For life and death to me are so akin, So aptly one suggests the other’s being; So quickly treads behind existence fleeing The dark pursuer, sure at last to win; That when life’s frolics o’er the world begin, In the stern presence of my darker seeing, There moves a shadow, every way agreeing With each gay motion that he revels in. Even the sweet wonder of thy slender shape A graceful shade is haunting hour by hour; And in the future there begin to lower The signs that make the stricken household drape Their tearful faces o’er with sullen crape– Why should I trust in life’s unstable power?
Shiloh: A Requiem
by Herman Melville
Skimming lightly, wheeling still, The swallows fly low Over the field in clouded days, The forest-field of Shiloh— Over the field where April rain Solaced the parched ones stretched in pain through the pause of night That followed the Sunday fight A round the church of Shiloh— The church so lone, the log-built one, That echoed to many a parting groan And natural prayer Of dying foemen mingled there— Foemen at morn, but friends at eve— Fame or country least their care: (What like a bullet can undeceive!) But now they lie low, While over them the swallows skim, And all is hushed at Shiloh.
“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
How Solemn as One by One
by Walt Whitman (Washington City, 1865.)
How solemn as one by one, As the ranks returning worn and sweaty, as the men file by where I . . . . stand, As the faces the masks appear, as I glance at the faces studying the . . . masks, (As I glance upward out of this page studying you, dear friend, . . . . whoever you are,) How solemn the thought of my whispering soul to each in the ranks, . . . . and to you, I see behind each mask that wonder a kindred soul, . O the bullet could never kill what you really are, dear friend, . Nor the bayonet stab what you really are; The soul! yourself I see, great as any, good as the best, Waiting secure and content, which the bullet could never kill, . Nor the bayonet stab O friend.
I erred in an earlier post this month when I suggested that American poetry did not evolve during the Civil War. Spending a month thinking about a war I have not given enough thought in my life, reading various articles and poems, I have come to a different frame of reference. In particular I did not give enough credence to the impact the war had on Walt Whitman’s poetry and how his free verse went on to have a huge influence on American literature in the 20th century. Having read the collected works of Whitman years ago, I was aware of his time spent in Washington hospitals and his daily ritual from January of 1863 to the end of the war of providing a human touch to wounded soldiers recuperating in Union hospitals. But I hadn’t pondered how Whitman’s civil war experience would reshape even the work he had written prior to the war, as Whitman was well known for re-writing, re-editing his poetry over and over, including the influence it had on Whitman’s most significant work, Leaves of Grass.
Whitman’s path to care-giving for Union soldiers began in December of 1862, when he left Brooklyn to search for his brother, George, whom he feared was injured in the Battle of Fredericksburg. Whitman did not find his brother in Washington, so he traveled on to Virginia, where he was relieved to find his brother only slightly wounded, at the Union army camp at Falmouth. Whitman was deeply affected by what he witnessed at the front lines and decided to support the Union cause the only way he knew how, by moving to Washington to care for sick and wounded soldiers. For the remainder of the war, he visited patients daily in hospitals located throughout the city. Whitman spent his days listening to soldiers stories, writing letters for them to family members, bringing them little gifts such as fresh oranges and licorice candy, but most important he was present at their bedside when friends and family could not.
The two poems presented today are from his volume of poetry written during this period, Drum Taps. His poem below I found particularly striking, in that it ponders the difficult question that every Civil War and genocide creates – how can countrymen and women kill each other? If we can not see our shared humanity with those that share the same citizenship then how can we relate to the rest of the planet? At a time of rising nationalism in countries around the world, it maybe time to rethink the concept of statehood, and like Whitman, reshape it from a geography to a state of mind.
Long, Too Long America
by Walt Whitman
Long, too long America, Traveling roads all even and peaceful you learn’d from joys and . . . prosperity only, But now, ah now, to learn from crises of anguish, advancing, grappling with direst fate and recoiling not, And now to conceive and show to the world what your children en-masse . . . really are, (For who except myself has yet conceiv’d what your children en-masse . . . really are?)
“If I am killed I can die but once, but to live in constant dread is to die over and over again.”
President Abraham Lincoln
O Captain! My Captain
by Walt Whitman
O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done; The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won; The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting, While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! heart! heart! O the bleeding drops of red, Where on the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells; Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills; For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding; For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
O captain! dear father! This arm beneath your head; It is some dream that on the deck, You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still; My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will; The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done; From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells! But I, with mournful tread, Walk the deck my captain lies, Fallen cold and dead.
Of the countless tributes written to President Lincoln following his death, one of the most moving is Walt Whitman’s poem O Captain, My Captain. Whitman had been devastated by the war, right from its very beginning. Whitman’s poetry at its best, arose from his keen observation and appreciation of his fellow citizens and human beings, and he found the savagery of the war among countrymen unimaginable.
We have enshrined Lincoln as a perfect leader, so great was his contribution and his sacrifice, but we should remember that he himself understood that he was an imperfect man. It is possible that it is only through his understanding of imperfection that he found the grace to proceed both in leading the Union through but also in elevating the moral compass of our nation to end slavery. It is now up to all of us, the beneficiaries of that sacrifice and gift to determine a path forward to end racism.
I expect to maintain this contest until successful, or till I die, or am conquered, or my term expires, or Congress or the country forsakes me…
Abraham Lincoln, 1862.
Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, just 6 weeks prior to his assassination on April 15. Here is his speech in its entirety, as there is no better way to summarize the history of the Civil War and to encompass the generosity of this man. I believe this speech did as much to create the opportunity for a lasting peace as all the Union’s victories, as once Lincoln was dead, his words stood for his expectations of the path forward for both sides; to find a way forward in forgiveness and freedom. At a time when we are becoming more and more divided, who will become the peacemakers of our generation? Is it our responsibility as individuals more so than the government? As divides and wars, even culture wars, are not created by politicians, they arise by men and women letting go of the ties that bind us all as citizens of the United States.
President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865
On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil-war. All dreaded it — all sought to avert it. While the inaugeral address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war — seeking to dissole the Union, and divide effects, by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.
One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said f[our] three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether”
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.
President Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation, October 3, 1863.
The Soldiers Thanksgiving
by John C. Baxter
Hurrah for the Turkeys ! Thanksgiving has come ! Hurrah for the Turkeys ! I’ae Turkey’s from home ! The nicely browned Turkeys they bring us good cheer; Hurrah for the Turkeys, we welcome them here !
Our table, though humble, we’ll thankfully fill, While home, with its loved ones, our bosoms shall thrill ; We’ll join in the banquet they freely bestow, Then onward to duty we’ll joyfully go.
We’re fighting for freedom, we’ll Jehovah will give. The vict’ry we’re seeking ; the Union must live. Her glorious banner ” in triumph shall wave O’er the land of the Free ,” not the home of the slave.
Hurrah for the President, for Lincoln, the just, Again he will guide us, and conquer we must ! Hurrah for our triumph, our country, our home ! Three cheers for the Union, the Turkeys have come !
As you sit down with your family this Thanksgiving Day, take a moment to understand that this holiday did not come about as a result of Pilgrims in the 1600’s, it is a religious holiday that came about during the Civil War. That we have secularized it, and turned it into a triumph of capitalism and our consumption economy, would shock our ancestors who celebrated the true first Thanksgiving as we know it today.
On October 3, 1863, President Lincoln, issued a proclamation that declared “the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise.” Lincoln had been encourage by the poet Sarah Hale in a letter she had sent to Lincoln that September in which she urged him to consider creating a “day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.” What is remarkable is not that Lincoln acted on Hale’s suggestion, but that he was aware of her letter and had read it at all, for Lincoln received between 250 to 500 pieces of mail each day during the war.
A year later, the second Thanksgiving celebrations were planned well in advance for Union soldiers. Lincoln received a letter on November 25, 1864 from John C. Baxter, with the poem above enclosed and a note informing Lincoln, that “the enclosed lines have been sent by large quantities, in the boxes of Turkeys, to our brave boys at the Front. They were written by my good-wife at the request of a mother who has a noble son in the ranks battling for Freedom.”
Those turkeys would not reach all the men for whom they were intended. The year 1864, the final full year of fighting, was the costliest of the entire war in terms of human life. Between cholera, battle field casualties and malnutrition of soldiers confined in prisoner of war camps, more soldiers and civilians lost their lives than any other year of the conflict. Given the grim circumstances, it is remarkable that thoughts of thanksgiving were shared with the troops. I wonder if the beloved son of the Mother who had enclosed the poem returned to their home after the war was over?
It was widely known that Lincoln enjoyed poetry and so it was not uncommon for poems to be included in letters sent directly to the President. Lincoln also wrote poetry. Fortunately, he did write serious poetry, and not much of it has survived. There is too great a contrast between the words of Lincoln the poet, and the words of Lincoln the President of the United States at a time when we were not united.
This Thanksgiving, weary of the pandemic and the growing divide of partisanship in our politics, I will give some thought today for all that I am grateful. I will give some thought to the importance of what we can only do united as a country and pray that despite the state of politics in the United States,that we remain united, so that we can as a nation, accomplish what lays ahead for this planet to solve the environmental challenges that threaten us all.
