Which The Bullet Could Never Kill

Wounded Civil War Soldiers Recovering at a Washington Hospital

“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?)

O Captain! My Captain

Lincoln Memorial,

 

“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.


 

Lincoln Is Dead

By George Moses Horton 
 
He is gone, the strong base of the nation,
    The dove to his covet has fled;
Ye heroes lament his privation,
    For Lincoln is dead.
 
He is gone down, the sun of the Union,
    Like Phoebus, that sets in the west;
The planet of peace and communion,
    Forever has gone to his rest.
 
He is gone down from a world of commotion,
    No equal succeeds in his stead;
His wonders extend with the ocean,
    Whose waves murmur, Lincoln is dead.
 
He is gone and can ne’er be forgotten,
    Whose great deeds eternal shall bloom;
When gold, pearls and diamonds are rotten,
    His deeds will break forth from the tomb.
 
He is gone out of glory to glory,
    A smile with the tear may be shed,
O, then let us tell the sweet story,
    Triumphantly, Lincoln is dead.

A Soldiers Thanksgiving

John C. Baxter to Abraham Lincoln, Friday, November 25, 1864

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.  

 


 

To Rosa

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

Peace On Earth, Good-will To Men

Harper’s Weekly Christmas 1863, Illustration by Thomas Nast

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. 

Christmas Bells

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.”

Duty, Something More Than Life

George Henry Booker (1823 – 1890)

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

[Sonnet]

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,
      To be thus gathered in
      By hands so pale and thin,
By fingers trembling as they neatly laid
Stem upon stem, and bound them in a braid.
 
The strangest posy ever fashioned yet
    Was clasped against the bosom of the lad,
As we, the seekers for the wounded, set
    His form upon our shoulders bowed and sad;
      Though he but seemed to think
      How violets nod and wink;
And as we cheered him, for the path was wild,
He only looked upon his flowers and smiled.
 

And Then I Hated Glory

Harper’s Weekly March 1862

 

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.’

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.”

 

Wildpeace

Yehuda Amichai (1924 – 2000)

Yes, all of this is sorrow. But leave a little love burning always like the small bulb in the room of a sleeping baby that gives him a bit of security and quiet love though he doesn’t know what the light is or where it comes from.

Yehuda Amichai

Sonnet

by Yehuda Amichai

My father fought their war four years or so,
And did not hate or love his enemies.
Already he was forming me, I know,
Daily, out of his tranquilities;

Tranquilities, so few, which he had gleaned
Between the bombs and smoke, for his son’s sake,
And put into his ragged knapsack with
The leftovers of my mother’s hardening cake.

He gathered with his eyes the nameless dead,
The many dead for my sake unforsaken,
So that I should not die like them in dread,
But love them, seeing them as once he saw.
He filled his eyes with them; he was mistaken,
Like them, I must go out to meet my war. 


Wildpeace

by Yehuda Amichai

Not the peace of a cease-fire,
not even the vision of the wolf and the lamb,
but rather
as in the heart when the excitement is over
and you can talk only about a great weariness.
I know that I know how to kill,
that makes me an adult.
And my son plays with a toy gun that knows
how to open and close its eyes and say Mama.
A peace
without the big noise of beating swords into ploughshares,
without words, without
the thud of the heavy rubber stamp: let it be
light, floating, like lazy white foam.
A little rest for the wounds—
who speaks of healing?
(And the howl of the orphans is passed from one generation
to the next, as in a relay race:
the baton never falls.)

Let it come
like wildflowers,
suddenly, because the field
must have it: wildpeace

We Saw It In His Eyes

A Life of Austerity

By Peter Hartley

My grandfather was always old. The more
I think of him the more I call to mind
He seldom left his kitchen. We would find
Him sitting in an upright chair, the door
Pine-panelled, high ceiled, lino on the floor,
And he would sit there all day long behind
A newspaper. The place for me defined
Him like the horrors of the First World War.

You see it spoke of his austerity.
He dwelled, like all the old in reverie,
A lifetime in his prime. Sometimes he went
To sleep, his nightmares we could only guess.
Sometimes again we saw an immanent
Serenity, a twilight peacefulness.


One hundred years ago the returning soldiers from World War I helped spread the Spanish Flu epidemic, the last great pandemic, to all corners of the earth.  Peter Hartley’s memories of his grandfather in sonnet form are touching testimonials to the his grandfather’s humanity.  The difference between that virus pandemic and COVID-19, is the Spanish flu killed young adults equally as well as old. 

