Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Civil War Aftermath—Bring Home the Cows

Lee's Surrender at Appomattox marked the end of conflict in the main theater of the Civil War.  By mid May the last straggling Confederate forces lay down their arms.  But the scars of war remained in humble homesteads North and South.

154 years ago today, April 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee offered up his sword  in surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S Grant, Commanding General of the United States Army.  Grant gallantly refused to accept it and in fact let all officers of the Confederate force retain their side arms and personal mounts.  In the popular imagination, this act was the end of the Civil War.

In fact, it just represented the collapse of the major army facing the Union’s major forces, the Armies of the Potomac and the James.  Although the Confederate Government and President Jefferson Davis were on the lam, they hadn’t surrendered.  One by one the other armies capitulated, the last in far-away Texas where the last soldiers fruitlessly fell on May 15.

During our National Poetry Month observances I have annually featured verse inspired by the blood, fratricidal war including stirring calls to arms like Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic and work by the major poets of the day.  They included Walt Whitman, William Wadsworth Longfellow, Herman Melville, William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Southerner Sydney Lanier.  I have also shared the often poignant words of ordinary soldiers in Blue and Gray.

Naturally the echoes of the guns, the carnal house battlefields, and the simple weary loneliness of camp life as well as chest-thumping patriotism have dominated those selections.
The young poet--Kate Putnam Osgood.
This year, I want to share something much more humble and human—the simple story of one farm family.  With variations, multiply that by the hundreds of thousands to truly understand the trauma of a nation.

Kate Putnam Osgood was only 20 years old when the Civil War broke out in 1861.  She was already a published poet of modest celebrity.  Over the course of the war and in the post war period she contributed dozens of verses as well articles to Harper’s Weekly, the most widely read periodical in the North and in other fashionable magazines like Cosmopolitan.  She died in 1910 just 61 years old.  Although popular in her day, she is little remembered today except for this poem that seems to tug at a lot of heartstrings.

Driving Home the Cows

Out of the clover and blue-eyed grass
He turned them into the river-lane;
One after another he let them pass,
Then fastened the meadow-bars again.

Under the willows, and over the hill,
He patiently followed the sober pace;
The merry whistle for once was still,
And something shadowed the sunny face.

Only a boy! and his father said
He never could let his youngest go:
Two already were lying dead
Under the feet of the trampling foe.

But after the evening work was done,
and the frogs were loud in the meadow-swamp,
Over his shoulder he slung his gun,
And steadily followed the foot-path damp.

Across the clover, and through the wheat,
With resolute heart and purpose grim,
Though cold was the dew on his hurrying feet,
And the blind bat's flitting startled him.

Thrice since then had the lanes been white,
And the orchards sweet with apple-bloom;
And now, when the cows came back at night,
The feeble father drove them home.

For news had come to the lonely farm
That three were laying where two had lain;
And the old man's tremulous, palsied arm
Could never lean on a son's again.

The summer day grew cool and late.
He went of the cows when the work was done;
But down the lane, as he opened the gate,
He saw them coming one by one, -

Brindle, Ebony, Speckle, and Bess,
Shaking their horns in the evening wind;
Cropping the buttercups out of the grass, -
But who was it followed close behind?

Loosely swung in the idle air
The empty sleeve of army blue;
And worn and pale, from the crisping hair,
Looked out a face that the father knew.

For Southern prisons will sometimes yawn,
And yield their dead unto life again;
And the day that comes with a cloudy dawn
In golden glory at last may wane.

The great tears sprang to their meeting eyes;
For the heart must speak when lips are dumb:
And under the silent evening skies
Together they follow the cattle home.

Kate Putnam Osgood

1 comment:

  1. I discovered this poem about a year ago and it still brings tears to my eyes every time. Thank you for posting this.