Peace Unweaponed Conquers Every Wrong

Union Soldiers From Company I of the 7th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment During the Civil War in Fredericksburg, Virginia 1862.

“A Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me.”

Abraham Lincoln in response to General Mclellan in 1862.

Disarmament

by John Greenleaf Whittier

“Put up the sword!” The voice of Christ once more
Speaks, in the pauses of the cannon’s roar,
O’er fields of corn by fiery sickles reaped
And left dry ashes; over trenches heaped
With nameless dead; o’er cities starving slow
Under a rain of fire; through wards of woe
Down which a groaning diapason runs
From tortured brothers, husbands, lovers, sons
Of desolate women in their far-off homes
Waiting to hear the step that never comes!

O men and brothers! let that voice be heard.
War fails, try peace; put up the useless sword!

Fear not the end. There is a story told
In Eastern tents, when autumn nights grow cold,
And round the fire the Mongol shepherds sit
With grave responses listening unto it:
Once, on the errands of his mercy bent,
Buddha, the holy and benevolent,
Met a fell monster, huge and fierce of look,
Whose awful voice the hills and forests shook,
“O son of peace!” the giant cried, “thy fate
Is sealed at last, and love shall yield to hate.”
The unarmed Buddha looking, with no trace
Of fear and anger, in the monster’s face,
In pity said, “Poor fiend, even thee I love.”
Lo! as he spake the sky-tall terror sank
To hand-breadth size; the huge abhorrence shrank
Into the form and fashion of a dove
And where the thunder of its rage was heard,
Circling above him sweetly sang the bird:
“Hate hath no harm for love,” so ran the song,
“And peace unweaponed conquers every wrong!


By the fall of 1862, the Union Army was struggling.   Both sides had suffered massive losses in the Battles at Shiloh, Harper’s Ferry, Antietam and Friedricksburg, just to name a few.  Lincoln replaced General McClellan, frustrated by his slow response and lack of success, with Major-General Ambrose E. Burnside as the first in command of the Union Army. However, Burnside’s forces were soon defeated in a series of attacks against entrenched Confederate forces at Fredericksburg, Virginia, and Burnside was himself promptly replaced with General Joseph Hooker by November of 1862.
Whittier’s poetry tried vainly to bring some level of gallantry to what was a lose/lose scenario for both sides during the 1862 campaigns.  Short term victories on one side were quickly replaced by complex loses and declining morale of soldiers on both sides.  The north was frustrated by elusive ability of Confederate soldiers who could retreat into the south, making it difficult for Union forces to build upon short term gains, resulting in an entrenched expensive stalemate during this period of the war.  It’s no surprise given the desperate nature of the conflict that even the best poetry of this period feels stale and unsatisfying.  

The Battle Autumn of 1862

by John Greenleaf Whittier
 

The flags of war like storm-birds fly,
The charging trumpets blow;
Yet rolls no thunder in the sky,
No earthquake strives below.

And, calm and patient, Nature keeps
Her ancient promise well,
Though o’er her bloom and greenness sweeps
The battle’s breath of hell.

And still she walks in golden hours
Through harvest-happy farms,
And still she wears her fruits and flowers
Like jewels on her arms.

What mean the gladness of the plain,
This joy of eve and morn,
The mirth that shakes the beard of grain
And yellow locks of corn?

Ah! eyes may well be full of tears,
And hearts with hate are hot;
But even-paced come round the years,
And Nature changes not.

She meets with smiles our bitter grief,
With songs our groans of pain;
She mocks with tint of flower and leaf
The war-field’s crimson stain.

Still, in the cannon’s pause, we hear
Her sweet thanksgiving-psalm;
Too near to God for doubt or fear,
She shares the eternal calm.

She knows the seed lies safe below
The fires that blast and burn;
For all the tears of blood we sow
She waits the rich return.

She sees with clearer eye than ours
The good of suffering born,—
The hearts that blossom like her flowers,
And ripen like her corn.

