previous next

Chapter 5: Wives and sweethearts

At Antietam bridge A Union soldier after the battle, in September, 1862, occupied with different ‘duties.’



The picket-guard

The authorship of this production has occasioned more dispute than any other poem of the conflict. Very plausible details of its composition on August 2, 1861, were given by Lamar Fontaine. Joel Chandler Harris, who declared he would be glad to claim the poem as a specimen of Southern literature, concluded for five separate reasons that it was the production of Mrs. Ethelinda Beers. Mrs. Beers in a private letter to Mrs. Helen Kendrick Johnson said: ‘the poor “picket” has had so many authentic claimants, and willing sponsors, that I sometimes question myself whether I did really write it that cool September morning, after reading the stereotyped “all quiet, etc.” , to which was added in small type “a picket shot.” ’ the lines first appeared in Harper's Weekly for November 30, 1861.

‘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,
Or the light of the watch-fire, are gleaming.
A tremulous sigh of the gentle night-wind
Through the forest leaves softly is creeping;
While the 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!


All quiet along the Potomac
: a civil-war sentry on his beat
This Union picket by the Potomac River bank, clasping his musket in the chilling blast as he tramps his beat, conjures up the original of Ethel Beers' historic poem. The sympathy of the poet was not misplaced. Picket duty was an experience in every soldier's life. Regiments were detailed at stated intervals to march from their camps to the outer lines and there disposition would be made of the men in the following order: about one half of the regiment would be placed in what was known as the ‘reserve,’ while the balance of the men would be taken, by the officer of the guard designated for that purpose, to the extreme outpost, either relieving another regiment or forming new outposts, according to the necessities or changes of position. The period of the poem is the fall of 1861. The battle of Bull Run had been fought in the summer, and thereafter there was very little military activity along the Potomac. McClellan was doing what was absolutely necessary to effective operations—he was drilling the raw recruits into professional soldiers. The public at large, whose impatience had brought on the disaster of Bull Run before either side was prepared for battle, was naturally exasperated. But the author—a woman—was more impressed by the fate of the lonely sentinel.

[144] 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,
Towards the shade of the forest so dreary.
Hark! was it the night-wind that rustled the leaves?
Was it moonlight so wondrously flashing?
It looked like a rifle . . . ‘Ha! Mary, good-by!’
The red 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!

A message

The battle of Malvern Hill here referred to was the fierce concluding engagement of the Seven days battles around Richmond which terminated McClellan's Peninsula campaign. It was that battle on July 1, 1862, that saved the Army of the Potomac from destruction by the desperate onsets of Lee, but the New England poet preserves a scene which has a human, not a military significance.

Was there ever message sweeter
Than that one from Malvern Hill,
From a grim old fellow,—you remember?
Dying in the dark at Malvern Hill.
With his rough face turned a little,
On a heap of scarlet sand,
They found him, just within the thicket,
With a picture in his hand,— [145]

Off to the war—embarkation of ninth army corps at Aquia creek landing, in February, 1863

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps' poem A message breathes a faith that inspired the mothers of many men who stand expectantly in this picture, and of many thousands more who, like them, were ‘off to the war’ in 1861-1865. Proud, indeed, were the sweethearts and wives of their ‘heroes’ marching away to the big camps or floating down the stream on the transports. Honor and glory awaited these sons and brothers who were helping to serve their cause. To each fond heart came the hope: ‘Soon the nation will be ringing with my boy's praise, and his name will be repeated with blessings by unnumbered tongues.’ But there was also the sickening dread that he might never again be heard of, that stalking disease might single him out in the camp, that he might fall unnoticed when on lonely picket service, that in the wild tumult of the cannonading or the panting rush of the bayonet charge he might be forgotten by his comrades. Mrs. Ward voiced the desire of all true women, both North and South. Though the hero in Blue or in Gray was not to fill the pages of history with deathless deeds, these women believed that at least he would find an honored grave and rise to a higher bliss than this world gives.

‘Their searching message from those distant hours’


With a stained and crumpled picture
Of a woman's aged face;
Yet there seemed to leap a wild entreaty,
Young and living—tender—from the face
When they flashed the lantern on it,
Gilding all the purple shade,
And stooped to raise him softly,—
‘That's my mother, sir,’ he said.

‘Tell her’—but he wandered, slipping
Into tangled words and cries,—
Something about Mac and Hooker,
Something dropping through the cries
About the kitten by the fire,
And mother's cranberry-pies; and there
The words fell, and an utter
Silence brooded in the air.

Just as he was drifting from them,
Out into the dark, alone
(Poor old mother, waiting for your message,
Waiting with the kitten, all alone!),
Through the hush his voice broke,—‘Tell her—
Thank you, Doctor—when you can,—
Tell her that I kissed her picture,
And wished I'd been a better man.’

Ah, I wonder if the red feet
Of departed battle-hours
May not leave for us their searching
Message from those distant hours.
Sisters, daughters, mothers, think you,
Would your heroes now or then,
Dying, kiss your pictured faces,
Wishing they'd been better men?


