It Is Altogether Fitting and Proper

Gettysburg Cemetery

Never fear your enemies, fear your actions.

General George G. Meade

Gettysburg

by Herman Melville  (1819-1891)

O Pride of the days in prime of the months
Now trebled in great renown,
When before the ark of our holy cause
Fell Dagon down-
Dagon foredoomed, who, armed and targed,
Never his impious heart enlarged
Beyond that hour; God walled his power,
And there the last invader charged.

He charged, and in that charge condensed
His all of hate and all of fire;
He sought to blast us in his scorn,
And wither us in his ire.
Before him went the shriek of shells-
Aerial screamings, taunts and yells;
Then the three waves in flashed advance
Surged, but were met, and back they set:
Pride was repelled by sterner pride,
And Right is a strong-hold yet.

Before our lines it seemed a beach
Which wild September gales have strown
With havoc on wreck, and dashed therewith
Pale crews unknown-
Men, arms, and steeds. The evening sun
Died on the face of each lifeless one,
And died along the winding marge of fight
And searching-parties lone.

Sloped on the hill the mounds were green,
Our centre held that place of graves,
And some still hold it in their swoon,
And over these a glory waves.
The warrior-monument, crashed in fight,
Shall soar transfigured in loftier light,
A meaning ampler bear;
Soldier and priest with hymn and prayer
Have laid the stone, and every bone
Shall rest in honor there.


In my opinion the greatest piece of poetry written during the Civil War is not generally thought of as poetry; it’s  President Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, delivered on November 19, 1963.  Few people, even today, can not connect the opening words to Lincoln and the battle of Gettysburg, so famous and skillful is this short tribute.  But how many people would correctly place the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania?  The battle was fought over only three days,  July 1, 2 and 3 of 1863.  The two opposing generals knew each other well, both West Point graduates, General George G. Meade in 1835 and General Robert E. Lee in 1838.  I wonder how once proud classmates felt as they witnessed more than 51,000 soldiers under their opposing commands injured or killed, more than any other single battle in United States History?   To this day, Lee’s traitorous legacy remains a problem for West Point. 

Gettysburg was a turning point in the war for multiple reasons; it was the first time Union forces had defeated General Lee in a battle, with Confederate forces suffering the larger casualties over the three days,  significantly undermining Confederate resources from that point forward in the war. But possibly the biggest impact of the battle did not happen until 5 months later, President Lincoln’s address to dedicate the Union Cemetery.  His words provided an emotional rallying point for the North that would carry the Union all the way through his eventual assassination and eventual victory. 


Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863


For Union families that lost loved one’s at the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln’s address came well after the news had reached them of their personal loss.  The poem below was written in honor of a soldier from Minnesota, killed at Gettysburg.  Philip Hamlin of the 1st Minnesota, who was killed on July 3rd, 1863. Hamlin’s family was notified of his death several weeks later by a letter from his close comrade, Sergeant James Wright.  In the letter,  Hamlin is described as “an earnest and consistent Christian, ” with religious and patriotic conviction.  Wright’s kind words of bravery in the face of death, comforted Hamlin’s loved ones.  The letter from Sergeant Wright was shared by his family with friends and neighbors and would became the inspiration for a poem written by the wife of Rev. Stephen D. Tandy, the pastor of the Methodist church where the Hamlin family worshiped. 


In Memory of Philip Rice Hamlin
Killed in Action, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 3, 1863

by Mrs. S. D. Tandy  (Canon Falls, MN – Upon hearing of Philip’s Death)

When our country called for succor,
Bidding home and friends farewell,
Fearing not to give his young life,
For his country loved so well,

He was noble in his actions,
Dutiful to parents dear,
Gentle, loving kind, forbearing,
Ah, how much they miss him here.

Where the battle raged the wildest,
In the thickest of the fight,
Fell he like a hero, bravely,
Proudly battling for the right.

Far away from home and kindred,
Loving Mother, Father dear,
Gentle Sister, youthful Brothers,
Ne’er again his voice shall hear.

Soon there came a white-winged missive,
Written by a friendly hand.
Fraught with words of tender solace
To that stricken family band.

“Tis a task to write this letter,
Painful news have I to tell,
On the second day of battle,
Sergeant Philip Hamlin fell.

From his bowed head I severed
One dark tress of waving hair.
Tore a bit from off his colors,
Folded them with reverent care.

‘Neath the shadow of the wildwood
There we made his lowly bed.
Left him there to rest unbroken
With the silent nameless dead.

Here’s the small but sacred token;
Well I know his Mother’s heart.
Will be cheered by this memento
Though from him she’s called to part.”

Death for Philip had no terrors.
He was strong in faith and love.
Hopeful, trusting, patient ever,
Living for his home above.

Father, Mother, all ye loved ones,
Though you meet on earth no more
Far from war and raging tumult,
Safe you’ll meet on Canaan’s shore.

Because No Wreath We Owe

Removing the Stonewall Jackson statue from Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia.

Stonewall Jackson

by Herman Melville

 
Mortally Wounded at Chancellorsville

 

The Man who fiercest charged in fight,
 Whose sword and prayer were long —
       Stonewall!
 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 —
       Stonewall!
 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 —
       Stonewall!
 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—
Those unsustained—Saviors—
Present Divinity—