Study Guide

Hymn of Peace Introduction

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Hymn of Peace Introduction

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' "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

ArtistHolmes, Oliver Wendell and Keller, Matthias
Year1869 (Music composed in 1866 titled "An American Hymn")
Writer(s)Oliver Wendell Holmes (words), Matthias Keller (music)

Music Video


Influences on Holmes, Oliver Wendell and Keller, Matthias

The Bible
The Civil War

Influenced by Holmes, Oliver Wendell and Keller, Matthias

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., was influential in a large range of fields from medicine to poetry to essay writing to 3D imaging. He invented the first stereoscope and coined the term "anesthesia," and his writings have influenced American poets, novelists, and essayists for over a century.

Hymn of Peace Resources


Patrick Gilmore, History of the National Peace Jubilee and Great Musical Festival: Held in the City of Boston (1871)
The bandleader who conceived and coordinated the music festival wrote a history of the event. A facsimile edition of the 1871 publication was released in 2010.

Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (2008)
Faust, a Harvard history professor, examines how soldiers and civilians responded to the unprecedented scope of death during the Civil War.

Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America (1992)
In this fascinating book, Wills explores Lincoln's use of a small handful of words to reshape the meaning of America. Central to his argument is Lincoln's own obsession with death and his awareness that a cemetery filled with recently buried Union and Confederate soldiers provided the backdrop for this philosophical remaking of America.


Oliver Wendell Holmes
The physician, poet, essayist wrote the words for "A Hymn of Peace."

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
The songwriter's son was injured during the Civil War. Holmes, Jr., later became a United States Supreme Court Justice.

Patrick Gilmore
The National Peace Jubilee was conceived and organized by Gilmore.

Band of the 114th Pennsylvania Infantry
Bands like this one were recruited to boost troop morale during the Civil War.

National Peace Jubilee Coliseum
The arena built for the musical event covered five acres.

National Peace Jubilee Coliseum Interior
The building sat 50,000 people; the organ at the far end measured 30 by 20 feet and contained 1,786 pipes, one of them more than 40 feet tall.

Movies & TV

The Civil War: A Film by Ken Burns (1990)
An eleven-part miniseries that first aired on PBS in 1990, The Civil War is the most complete and compelling documentary retelling of the war to date. Burns uses still photos and firsthand accounts of those who lived through the war to narrate this story.


The 19th-Century American Wind Band
The National Peace Jubilee was conceived and coordinated by bandleader Patrick Gilmore. This site offers a useful history of America's 19th-century wind bands.

Civil War Music
"A Hymn of Peace" wasn't the only song to emerge from the Civil War era. This site provides a list and audio files of other tunes from the years surrounding the war.

Video & Audio

"An American Hymn"
This 1866 composition by Matthias Keller provided the music for Oliver Wendell Holmes' "Hymn of Peace."

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