‘The wintry blast goes wailing by’ Like a vision evoked by Gordon McCabe's verse rises this encampment of the Forty-fourth New York on the Virginia plains. The snow that covers the foreground suggests of itself the faint smoke that rises from the Camp and hovers like a veil over the hillside beyond. One may suppose that ‘the owl, for all his feathers is a-cold,’ and that hares go limping through the frozen grass. Yet it is not so much the effort to keep warm amid the bleak surroundings that brings gloom to the soldier's heart. It is rather the emotions which the Southern poet has expressed in Tennysonian stanzas. Distant from home, or with no home to return to, the soldier feels the loss of those domestic relations which fill life with warmth and hope. The patriotism that leads to enlistment, or the ardor that springs from war's wild alarms, must sooner or later give way for a time to the simple human emotions that even a child can share and understand. ‘East, west, home's best.’



Christmas night of 1862

William Gordon McCabe entered the Confederate Army in the artillery and rose from private to captain. At the time of writing this poem he was with the Army of Northern Virginia encamped about Fredericksburg. The sanguinary repulse of Burnside was only twelve days in the past, but the thoughts of the soldiers were turned toward family and home.

The wintry blast goes wailing by,
The snow is falling overhead;
I hear the lonely sentry's tread,
And distant watch-fires light the sky.

Dim forms go flitting through the gloom;
The soldiers cluster round the blaze
To talk of other Christmas days,
And softly speak of home and home.

My sabre swinging overhead
Gleams in the watch-fire's fitful glow,
While fiercely drives the blinding snow,
And memory leads me to the dead.

My thoughts go wandering to and fro,
Vibrating 'twixt the Now and Then;
I see the low-browed home again,
The old hall wreathed with mistletoe.

And sweetly from the far-off years
Comes borne the laughter faint and low,
The voices of the Long Ago!
My eyes are wet with tender tears.

I feel again the mother-kiss,
I see again the glad surprise
That lightened up the tranquil eyes
And brimmed them o'er with tears of bliss,

As, rushing from the old hall-door,
She fondly clasped her wayward boy—
Her face all radiant with the joy
She felt to see him home once more.


‘The soldiers cluster round the blaze’ As if made for Gorden McCabe's poem, this photograph shows vividly a group of pickets in winter. Pickets were the ‘eyes’ of the army, to observe all movements made by the enemy and to give warning of the approach of any force from the direction of his lines. The particular picket here is a soldier who, after lonely outpost duty on the hilltop just beyond his companions, has returned to warm his hands over their fire. ‘It was fortunate for these boys,’ remarked a veteran, ‘that they had a little hill between themselves and the enemy so that a fire might be made without observation.’ In general, when facing the foe, pickets upon the outer lines were allowed no fires of any kind. The utmost vigilance was required, no matter what the state of the weather. In many instances during the war soldiers were found frozen to death at their posts of duty, leaning against trees, or as they had fallen while marching on their beats.

My sabre swinging on the bough
Gleams in the watch-fire's fitful glow,
While fiercely drives the blinding snow
Aslant upon my saddened brow.

Those cherished faces all are gone!
Asleep within the quiet graves
Where lies the snow in drifting waves,—
And I am sitting here alone.

There's not a comrade here to-night
But knows that loved ones far away
On bended knees this night will pray:
‘God bring our darling from the fight.’

But there are none to wish me back,
For me no yearning prayers arise.
The lips are mute and closed the eyes-
My home is in the bivouac.

Dreaming in the trenches

I picture her there in the quaint old room,
Where the fading fire-light starts and falls,
Alone in the twilight's tender gloom
With the shadows that dance on the dim-lit walls.

Alone, while those faces look silently down
From their antique frames in a grim repose—
Slight scholarly Ralph in his Oxford gown,
And stanch Sir Alan, who died for Montrose.

There are gallants gay in crimson and gold,
There are smiling beauties with powdered hair,
But she sits there, fairer a thousand-fold,
Leaning dreamily back in her low arm-chair. [151]

‘The voices of the long ago’ The war-time home scene from Virginia gives McCabe's line a more touching pathos. The old-fashioned croquet on the lawn, where the little girl has sat down and delayed the game, is in keeping with the quaint hats and crinoline skirts. The house and its vine-clad arbor have the ‘home’ feeling that emphasizes one of the sorest deprivations of a soldier's life. All the poems in this section record some phase of the loneliness of the tented field, where thousands are gathered from many sections. Differ as much as they may in age, previous occupation, and whole manner of life, they are all moved by the recollection of loved ones afar, who will give a joyous welcome on their return. McCabe's verses on this theme are classic.


And the roseate shadows of fading light
Softly clear steal over the sweet young face,
Where a woman's tenderness blends to-night
With the guileless pride of a knightly race.

Her hands lie clasped in a listless way
On the old Romance—which she holds on her knee—
Of Tristram, the bravest of knights in the fray,
And Iseult, who waits by the sounding sea.

And her proud, dark eyes wear a softened look
As she watches the dying embers fall:
Perhaps she dreams of the knight in the book,
Perhaps of the pictures that smile on the wall.

What fancies I wonder are thronging her brain,
For her cheeks flush warm with a crimson glow!
Perhaps—ah! me, how foolish and vain!
But I'd give my life to believe it so!

Well, whether I ever march home again
To offer my love and a stainless name,
Or whether I die at the head of my men,—
I'll be true to the end all the same.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: