A Word for the Hour
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
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!”
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 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 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!
My God! it was my friend!
’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!
(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!”
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.”
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.”