By Abraham Lincoln
You are young, and I am older; You are hopeful, I am not— Enjoy life, ere it grow colder— Pluck the roses ere they rot.
Teach your beau to heed the lay— That sunshine soon is lost in shade— That now’s as good as any day— To take thee, Rosa, ere she fade
The best thing one can do when it’s raining is to let it rain.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
A Nameless Grave
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807- 1882)
“A Soldier of the Union mustered out,” Is the inscription on an unknown grave At Newport News, beside the salt-sea wave, Nameless and dateless; sentinel or scout Shot down in skirmish, or disastrous rout Of battle, when the loud artillery drave Its iron wedges through the ranks of brave And doomed battalions, storming the redoubt. Thou unknown hero sleeping by the sea In thy forgotten grave! with secret shame I feel my pulses beat, my forehead burn, When I remember thou hast given for me All that thou hadst, thy life, thy very name, And I can give thee nothing in return.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the most popular American poet prior to and during the Civil War. Longfellow was an avid abolitionist and wrote anti-slavery poems prior to the war and patriotic poems during and after. One of his most famous poems that is still heard at the holidays is Christmas Bells. The legend is that Wadsworth wrote it on Christmas day in 1863, but that it wasn’t published until after the war was over in a children’s magazine.
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I heard the bells on Christmas Day Their old, familiar carols play, And wild and sweet The words repeat Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come, The belfries of all Christendom Had rolled along The unbroken song Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Till ringing, singing on its way, The world revolved from night to day, A voice, a chime, A chant sublime Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Then from each black, accursed mouth The cannon thundered in the South, And with the sound The carols drowned Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent The hearth-stones of a continent, And made forlorn The households born Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head; “There is no peace on earth,” I said; “For hate is strong, And mocks the song Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
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.
Fold him in his country’s stars. Roll the drum and fire the volley! What to him are all our wars, What but death bemocking folly?
George Henry Booker
By George Henry Boker
Brave comrade, answer! When you joined the war,
What left you? “Wife and children, wealth and friends,
A storied home whose ancient roof-tree bends
Above such thoughts as love tells o’er and o’er.”
Had you no pang or struggle? “Yes; I bore
Such pain on parting as at hell’s gate rends
The entering soul, when from its grasp ascends
The last faint virtue which on earth it wore.”
You loved your home, your kindred, children, wife;
You loathed yet plunged into war’s bloody whirl!—
What urged you? “Duty! Something more than life.
That which made Abraham bare the priestly knife,
And Isaac kneel, or that young Hebrew girl
Who sought her father coming from the strife.”
Another poet closely linked with the Union was George Henry Boker. Boker was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania into a wealthy family. His father Charles Boker was the president of several banks, and by whose intelligence and financial wisdom was able to successfully steer them through the troubled economic cycle of the late 1830’s. His son took advantage of his privileged economic station by pursuing interests other than business, becoming an accomplished poet, playwright and dancer.
The Civil War focused Boker’s writing on the Union Cause, and changed him forever politically, from a Democrat to a Republican. Boker published widely during the war in periodicals and magazines, including a volume in 1864 titled fittingly, “Poems of the War.” Boker’s writing fit the times he lived. He did not push any new boundaries in terms of style and form, but hidden among his words are some interesting phrases and ideas, the guilt of the Northern upper class caught in the maelstrom of the times, he himself, his father’s Abraham.
In the Wilderness
By George Henry Boker
Mangled, uncared for, suffering thro’ the night
With heavenly patience the poor boy had lain;
Under the dreary shadows, left and right,
Groaned on the wounded, stiffened out the slain.
What faith sustained his lone,
Brave heart to make no moan,
To send no cry from that blood-sprinkled sod,
Is a close mystery with him and God.
But when the light came, and the morning dew
Glittered around him, like a golden lake,
And every dripping flower with deepened hue
Looked through its tears for very pity’s sake,
He moved his aching head
Upon his rugged bed,
And smiled as a blue violet, virgin-meek,
Laid her pure kiss upon his withered cheek.
At once there circled in his waking heart
A thousand memories of distant home;
Of how those same blue violets would start
Along his native fields, and some would roam
Down his dear humming brooks,
To hide in secret nooks,
And, shyly met, in nodding circles swing,
Like gossips murmuring at belated Spring.
And then he thought of the beloved hands
That with his own had plucked the modest flower.
The blue-eyed maiden, crowned with golden bands,
Who ruled as sovereign of that sunny hour.
She at whose soft command
He joined the mustering band,
She for whose sake he lay so firm and still,
Despite his pangs, not questioned then her will.