When reading about the Spanish flu pandemic in the past, I had a sense of isolation from it, an arms length detachment.  No matter how many health experts sounded the alarm that it could and likely would happen again, it felt like something that was in the past, despite SARS, Ebola, etc.  Our experience of relative safety because of public health strategy and modern vaccination technology for generations was ignorant bliss.  Despite the paranoid rantings of anti-vaxers we have lived the past 50 years in undreamed of respite from childhood diseases in human history, and unfortunately taken it for granted.  There is certainly reason for optimism heading into next year that things will get better,  but I also have a sense of realism in what 2021 will bring before this is brought under control with effective vaccines. 

How will this pandemic experience shape poet’s writing in the future?  I could retreat into my kitchen for a couple of years to write and read if I didn’t have a job I had to attend.  I would need a wood stove in my kitchen for winters and a kennel for the dog in another room on those occasions I want peace and quiet, all things for me to consider putting on my checklist of what to do if this continues beyond 2021.  What will our grandchildren write about us one day, sitting in our chairs reading, looking off into the distance?


A Biscuit Tin

by Peter Hartley

Put in a biscuit tin behind a door
Beside the hearth among old dog-eared snaps,
Of long-forgotten kith and kin perhaps,
His father on a bicycle we saw
Who died in nineteen ten, four years before
All hell broke loose. Amid the other scraps
We found inside their careless little wraps
Were all his letters home from the Great War

One hundred years ago, and all forlorn
His honourable discharge creased and torn.
Could he still hear the pounding of the guns
Resounding to a barrage from the Huns?
For if by chance upon the Somme one day
We saw it in his eyes he didn’t say.

Of Praise The Little Versemen

Ford Maddox Fordjpg

Ford Madox Ford (1873 – 1939)

“Yes, a war is inevitable. Firstly, there’s you fellows who can’t be trusted. And then there’s the multitude who mean to have bathrooms and white enamel. Millions of them; all over the world. Not merely here. And there aren’t enough bathrooms and white enamel in the world to go round.”

Ford Maddox Ford, Parade’s End

 To the Poet Before Battle

By Ivor Gurney

Now, youth, the hour of thy dread passion comes;
Thy lovely things must all be laid away;
And thou, as others, must face the riven day
Unstirred by rattle of the rolling drums,
Or bugles’ strident cry. When mere noise numbs
The sense of being, the sick soul doth sway,
Remember thy great craft’s honour, that they may say
Nothing in shame of poets. Then the crumbs
Of praise the little versemen joyed to take
Shall be forgotten; then they must know we are,
For all our skill in words, equal in might
And strong of mettle as those we honoured; make
The name of poet terrible in just war,
And like a crown of honour upon the fight.


Is war inevitable?   Is it a terrible cancer of the human condition?  Is it inevitable that the outcome of viewing those as different than ourselves, the “other” who obstructs our path to obtaining our objectives eventually becomes our enemy?   I hope not.  I lean towards a pacifist mindset that we can do better as a species.  I find  the current predicament of glorification of military service as something that gets more attention than preventing conflict in the first place a contradiction of good leadership.   If we want to praise open communication, conflict resolution and peace keeping in our communities and schools, then why can’t we do the same across nations?

I find interesting Gurney’s idea of the role of “little verse men” in making sense of the aftermath of war.  Equal in might is pen to the sword is not a new concept, nor is the poet warrior.  Both concepts have been around for thousands of years.   But why isn’t there equally as strong a history in literature of poetry of peace, poetry of arbitration, the poetry of negotiation and truce? Poet peace makers rather than  poet soldiers.  Writing in muddy, blood stained notebooks may sound more noble than a peace keepers reasoned speech, but which takes more courage?


One Last Prayer

by Ford Madox Ford

Let me wait, my dear,
One more day,
Let me linger near,

Let me stay.
Do not bar the gate or draw the blind
Or lock the door that yields,
Dear, be kind!

I have only you beneath the skies
To rest my eyes
From the cruel green of the fields
And the cold, white seas
And the weary hills
And the naked trees.
I have known the hundred ills
Of the hated wars.
Do not close the bars,
Or draw the blind.
I have only you beneath the stars:
Dear, be kind!