was in need of a horse and buggy to get around, despite the fact that Holmes did not like the man’s poetry.

On the Charts

“A Hymn of Peace” predates today’s methods of tracking a song’s popularity by many, many decades. In fact, it predates methods of even recording a song at all.
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