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—