Oh, give to us, in times like these,
The vision of her eyes;
And make her fields and fruited trees
Our golden prophecies!

Oh, give to us her finer ear!
Above this stormy din,
We too would hear the bells of cheer
Ring peace and freedom in.

A Road Made Of Bones

The Mass Execution of 38 Dakota Men in Mankato, Minnesota in December 1862

Mr. Lincoln had no hope, and no faith, in the usual acceptation of those words.

Mary Todd Lincoln

Shadows of Voices

by Gabrielle Tateyuskanskan

In awe of the prairie wind and its beauty,
I listen for the shadows of voices.
An ancestral memory of
Forgotten rituals,
Forgotten oral narratives,
Forgotten humanity.
The conqueror in its insolence cannot hear the ancient heartbeat of the prairie.
The plowed and plundered grassland
has been sacrificed to a leader’s arrogance.
Damaged spirit is the prize for the powerful victor,
given to the vulnerable,
who are unable to save themselves.
There is a language on the ancient landscape.
Symbols that relate ideas traveling from time immemorial to humanity.
Shadows of voices sustain memory in the continuous orator wind.
Okiya from the wise relatives.
This same prairie wind that caused pioneer women to go mad.
The heart knows ceremony and its healing virtues.
Medicine that can only be felt.
Ancestral narratives tell of Eya’s genocide and oppression.
Imperialism has left its reminder,
a road made of bones.


The largest mass execution in the history of the United States occurred during the Civil War in Mankato, Minnesota.   It is impossible to disconnect the genocide of the Dakota people conducted under President Lincoln, who personally reviewed the sentences of all of the men executed, and Governor Ramsey of Minnesota, who carried out the brutal public execution of 38 Dakota men, from the history of the Civil War.  Lincoln maybe remembered as a hero and honored for his principles for his part in ending slavery, but that history ignores the genocide of native people that was carried out under his leadership, manifested in one of the most egregious miscarriages of justice that has occurred in the United States in December of 1862. 

Outlining the events that led up to the Dakota War of 1862 and its aftermath is beyond this blog entry.  The University of Minnesota link below does a good job of outlining a brief history if you are interested in learning more.  The cause of the conflict was starvation and privation, a result of the Government and the Army being financially insolvent because of the cost of the Civil War,   resulting in an endless string of broken promises and  broken treaties as to what was owed the Dakota people in response for giving up land in Minnesota. Eventually desperation took over as the famine worsened and there was a conflict between Dakota living on reservations and settlers farming on their stolen land.  Native people, on the verge of starvation fought for their human rights and were met with a level of cruelty and genocide that far outweighed the wrongs committed.  The brutality of the genocide went beyond the executions and continued over multiple years in Minnesota and neighboring states in the unjust imprisonment and displacement of countless families and native tribes in Minnesota that has repercussions to the health and equity in our society to this day.   

https://cla.umn.edu/chgs/holocaust-genocide-education/resource-guides/us-dakota-war-1862

The poet and author LeAnne Howe’s book Savage Conversations, is a fascinating look at the connection between the Civil War, President Lincoln and the United States policies of genocide across the United States and specifically the Dakota War in Minnesota in 1862.   It examines Mary Todd Lincoln’s institutionalization in a women’s sanitarium in Illinois thirteen years later. Mary Todd Lincoln’s brittle temperament was well documented after President Lincoln’s assassination.  Her erratic behavior and increasingly disheveled appearance and elaborate displays of grief were widely criticized, but it wasn’t until she began having visions that she was being haunted by an Indian spirit, a manifestation of the violence that had occurred during the Civil War against native people, that her son took actions to have her rights terminated and her voice silenced by being committed to an asylum.    Howe brilliantly poses the question whether the unacknowledged genocide of the United States government haunted Mary Todd Lincoln’s soul?  It took only 10 minutes for a jury in Chicago in 1875 to render a verdict against the former first lady after she gave public testimony she was visited nightly by a phantom spirit, a Dakota man, who “slits my eyelids and sews them open, always removing the wires by dawn’s first light.” Because of her status and ability to be represented by first rate lawyers, something the Dakota men who were hanged were denied, the first lady’s imprisonment was short lived and within a couple of years she was able to get her freedom back and spent the remainder of her life in the care of her sister, mostly traveling and living in Europe.   

As for Minnesota and our nation, we have only begun to confront our genocidal past.  It took 150 years, in 2012,  for then Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton to offer a formal apology to all the native tribes in Minnesota, acknowledging the state’s role in the injustices and invoking the word genocide, carried out against native people during and after the Civil War.  The question is now what reparations are appropriate to help heal the wounds that linger to this day and how do we go beyond apologies to living a shared dream of an equitable, sustainable future? 


Evidence of Red

by LeAnne Howe

First, night opened out.
Bodies took root from rotting salt
and seawater into evidence of red life.
Relentless waves pumped tidal air
into a single heartbeat.

In the pulp of shadow and space,
water sucked our people from sleep.
That’s how it all began. At least
that’s all we can remember to tell.
It began with water and heartbeat.

In minutes we tunneled through
corn woman’s navel into tinges
of moist red men and women.
Yawning, we collected our chins,
knees, breasts, and sure-footed determination.

A few thousand years before
Moses parted the Red Sea, and the
God with three heads was born in the Middle East,
the Choctaw people danced
our homeland infra red.

Finally when the stranger’s arms
reached to strangle the West,
Grandmother eavesdropped
on the three-faced deity
who said that chaos was coming.

When he puckered his lips and tried to kiss her
she made it rain on him.
“Maybe you’ve forgotten
you were born of water and women,”
she said, walking away laughing.

 

His Truth Is Marching On

Julia Ward Howe (1819 – 1910)

“I shall stick to my resolution of writing always what I think no matter whom it offends.”

Julia Ward Howe

Battle-Hymn of the Republic

By Julia Ward Howe
 
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fatal lightning of his terrible swift sword:
      His truth is marching on.
 
(Chorus)
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.
 
I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps;
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps.
      His Day is marching on.
 
I have read a fiery gospel, writ in burnished rows of steel:
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
      Since God is marching on.”
 
He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before his judgment-seat:
Oh! be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
      Our God is marching on.
 
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me:
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
      While God is marching on.
 

In researching poems for this month, I have come across several scholarly articles commenting that the Civil War was bereft of significant contributions to American poetry and literature.  After digging deeper, I would say that judgement is too harsh, but one test of that claim is to ask the question; “what was written in this period that has sustained itself as relevant and popular to this day?”   Popularity alone has never been a good measure of the importance of poetry, but it does matter a bit, in the sense if poems are forgotten and aren’t continued to be read,  then it ceases to have a voice.   When I asked myself that question; “what is one thing I can name top of mind from the Civil War in terms of poetry?’ – the Battle-Hymn of The Republic is the only thing that came to my mind.

The Battle Hymn of The Republic is a marching song that has continued in the tradition as a church hymn at least in the Presbyterian church I have experience.   Yet its origins are like many hymns, the version we know today, came together through a melding of a lyrics and music that had a long oral history that changed over time.   The words are credited to Julia Ward Howe, a noted abolitionist and supporter of John Brown, but she only wrote a portion of the lyrics. The most distinctive part of this song is its chorus, glory, glory, hallelujah, was lifted completely from the John Brown Song, which had lifted it from earlier hymns and camp songs popular at the time.  Howe had heard the John Brown Song performed at a flag-raising ceremony in Fort Warren, near Boston, Massachusetts in May 1861, a month after the start of the civil war.  The John Brown Song music and lyrics were part of a folk hymn tradition that went back more than 50 years as part of Methodist and Baptists camp meeting songs.   A friend of Howe’s, the Reverend James Freeman Clark, suggested in November she write more inspiring lyrics appropriate to the times and by February of 1962, Howe’s Battle-Hymn of the Republic was published on the front page of the Atlantic Monthly and was resoundingly embraced by the Union Army and the North from that point forward.   I wonder how many people who sing that song in church some Sunday, connect it’s lyrics with the conflict and sacrifice of the Civil War?   


