156 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 main 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.
In the mid-19th Century poetry was still the most popular literary form in America. Everybody read it. And it seems everyone literate enough to scratch out his or her name, tried their hand at it. The events leading up to, during, and after the war were all documented in the popular press, both North and South as much by poetry as by battlefield dispatches. Probably tens of thousands were published in newspapers and gazettes both small and large. The vast majority, of course, were dreadful—mostly breast beating and cheering for each respective side or later maudlin in grieving for loss. But some by poets famous, obscure, and anonymous paint a vivid picture of the bloody turning point of American history.
Herman Melville in 1861.
Herman Melville was a struggling, nay failing, literary man in 1866 when he issued a collection of poems about the war, most of which had appeared in the press. Like almost everything else he had written, Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War sold poorly and was snubbed by most critics. Melville was forced to take a patronage job as a Port of New York Customs Inspector to support his family. But the verses was far above average and taken together trace the course of the conflict. He starts before Fort Sumter with the execution of John Brown, a hero to him as for many of his New England Unitarian and Abolitionist friends.
Hanging from the beam,
Slowly swaying (such the law),
Gaunt the shadow on your green,
The cut is on the crown
(Lo, John Brown),
And the stabs shall heal no more.
Hidden in the cap
Is the anguish none can draw;
So your future veils its face,
But the streaming beard is shown
(Weird John Brown),
The meteor of the war.
At war’s onset John Greenleaf Whittier had to make a terrible choice. Known far and wide as the Quaker Poet he had to choose between his pacifist faith and his ardent abolitionism. Abolitionism won out. For the balance of the war he would worship with the Unitarians and lend his voice to the Union. Early in the war he took reports of an act of heroism by an elderly lady in Maryland and created a poem that became a Union rallying cry and was required recitation material for generations of school children. Like most tales, this one had a grain of fact wound up in legend. In fact 90-year-old Barbara Frietche, who had been a personal friend of Francis Scott Key, did have a flag hung from her Fredrick, Maryland home and it was peppered by shots from angry Rebels. But the old lady was sick in bed that day and had told her maid to bring the flag in for safe keeping. The maid, also tasked with hiding the silver and other family valuables, forgot. Troops under Lee did pass within a block of her home and seeing the flag peppered it with fire. Fritche never came to the window and even if she had could probably not be heard. But it was a great yarn for getting Yankee blood to boil.
Up from the meadows rich with corn,
Clear in the cool September morn,
The clustered spires of Frederick stand
Green-walled by the hills of Maryland.
Round about them orchards sweep,
Apple- and peach-tree fruited deep,
Fair as a garden of the Lord
To the eyes of the famished rebel horde,
On that pleasant morn of the early fall
When Lee marched over the mountain wall,—
Over the mountains winding down,
Horse and foot, into Frederick town.
Forty flags with their silver stars,
Forty flags with their crimson bars,
Flapped in the morning wind: the sun
Of noon looked down, and saw not one.
Up rose old Barbara Frietchie then,
Bowed with her fourscore years and ten;
Bravest of all in Frederick town,
She took up the flag the men hauled down;
In her attic window the staff she set,
To show that one heart was loyal yet.
Up the street came the rebel tread,
Stonewall Jackson riding ahead.
Under his slouched hat left and right
He glanced: the old flag met his sight.
“Halt!”— the dust-brown ranks stood fast.
“Fire!”— out blazed the rifle-blast.
It shivered the window, pane and sash;
It rent the banner with seam and gash.
Quick, as it fell, from the broken staff
Dame Barbara snatched the silken scarf;
She leaned far out on the window-sill,
And shook it forth with a royal will.
“Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country’s flag,” she said.
A shade of sadness, a blush of shame,
Over the face of the leader came;
The nobler nature within him stirred
To life at that woman’s deed and word:
“Who touches a hair of yon gray head
Dies like a dog! March on!” he said.
All day long through Frederick street
Sounded the tread of marching feet:
All day long that free flag tost
Over the heads of the rebel host.
Ever its torn folds rose and fell
On the loyal winds that loved it well;
And through the hill-gaps sunset light
Shone over it with a warm good-night.
Barbara Frietchie’s work is o’er,
And the Rebel rides on his raids no more.
Honor to her! and let a tear
Fall, for her sake, on Stonewall’s bier.
Over Barbara Frietchie’s grave
Flag of Freedom and Union, wave!
Peace and order and beauty draw
Round thy symbol of light and law;
And ever the stars above look down
On thy stars below in Frederick town.
—John Greenleaf Whittier
A Union picket on night guard by N.C. Wyeth.
A surprising amount of Civil War poetry was soldier written. No army in the history of the world to date was as literate as the boys in blue. If the Confederates lagged in that department, they still had plenty of young men ready to take pencil stub to scrap of paper and send it home or to the home town paper. Some of these poems are among the most poignant of the war. This one captures the long periods between great battles when boredom and chance encounters were the order of the day. And like other such poems, this one was eventually set to music and published to be sung around parlor pianos.
