The maverick who wrote ‘Jingle Bells’
Among the myriad tragedies of the American Civil War was its impact on families, with many divided as some members cast their lots with the North and others sided with the South.
One such individual who broke with his family over the war was James Lord Pierpont, a Boston native whose father Rev. John Pierpont was an abolitionist and pastor of a Unitarian church in the Massachusetts capital.
James Pierpont enjoyed a fascinating life by any measure.
Sent to boarding school at age 10, he ran away four years later, sailing aboard a whaling ship called The Shark. He apparently found sea life to his liking; following his stint aboard The Shark he served in the Navy until he was 21.
By 1845, he had returned to New England and married, but in 1849, James Pierpont left his wife and children with his father to open a business in San Francisco during the California Gold Rush. However, his business failed after his goods were destroyed in a fire.
James returned to New England, but his wife died in 1853. When his brother accepted a position as pastor at a Savannah, Ga., Unitarian church, James followed, taking over as the organist and music director, according to Timothy Daiss’ 2002 book Rebels, Saints, and Sinners: Savannah’s Rich History and Colorful Personalities.
He also made money on the side by teaching music lessons. James Pierpont apparently was a prolific composer. While he wrote a number of songs that could have been considered 19th century “hits,” few are recognizable today.
However, there is one tune that has withstood the test of time.
Based on his memories of winter days in New England, Pierpont published “The One Horse Open Sleigh” in 1857. Originally performed in a Sunday school concert on Thanksgiving in Savannah, it was re-released in 1859 with the title “Jingle Bells, or The One Horse Open Sleigh.”
Initially, the song failed to capture the public’s imagination. However, its popularity grew over time and has since become one of the most recognizable songs ever written.
James Pierpont’s adventuresome life didn’t end with “Jingle Bells.”
By 1859, the Unitarian Church in Savannah had closed because its abolitionist position, not surprisingly, was unpopular in the South. A year later, James’ brother John had returned to the North.
James, however, had remarried in 1857 and decided to stay in Savannah with his second wife Eliza Jane.
The 5th Georgia was sent to Mississippi and placed in Gen. Joe Wheeler’s Cavalry Corps. It participated in the Atlanta Campaign, the defense of Savannah and the Carolinas Campaign at war’s end.
James’ father John served the Union cause as a chaplain for the 22nd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment.
The 22nd Massachusetts was involved in many of the war’s bloodiest battles, including Mechanicsville, Gaines’ Mill, Malvern Hill, Second Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, Cold Harbor and the Siege of Petersburg. As chaplain for the 22nd Massachusetts, Rev. Pierpont would have seen a great deal of suffering and death.
After the war, James Pierpont moved his family to Valdosta, Ga., where he taught music, and later to Quitman, Ga., where he served as organist in a Presbyterian Church, gave private piano lessons and taught at the Quitman Academy.
James Pierpont died at his son’s home in Winter Haven, Fla., on Aug. 5, 1893. Per his request, he was buried in Laurel Grove Cemetery in Savannah beside his brother-in-law, Thomas, who had been killed in the first battle of Manassas in 1861.
James Pierpont, whose nephew, James Pierpont “JP” Morgan, would become one of the wealthiest men in the world, never made much money from Jingle Bells, nor did his heirs. But the financial security that eluded him would appear to have been at least partially offset by a life rich with adventure.
(Above: The Unitarian Universalist Church of Savannah, where James L. Pierpont wrote Jingle Bells in the years just before the War Between the States.)