 

My Last Dance

By Julia Ward Howe
 
The shell of objects inwardly consumed
Will stand, till some convulsive wind awakes;
Such sense hath Fire to waste the heart of things,
Nature, such love to hold the form she makes.
 
Thus, wasted joys will show their early bloom,
Yet crumble at the breath of a caress;
The golden fruitage hides the scathèd bough,
Snatch it, thou scatterest wide its emptiness.
 
For pleasure bidden, I went forth last night
To where, thick hung, the festal torches gleamed;
Here were the flowers, the music, as of old,
Almost the very olden time it seemed.
 
For one with cheek unfaded, (though he brings
My buried brothers to me, in his look,)
Said, Will you dance?’ At the accustomed words
I gave my hand, the old position took.
 
Sound, gladsome measure! at whose bidding once
I felt the flush of pleasure to my brow,
While my soul shook the burthen of the flesh,
And in its young pride said, Lie lightly thou!’
 
Then, like a gallant swimmer, flinging high
My breast against the golden waves of sound,
I rode the madd’ning tumult of the dance,
Mocking fatigue, that never could be found.
 
Chide not,—it was not vanity, nor sense,
(The brutish scorn such vaporous delight,)
But Nature, cadencing her joy of strength
To the harmonious limits of her right.
 
She gave her impulse to the dancing Hours,
To winds that sweep, to stars that noiseless turn;
She marked the measure rapid hearts must keep
Devised each pace that glancing feet should learn.
 
And sure, that prodigal o’erflow of life,
Unvow’d as yet to family or state,
Sweet sounds, white garments, flowery coronals
Make holy, in the pageant of our fate.
 
Sound, measure! but to stir my heart no more—
For, as I moved to join the dizzy race,
My youth fell from me; all its blooms were gone,
And others showed them, smiling, in my face.
 
Faintly I met the shock of circling forms
Linked each to other, Fashion’s galley-slaves,
Dream-wondering, like an unaccustomed ghost
That starts, surprised, to stumble over graves.
 
For graves were ‘neath my feet, whose placid masks
Smiled out upon my folly mournfully,
While all the host of the departed said,
Tread lightly—thou art ashes, even as we.’
 

I Never, Never Shall Forget

Weep

By George Moses Horton 
 
Weep for the country in its present state,
And of the gloom which still the future waits;
The proud confederate eagle heard the sound,
And with her flight fell prostrate to the ground!
 
Weep for the loss the country has sustained,
By which her now dependent is in jail;
The grief of him who now the war survived,
The conscript husbands and the weeping wives!
 
Weep for the seas of blood the battle cost,
And souls that ever hope forever lost!
The ravage of the field with no recruit,
Trees by the vengeance blasted to the root!
 
Weep for the downfall o’er your heads and chief,
Who sunk without a medium of relief;
Who fell beneath the hatchet of their pride,
Then like the serpent bit themselves and died!
 
Weep for the downfall of your president,
Who far too late his folly must repent;
Who like the dragon did all heaven assail,
And dragged his friends to limbo with his tail!
 
Weep o’er peculiar swelling coffers void,
Our treasures left, and all their banks destroyed;
Their foundless notes replete with shame to all,
Expecting every day their final fall,
In quest of profit never to be won,
Then sadly fallen and forever down!
 
 

Horton’s poetry is remarkable.   I am particularly struck by these two poems, which share in formal verse the complexity of sadness, loss and utter madness that was the Civil War and yet also fondly remembers and honors the land of where he grew up.  These poems are a testament that despite living under the  cruelty of slavery and war, there was still life and those that are resilient find a way to take something good from even the worst of situations.  Hidden in The Southern Refugee, is also the stark and brutal reality that the end of the war did not bring resolution or restitution for freed slaves, instead it ushered in an even more incipient form of racism, the era of Jim Crow laws that was as common in the northern states who fought to end slavery as it was embedded in southern culture.   
 
