In the summer of ’69, thousands of people gathered to hear some of America’s finest musicians play at what was billed as “the grandest musical festival . . . ever known in the history of the world.” And indeed, the five-day event was the largest musical extravaganza yet held on American soil. But at a deeper level, the festival was about more than just music; it was a celebration of peace, a collective endorsement of the belief that war was a tragic waste of human life.
Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait. You thought we were talking about Woodstock? No, this event took place in Boston in 1869, and it was called the National Peace Jubilee.
The man behind this musical vision was musician Patrick Gilmore. Born in Ireland in 1829, Gilmore immigrated to America in 1849. Within a few years, the young cornet player had formed his own band and made a name for himself in New England. But when the Civil War broke out, “Gilmore’s Band” enlisted en masse in the 24th Massachusetts Infantry. The musicians provided morale boosting music for the soldiers in camp and as they marched into battle. When the shooting started, they doubled as medics and stretcher carriers.
After the war ended in 1865, Gilmore returned to Boston, but memories of the conflict inspired him to plan a festival celebrating peace in 1869. He envisioned this “peace jubilee” to be the largest musical event yet held on American soil, and he succeeded.
A Peace Piece
For the five-day event, Gilmore convinced city leaders to build a new auditorium, a grand coliseum that covered almost five acres. The building was large enough to hold 50,000 people and an organ that measured 30 by 20 feet. Its wall-shaking chords were pumped through 1,786 pipes, one of them more than 40 feet tall. And eight pumps driven by a gas-powered engine provided the pneumatic muscle for this sound.
The orchestras, bands, and choruses assembled for the event were just as monumental. More than 10,000 musicians were recruited for the jubilee. For the performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore, 3,000 singers joined 1,000 instrumentalists and 100 anvil-pounding firemen for the crowd pleasing “Anvil Chorus.” The ecstatic audience jumped on the benches, clapping and screaming until the conductor rewarded them with a repeat performance of the song.
The “Anvil Chorus” was clearly the highlight of the opening day program, but another piece more aptly captured the spirit of the event. Organizers had asked a local writer to prepare a brand new song for the opening ceremonies. The writer, physician and poet Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, agreed, and he titled his work, which he set to Matthias Keller's "American Hymn," “A Hymn of Peace.”
Holmes’s hymn was the perfect piece for the event, but unfortunately it did not stand the test of time. Its dense, archaic lyrics proved far less enduring than other hymns like “Amazing Grace” or “Rock of Ages.” Holmes was a physician, poet, and essayist, not a songwriter. (His literary criticism and erudite commentaries on life had appeared in highbrow journals like The Atlantic Monthly and the North American Review.) But still, there was something appropriate about Holmes being asked to write this festival-defining song. Like many Bostonians, he had enthusiastically rallied to the North’s cause when fighting broke out in 1861, only to learn the hard way that war carried a high cost.
A Son at War
Prior to the war, the essentially conservative Holmes had criticized the abolitionists whose fiery rhetoric threatened to tear the Union apart. Once the fighting broke out at Fort Sumter, however, he rallied enthusiastically to the Union cause. His son, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., went a step further. The twenty-year-old Harvard senior dropped out of school and marched off to battle with the 20th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. The blow was double for Holmes, Sr., as not only was he a worried father, he was also a Harvard professor.
And Papa Holmes had every right to be worried, as apparently his son was terrible at not getting shot. At Ball's Bluff, Holmes, Jr., saw his first action and took a bullet in the chest. Army doctors told him he would die, but luckily they were wrong. He returned to his regiment and fought at Antietam, where he was shot a second time, in the neck. Again Holmes recovered, again he returned to his regiment, and again he was wounded in action (he was shot in the foot at the second battle of Fredericksburg). He returned to his regiment in time to see one final action at the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864, and for once he made it through a battle without taking a bullet.
(NOTE: in case you’re wondering what happened to Holmes, Jr., after the war, he became a lawyer, then a judge, and then one of the most prominent and longest-serving Associate Justices that our nation’s Supreme Court has ever seen, so good thing he knew how to take a bullet.)
Holmes, Jr. had entered the war an ardent abolitionist, and like his father he had quickly accepted war as the necessary tool to advance the greater good and noble “truths.” But by the war's end, he was a different man, and he was far less certain in his beliefs. He was now uncomfortable with talk of "truth" and battles waged on behalf of ideals. In fact, the only thing he knew with certainty was that war led to death.
Too High a Price
“A Hymn of Peace” and the National Peace Jubilee spoke to the larger sense held by many New Englanders that the Civil War had exacted perhaps too great a toll, that over a half million deaths was too large a price to pay for any cause. Americans had known war in the past—just over a decade earlier, more than 75,000 had marched off to war in Mexico; 13,000 did not return—, but their prior conflicts paled in comparison to the Civil War. More than 2 million Northerners and 850,000 Southerners fought in the Civil War. Roughly 360,000 Northerners and 260,000 Southerners died. The total represented 2% of the entire US population—more than the entire population of Connecticut, double the population of Vermont.
Americans have never before or since experienced wartime death on such a scale. The 407,000 Americans killed during WWII represented only .26% of the population. America’s 57,000 fatalities in Vietnam represented a mere .02% of the population. For a contemporary war to match the death rate of the Civil War, six million American soldiers would have to die.
And it wasn’t simply the scale of impact that shocked Americans during the Civil War. New weapons dealt death with greater ferocity and precision. Smoothbore muskets, with a kill range of perhaps 100 yards, were replaced by rifles that could deliver a minié ball with accuracy from a distance of more than three times that distance. Marksmen equipped with breech-loading rifles and telescopic sights could hit targets at 600 yards. The new artillery unleashed during the Civil War was also more deadly. Only about 5% of all battle casualties were caused by artillery fire, but the damage done by heavy guns was particularly gruesome and traumatizing. Bodies were torn to pieces by shells launched almost a mile away.
Nor were Americans far removed from the front, shielded from the horrific images of the battlefield. The basic technology of photography was more than 20 years old when the Civil War began, but the development of the tintype and ambrotype enabled photographers to mass-produce small photographs. As a result, the carnage of the battlefield was delivered in graphic black and white detail to Americans hundreds of miles away from the war front lines.
Civil War death challenged Americans on multiple levels, perhaps most deeply in their understanding of death itself. Until the war, most Americans died at home (only 15% of all deaths occurred away from home prior to the war). There family members surrounded them to provide comfort and bear witness that the victim died a “good” death—that his suffering was minimal and that his soul was prepared for God’s judgment. Yet with so many men dying on the battlefield, suddenly and all alone, there was often no one to provide assurance that the soldier had died well, peacefully and prepared. Many died screaming as their friends fell down around them.
The sheer number of deaths and the gruesomeness of the images continued to haunt Americans after the shooting stopped. Abraham Lincoln had tried to give it all meaning at Gettysburg in 1863 when he urged that, “from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.” Surrounded by freshly turned graves, he had challenged his audience to ensure that “these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” And perhaps he succeeded. Yet even if he did manage to provide context and justification for the nation’s suffering, Americans still struggled at a visceral level with it all. The National Peace Jubilee thus spoke to a deep need within the American public for reassurance that the suffering of the Civil War not be repeated and that the “Angel of Peace” who had “wandered too long” would return and find a permanent place in America. And for a time, at least, their prayer would be answered. It would be thirty years before the United States embarked on another major military campaign, and it would be a different generation of young men, for whom the Civil War was ancient history, that would be enlisted to fight.