by Herman Melville
The Man who fiercest charged in fight,
Whose sword and prayer were long —
Even him who stoutly stood for Wrong,
How can we praise? Yet coming days
Shall not forget him with this song.
Dead is the Man whose Cause is dead,
Vainly he died and set his seal —
Earnest in error, as we feel;
True to the thing he deemed was due,
True as John Brown or steel.
Relentlessly he routed us;
But we relent, for he is low —
Justly his fame we outlaw; so
We drop a tear on the bold Virginian’s bier,
Because no wreath we owe.
It is November and with it, I am once again strangely drawn to the poetry of war. At a time when our nation is straining with divisiveness, it is a good reminder that conflict is a decidedly American tendency. I thought this November it might be interesting to revisit the poetry of the Civil War, to look back at the writers of the time and their perspectives.
Though the Civil War lasted only 4 years, it killed more Americans than any other war in our history. The United States Army suffered the greater losses, both in combat deaths and wounded, with a total of 646,000 men officially recorded as casualties. The confederates tally was 483,000. Neither accounting takes into account the total impact on families and civilians. In 1861, at the start of the Civil War the United States population was less than one-tenth of what it is today, or roughly 31,000,000. No one living at the time was left untouched. In July of 1863, the Battle Of Gettysburg alone resulted in 7,000 dead and more than 51,000 casualties during 3 bloody days of fighting. It is hard for us to imagine that level of violence and loss in just three days.
To start out the month I have chosen a writer known for his iconic novel, Moby Dick, not his poetry, but Herman Melville was a skilled poet. His poem above both commits the error of honoring in a back handed way the Confederate General for whom Charlotte and Richmond later erected statues. The poem also accurately predicts that such fame will be (eventually) outlawed. Although it has taken more than 150 years, communities across our country, not just the south, are reckoning with their difficult history and determining what monuments they want displayed that reflect their current values. Gone are the days when racism can be white-washed with misplaced patriotism. In North Carolina alone more than 20 cities have removed statues that glorified the confederacy. It is past time we confront the difficult history of our past and take to account the dead men in bronze who are not worthy of the future we collectively are creating today.
It Feels A Shame To Be Alive
by Emily Dickinson
It feels a shame to be Alive—
When Men so brave—are dead—
One envies the Distinguished Dust—
Permitted—such a Head—
The Stone—that tells defending Whom
This Spartan put away
What little of Him we—possessed
In Pawn for Liberty—
The price is great—Sublimely paid—
Do we deserve—a Thing—
That lives—like Dollars—must be piled
Before we may obtain?
Are we that wait—sufficient worth—
That such Enormous Pearl
As life—dissolved be—for Us—
In Battle’s—horrid Bowl?
It may be—a Renown to live—
I think the Man who die—