How far have we come as a nation in creating a society that affords equity and opportunity for all?  We’ve come a ways, but I don’t think we have truly reconciled our vicious past.   It is a question each of us is left to ponder on our own.  And if we are fortunate, we can ponder those questions in our garden or the gardens of our minds.  What is planted in your garden?
 
 

The Southern Refugee

By George Moses Horton 
 
 
What sudden ill the world await,
    From my dear residence I roam;
I must deplore the bitter fate,
    To straggle from my native home.
 
The verdant willow droops her head,
    And seems to bid a fare thee well;
The flowers with tears their fragrance shed,
    Alas! their parting tale to tell.
 
’Tis like the loss of Paradise,
    Or Eden’s garden left in gloom,
Where grief affords us no device;
    Such is thy lot, my native home.
 
I never, never shall forget
    My sad departure far away,
Until the sun of life is set,
    And leaves behind no beam of day.
 
How can I from my seat remove
    And leave my ever devoted home,
And the dear garden which I love,
    The beauty of my native home?
 
Alas! sequestered, set aside,
    It is a mournful tale to tell;
’Tis like a lone deserted bride
    That bade her bridegroom fare thee well.
 
I trust I soon shall dry the tear
    And leave forever hence to roam,
Far from a residence so dear,
    The place of beauty—my native home.
 

Courage Then, Northern Hearts

George Moses Horton

The slave will be free. Democracy in America will yet be a glorious reality; and when the top-stone of that temple of freedom which our fathers left unfinished shall be brought forth with shoutings and cries of grace unto it, when our now drooping Liberty lifts up her head and prospers, happy will he be who can say, with John Milton, “Among those who have something more than wished her welfare, I, too, have my charter and freehold of rejoicing to me and my heirs.”

John Greenleaf Whittier

New Hampshire 

By John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)

God bless New Hampshire! for her granite peaks
Once more the voice of Stark and Langdon speaks.
The long-bound vassal of the exulting South
For very shame her self-forged chain has broken;
Torn the black seal of slavery from her mouth
And in the clear tones of her old time spoken!
Oh, all undreamed of, all unhoped for changes!
The tyrant’s ally proves his sternest foe;
To all his biddings, from her mountain ranges,
New Hampshire thunders an indignant No!
Who is it now despairs? Oh, faint of heart,
Look upward to those Northern mountains cold,
Flouted by freedom’s victor-flag unrolled,
And gather strength to bear a manlier part!
All is not lost. The angel of God’s blessing
Encamps with Freedom on the field of fight;
Still to her banner, day by day, are pressing
Unlooked for allies, striking for the right!
Courage, then, Northern hearts! Be firm, be true;
What one brave State hath done, can ye not also do?


The 1860 U. S. Census reported there were 31,183,582 people in the United States, of which 3,950,528 were slaves.   The total number of slave owners prior to the start of the Civil War was 393,975, a little over 14% of the free population at the time.   Is there any meaning hiding in those statistics?  If there is one, it might be that we should not be cautious as a society today for our past shows a violent revolution can be started by a relatively small minority of individuals in our democracy who defy the rule of law, deny their fellow citizens humanity and ignore commonly shared norms of morality under a banner of racist white supremacy.  

Whittier wrote and published extensively on anti-slavery themes going back to the early 1840’s.  Rhode Island claims to be the first state to ban slavery, but the states law makers certainly took their time in making the concept a reality.  In 1784 Rhode Island declared that children born to slaves after March 1, 1784 were “free,” but would first have to serve their mother’s master until they reached majority age. An amendment to the law in 1785 declared that majority age to be 21 years of service for both male and female children.  However, it wasn’t until 58 years later in 1842 that Rhode Island abolished slavery entirely.   Whittier commemorated the event with the poem above.   