So, lost in thought, scarce conscious of the deed,
Culling the violets, here and there he crept
Slowly—ah! slowly,—for his wound would bleed;
And the sweet flowers themselves half smiled, half wept,
Who doesn’t now read the papers More than ever he read before; Eagerly watching the symptoms Of our great political sore?
Some only to croak and grumble, To sleep and loaf and chew, Doing nothing to ease the smarting; I wouldn’t do that — would you?
Harper’s Weekly’s. 23 August 1862
The Finished Faces
by Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886)
My Triumph lasted till the Drums Had left the Dead alone And then I dropped my Victory And chastened stole along To where the finished Faces Conclusion turned on me And then I hated Glory And wished myself were They.
What is to be is best descried When it has also been — Could Prospect taste of Retrospect The tyrannies of Men Were Tenderer — diviner The Transitive toward. A Bayonet’s contrition Is nothing to the Dead.
It is not that poetry was not part of the Civil War experience. Poetry was widely published in weekly journals that were relied upon by millions for their news, but the poetry of this period feels stiff and formal in most instances to our ears today. Although we can look back at Emily Dickinson’s verse written during this period and hear something fresher, remember her words are out of place for those living in that period, as her poetry was not widely published until the mid 20th Century. Walt Whitman, who was deeply impacted emotionally by the war, was the one poet pushing the boundaries of how poetry could be both a shared confession and healing counsel during the war, while not confining himself to the conventions of rhyme and meter that served no purpose.
The poetry during the Civil War that was widely distributed on both sides, tried to lend some air of dignity to the carnage, tried to give the impossible losses some measure of honor, tried to inspire and console. Of course those words now feel inadequate mostly because they fail to convey the scope of the horror. The Civil War is a long drawn out story of loss; loss of life, loss of family, loss of home, loss of dignity, loss of capitol, loss of country, loss of ideals, loss of civility, loss of freedom. That we try even now to write about it in terms that paint the opposite, is why in part very little of the literature of the day feels relevant.
Many of the best poets of this period felt the conflict was beyond their ability to put in words. Keat’s is quoted as saying; “A fact is not a truth until you love it.” And if history is a series of “facts”, it is impossible in my opinion to love the Civil War. So how then does anyone write the history of that period or write the poetry of that period? Rhyming poetry by its nature generally can come across as sentimental, and sentiments of war are so visceral that poets not part of that experience generally fail to strike the proper notes in rhyme.
I can respect the sacrifice of the Civil War, I am grateful for the outcome, as the alternative is too horrible to contemplate, but I don’t have to love the culture of war and the culture of violence and guns that our founding fathers have passed down to us generation after generation, war after war. Memorial Day began as a Civil War holiday. Veteran’s day began as memorial to the end of World War I, the “war to end all wars.” But neither have remain tethered to their original purpose, as time marches on and there is always another war in our past and in our future that requires respect of the sacrifices made and inclusion in the bank holidays our managers bequeath. But it begs the question; for whom were those sacrifices made? The cloak of patriotism that politicians hide behind to foster their own agendas on both sides of the isle keep the industrial war complex on full tilt has motives far from the patriots that die in those wars. Just look at the infrastructure bill that was just passed, it includes plenty of money going to keep the coffers of new and better ways to wage war and make the men and women behind those schemes wealthy. When are we going to invest our human capitol in innovating peace at the same or greater rate of interest than we pay so dearly for innovating war?
The News of A Day
by Sarah T. Bolton (1814 – 1893)
She read the names of the missing and slain; But one she read over and over again. “Great battle! Great battle!” the news-boy cried, But it scarcely rippled the living tide That ebbed and flowed in the noisy street, With its throbbing heart and busy feet, Again through the hum of the city thrilled, “Great battle! Great battle! Ten thousand killed!” And the little carrier hurried away With the sorrowful news of that summer day.
To a dreary room in an attic high Trembled the words of that small, sharp cry; And a lonely widow bowed her head, And murmured, “Willie, my Willie, is dead. O I feared it was not an idle dream That led me last night to that dark, deep stream, Where the ground was wet with a crimson rain, And strewn all over with ghastly slain. She read the names of the missing and slain; But one she read over and over again;
And the sad, low words that her white lips said, Were ‘Company C, William Warren dead.’ The world toiled on through the busy street, With its aching heart and unresisting feet; The night came down to her cold hearth-stone, And still the words that her white lips said, Were, ‘Company C, William Warren dead.’ The light of the morning chased the gloom From the emberless hearth of that attic room, And the city’s pulse throbbed again, But the mother’s heart had forgotten its pain. She had gone through the gates to the better land, With that terrible list in her pale, cold hand, With her white lips parted, as at last she said, ‘Company C, William Warren dead.’
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.
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.
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.
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.