The Picket Guard
All quiet along the Potomac “they say,”
“Except now and then a stray Picket”
Is shot as he walks on his beat to and fro,
By a rifleman hid in the thicket.
‘Tis nothing—a private or two, now and then,
Will not count in the news of the battle;
Not an officer lost, only one of the men,
Moaning out all alone the death rattle.
All quiet along the Potomac to-night,
Where the soldiers lie peacefully dreaming;
Their tents in the rays of the clear autumn moon,
O'er the light of the watch fire are gleaming.
A tremulous sigh, as the gentle night-wind
Through the forest leaves softly is creeping;
While stars up above, with their glittering eyes
Keep guard, for the army is sleeping.
There’s only the sound of the lone sentry’s tread,
As he tramps from the rock to the fountain,
And thinks of the two in the low trundle bed,
Far away in the cot on the mountain.
His musket falls slack, his face dark and grim,
Grows gentle with memories tender,
As he mutters a prayer for the children asleep—
For their mother—may Heaven defend her.
The moon seems to shine just as brightly as then,
That night when the love yet unspoken,
Leaped up to his lips, when low-murmured vows
Were pledged to be ever unbroken.
Then drawing his sleeve roughly over his eyes,
He dashes off tears that are welling,
And gathers his gun closer up to its place,
As if to keep down the heart swelling.
He passes the fountain, the blasted pine tree,
The footstep is lagging and weary;
Yet onward he goes, through the broad belt of light.
Toward the shade of the forest so dreary.
Hark! was it the night-wind that rustled the leaves?
Was it moonlight so wondrously flashing?
It looks like a rifle—“Ha! Mary, good bye,”
And the life blood is ebbing and plashing.
All quiet along the Potomac to-night,
No sound save the rush of the river;
While soft falls the dew on the face of the dead,
The Picket’s off duty forever.
—Anonymous song lyric
Probably soldier written..
Johnson’s New Catalogue of Songs
Civil War dead photographed by Alexander Gardner.
As the war dragged on the senseless horror of it overwhelmed the early romantic nonsense. George Henry Boker was a very successful Philadelphia businessman who dabbled with some success as a poet and playwright. The war converted the one-time Democrat into a staunch Republican and Unionist who lent his pen to the Federal cause. As ardent as he was, by war’s end he was worn down by ceaseless tragedy.
blood! The lines of every printed sheet
Through their dark arteries reek with running gore;
At hearth, at board, before the household door,
'T is the sole subject with which neighbors meet.
Girls at the feast, and children in the street,
Prattle of horrors; flash their little store
Of simple jests against the cannon's roar,
As if mere slaughter kept existence sweet.
O, heaven, I quail at the familiar way
This fool, the world, disports his jingling cap;
Murdering or dying with one grin agap!
Our very Love comes draggled from the fray,
Smiling at victory, scowling at mishap,
With gory Death companioned and at play.
—George Henry Boker
from Poems of the War (1864)
Of course the end of the war was a bitter pill for those who fought so long on the losing side. Many simply could not believe it. For years the out manned, out gunned, and out produced Confederates had whipped the Union or fought them to a standstill. But that standstill sealed their doom. In the end the inevitable tidal wave engulfed them. This soldier poem captures that moment. Sadly, in a few years, such sentiments, and the memories of all those early glories became enshrined in the holy Lost Cause and fueled the backlash that resulted in the Jim Crow laws, the disenfranchisement of Freedmen, and almost virtual return to slavery for many Southern Blacks.
stand here on this dusty road,
My rifle by my side.
They say we must surrender
And yet I’m filled with pride.
In knowing deep within my heart,
I gave my Southland all,
Like every man who took up arms
And answered Freedoms’ call.
I’ve worn the gray most proudly
And loved our banners dear.
To give them up and walk away,
The thought brings me to tears.
The worst for our brave men.
At least we’ll all be going home,
To be with Kith and Kin.
the years that follow,
This tragic fateful day,
We’ll be proud of our fair flag
And how we wore the gray.
Probably Confederate soldier written
Since Herman Melville started all of this off, we will let him have the last word on behalf of the victorious Yanks.
The Surrender At Appomattox
As billows upon billows roll,
On victory victory breaks;
Ere yet seven days from Richmond’s fall
And crowning triumph wakes
The loud joy-gun, whose thunders run
By sea-shore, streams, and lakes.
The hope and great event agree
In the sword that Grant received from Lee.
The warring eagles fold the wing,
But not in Caesar’s sway;
Not Rome o’ercome by Roman arms we sing,
As on Pharsalia's day,
But Treason thrown, though a giant grown,
And Freedom’s larger play.
All human tribes glad token see
In the close of the wars of Grant and Lee.