In 1860 there were 36 states.  The census that year listed 15 of those states as having slaves; Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Slaves represented more than 40% of the total population in six of those states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina, and in two of those states slaves represented more than 50% of the population, Mississippi at 55% and South Carolina at 57%.   Given those numbers, its not surprising the Confederacy was initially formed by the only seven states that still permitted slave ownership by 1861;  South Carolina, Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, Mississippi, and Florida.   Four other states would soon join the Confederacy: Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.  

Over the next month I am not going to share  poetry written by Confederate soldiers or poets who were Confederate sympathizers.  I will share some poetry written by slaves living in Confederate states during this period.   George Moses Horton was born into slavery on a North Carolina tobacco plantation in 1798.  He spent his childhood as a slave on a farm in Chatham County, where he taught himself to read and began composing poetry.

In 1815 Horton was transferred to a new master, who sent him on frequent trips to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. There, Horton met students from the University of North Carolina; who encouraged his poetry.  He began composing poems in his head and reciting them aloud on these visits.  His performances at the weekly Chapel Hill farmers market began attracting crowds of interested students,  who rewarded him with small tips for his love poems.  Horton’s performances gained the attention and support of a novelist and professor’s wife, Caroline Hentz.  With her assistance, Horton published his first collection of poetry, The Hope of Liberty (1829), becoming the first African American man to publish a book in the South.

Horton did not learn to write until 1832.  By this time he was selling his poetry regularly and had established a weekly income of three dollars.   Using these funds, Horton purchased his time from his slave master.  Despite wide spread public support for his freedom, including from the Governor, Horton was forced to continue to purchase his time from his master for the next 30 years.  Horton’s poem below was published in 1865, towards the end of the Civil War when Horton was finally a free man. 


 

George Moses Horton, Myself

by George Moses Horton (1798–1883)

I feel myself in need
   Of the inspiring strains of ancient lore,
My heart to lift, my empty mind to feed,
   And all the world explore.

I know that I am old
   And never can recover what is past,
But for the future may some light unfold
   And soar from ages blast.

I feel resolved to try,
   My wish to prove, my calling to pursue,
Or mount up from the earth into the sky,
   To show what Heaven can do.

My genius from a boy,
   Has fluttered like a bird within my heart;
But could not thus confined her powers employ,
   Impatient to depart.

She like a restless bird,
   Would spread her wings, her power to be unfurl’d,
And let her songs be loudly heard,
   And dart from world to world.

My God! It Was My Friend!

1rst Regiment Minnesota Volunteers

A Word for the Hour

by John Greenleaf Whittier
 
The firmament breaks up. In black eclipse
Light after light goes out. One evil star,
Luridly glaring through the smoke of war,
As in the dream of the Apocalypse,
Drags others down. Let us not weakly weep
Nor rashly threaten. Give us grace to keep
Our faith and patience; wherefore should we leap
On one hand into fratricidal fight,
Or, on the other, yield eternal right,
Frame lies of laws, and good and ill confound?
What fear we? Safe on freedom’s vantage ground
Our feet are planted; let us there remain
In unrevengeful calm, no means untried
Which truth can sanction, no just claim denied,
The sad spectators of a suicide!
They break the lines of Union: shall we light
The fires of hell to weld anew the chain
On that red anvil where each blow is pain?
Draw we not even now a freer breath,
As from our shoulders falls a load of death
Loathsome as that the Tuscan’s victim bore
When keen with life to a dead horror bound?
Why take we up the accursed thing again?
Pity, forgive, but urge them back no more
Who, drunk with passion, flaunt disunion’s rag
With its vile reptile blazon. Let us press
The golden cluster on our brave old flag
In closer union, and, if numbering less,
Brighter shall shine the stars which still remain.
 

 


 

John Greenleaf Whittier was a Quaker, a pacifist, and an ardent abolitionist who wrote many anti-slavery poems prior to the start of the civil war.   He accurately took the pulse of the nation with his poem above, published in 1860, a year before fighting broke out.  It is a remarkable poem, too accurate in its depiction of the depravity of the conflict that has yet to begin. 

Whittier was a favorite poet of President Lincoln and widely admired during his lifetime.  His pen was prolific during the civil war, but he was more private in his distribution of his poetry until after the war was over, so overwhelming were his emotions during the height of the conflict.  

The Civil War began with the surrender of Fort Sumter on April 13, 1861. Then Governor of Minnesota Alexander Ramsey happened to be in Washington, D. C. at the time and offered 1,000 Minnesota soldiers to the U. S. Secretary of War. Fort Snelling, an army fort strategically built in 1917 at the confluence of what would become known as the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, prior to Minnesota state hood, had been decommissioned and sold in 1858, thinking the need for a fortress in the interior no longer an expense the Army required.  But on news of the war’s beginning, the state immediately hired workers to begin repairs, constructing new stables, barracks and stockyards and fortifying the walls and gunnery positions.  Within weeks, 1009 men had mustered for service, becoming the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

By July 21, the First Minnesota  Regiment was fighting in one of the war’s earliest battles, the First Battle of Bull Run near Manassas, Virginia. The Minnesota regiment lost 42 men with more than 100 wounded and 30 missing. The Confederates forced the Union side to retreat after an estimated 3,000 casualties. The First Minnesota spent much of the next six months on picket lines in Virginia and Maryland.  The poem below is a true account of the loss of a single soldier in a skirmish during that period at the early stages of the war.  It is a touching account of how the loss of one man’s life impacts his friends, family and comrades.  I wonder if one or both of the men are in the picture above?


A Soldier’s Poem

by Hanford L. Gordon
 
Lines on the death of my friend Louis Mitchell of Co. I 1st Regiment Minnesota Vols: who was killed in a skirmish on the Virginia side of the Potomac Oct: 21st 1861.
 
We’ve had a fight a Captain said
Much rebel blood we’ve spilled
We’ve put the saucy foe to flight
Our loss – but a private killed!
“Ah, yes!” said a sergeant on the spot
As he drew a long deep breath
Poor fellow, he was badly shot
Then bayoneted to death!”
 
When again was hushed the martial din
And back the foe had fled
They brought the private’s body in
I went to see the dead.
For I could not think the rebel foe
(’Tho under curse and ban)
To vaunting of their chivalry
Could kill a wounded man.
 
A minie ball had broke his thigh
A frightful crushing wound
And then with savage bayonets
They had pinned him to the ground
One stab was through his abdomen
Another through his head
The last was through his pulseless breast
Done after he was dead.
 
His hair was matted with his gore
His hands were clenched with might
As though he still his musket bore
So firmly in the fight
He had grasped the foeman’s bayonet
His bosom to defend!
They raised the coat cape from his face
My God! it was my friend!
 
Think what a shudder thrilled my heart
’Twas but the day before
We laughed together merrily
As we talked of days of yore
“How happy we shall be,” he said
When the war is o’er and when
The rebels all subdued or dead
We all go home again!
 
Ah little he dreamed, that soldier brave
(So near his journey’s goal)
That God had sent a messenger
To claim his Christian soul!
But he fell like a hero fighting
And hearts with grief are filled
And honor is his, though our Chief shall say
“Only a private killed!”
 
I knew him well, he was my friend
He loved our Land and Laws
And he fell a blessed martyr
To the country’s holy cause.
Soldiers our time will come most like
When our blood will thus be spilled
And then of us our Chief shall say
“Only a private killed.”
 
But we fight our country’s battles
And our hopes are not forlorn
Our death shall be a blessing
To “Millions yet unborn”;
To our children and their children
And as each grave is filled
We will but ask our Chief to say
“Only a private killed.”

 

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—

 

The Children Know

Happy Halloween


The farther we’ve gotten from the magic and mystery of our past, the more we’ve come to need Halloween

Paula Curan: October Dreams, A Celebration of Halloween

Theme in Yellow

by Carl Sandburg (1878 – 1967)

I spot the hills
With yellow balls in autumn.
I light the prairie cornfields
Orange and tawny gold clusters
And I am called pumpkins.
On the last of October
When dusk is fallen
Children join hands
And circle round me
Singing ghost songs
And love to the harvest moon;
I am a jack-o’-lantern
With terrible teeth
And the children know
I am fooling.


Mr. Macklin’s Jack O’Lantern

by David McCord (1897 – 1997)

Mr. Macklin takes his knife
And carves the yellow pumpkin face:
Three holes bring eyes and nose to life,
The mouth has thirteen teeth in place.
Then Mr. Macklin just for fun
Transfers the corn-cob pipe from his
Wry mouth to Jack’s, and everyone
Dies laughing! O what fun it is
Till Mr. Macklin draws the shade
And lights the candle in Jack’s skull.
Then all the inside dark is made
As spooky and as horrorful
As Halloween, and creepy crawl
The shadows on the tool-house floor,
With Jack’s face dancing on the wall.
O Mr. Macklin! where’s the door?

After The First Pure Fall

David Whyte

The thing about great poetry is we have no defenses against it.

David Whyte

“Stone” (Thobar Phádraig)

by David Whyte

The face in the stone is a mirror looking into you.
You have gazed into the moving waters,
you have seen the slow light, in the sky
above Lough Inagh, beneath you, streams have flowed,
and rivers of earth have moved beneath your feet,
but you have never looked into the immovability
of stone like this, the way it holds you, gives you
not a way forward but a doorway in, staunches
your need to leave, becomes faithful by going nowhere,
something that wants you to stay here and look back,
be weathered by what comes to you, like the way you too
have travelled from so far away to be here, once reluctant
and now as solid and as here and as willing
to be touched as everything you have found.

 


The Old Wild Place

by David Whyte

After the good earth
where the body knows itself to be real
and the mad flight
where it gives itself to the world,
we give ourselves to the rhythm of love
leaving the breath
to know its way home.

And after the first pure fall,
the last letting go, and the calm
breath where we go to rest,
we’ll return again to find it
and feel the body welcomed,
the body held,
the strong arms of the world,
the water, the waking at dawn
and the thankful, almost forgotten,
curling to sleep with the dark.

The old wild place beyond all shame.

My Heart Is Gladder Than All Of These

Julia Kasdorf

Age is an issue of mind over matter, if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.

Mark Twain

 

A Birthday

By Christina Rossetti

My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
Because my love is come to me.

Raise me a dais of silk and down;
Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
Is come, my love is come to me.


My Mother would have turned 89 this week.   Despite having lived to an age beyond what her parents and sisters experienced, it feels like she died young at 83 for a person who was as vibrant as her right up until the end.  Her death combined with COVID has changed my fall and winter routines.  Normally October is the beginning of theater season, with both her or I having secured tickets to ballets, and plays and concerts to look forward to throughout the fall and winter season and to help carry us through the coldest months to spring.   It seems like a foreign concept right now, the idea of attending live events.   The Rolling Stones tour came to Minneapolis last night and by all accounts put on a good show.   Its funny to think that Mick Jagger is closer in age to my Mother than to me.  But my Mother was a rock star in her own right. 

I am not sure if I am getting better with dealing with loss with age but I seem more resigned to it these days.   A new puppy arrived at our farm over the weekend.  A 7 1/2  week old golden retriever puppy that if all goes as planned will become a breeding female for a service dog program in the future.   I haven’t had a puppy in my life for 20 years, so it is feeling like we have a new born infant in the house again.   It is also a reminder on how fast our lives move by.  This puppy will carry me into my 70’s.  For now it is a confident ball of fluff that has the entire household on its tip toes, her 12 year old golden retriever brother genuinely enjoying showing the puppy the ropes, but also a little jealous at all the attention going the puppies direction.  Tasha the cat is a bit grumpy but will come around.  I have never seen a puppy this confident, a puppy so quick to adapt to its new environment.  Her name is Vida – life!   And she is just what our household needed this fall.    


What I Learned From My Mother

By Julia Kasdorf

I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.