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Chapter 3: poets of the Civil War II

The South

Among the many reasons that have been suggested for the lack of literature in the ante-bellum South—the absorption in politics, the pre-eminence of the spoken word as compared with the written, the absence of centres of thought and life—must be considered the failure of the people as a whole to appreciate the literary efforts of their writers, and, what is more important, the failure of writers of talent to devote themselves to literature as a profession. The popular orator, William L. Yancey, expressed the views of many when he said in a grandiose way: ‘Our poetry is our lives; our fiction will come when truth has ceased to satisfy us; as for our history, we have made about all that has glorified the United States.’ A. B. Meek, author of The land of the South, in the preface to a volume of his poems (1857) said: ‘The author is not a poet by profession or ambition; he has written only at long intervals or at the instigation of trivial or transient causes. The present volume is composed of occasional effusions through many years of my life.’ Some years later Margaret J. Preston wrote to Hayne:
Poetry has been only my pastime, not the occupation or mission of my life, which has been too busy a one with the duties of wifehood, motherhood, mistress, hostess, neighbor, and friend. . . . I think I can truly say that I have never neglected the concoction of a pudding for the sake of a poem, or a sauce for a sonnet. Art is a jealous mistress and I have served her with my left hand only.

Of a great many Southern poets, then, it may be said that they were ‘amateurs quick to feel the poetic instinct and the influence of other poets, content with an occasional poem or a [289] single volume, and thenceforth prone to lead a life of culture rather than of creative activity.’

The result was that the South, in 1860, had found no adequate expression of her life, no interpretation of her ideals, not even a description of her natural scenery. What writing there was, with few exceptions, was not of the soil nor of the people. Poe,1 Edward Coate Pinkney (1802-28), author of the exquisite love-compliment A Health, and Richard Henry Wilde (1789-1847), who wrote the fragrant Stanzas beginning ‘My life is like the summer rose,’ might have written anywhere. One poem of the War of 1812, one or two of the Mexican War, and some half dozen other lyrics constituted, despite the appearance of not a few volumes of well-meant verse,2 the poetic output of the South before the Civil War.

The Civil War aroused intense emotions that found expression in a large body of lyric poetry, written by some men who were professedly poets and by more who were but occasionally such. It is difficult for one of the present generation to realize the unity and the fervour of the Southern people at the beginning of the war. Most intelligent Southerners would now agree with President Wilson that the principles for which the South fought ‘meant stand-still in the midst of change; it was conservative, not creative; it was against drift and destiny; it protected an impossible institution and a belated order of society; it withstood a creative and an imperial idea, the idea of a united people and a single law of freedom.’ But it was given to few men, if any, on either side to understand the issues thus clearly defined. In fact, as soon as Fort Sumter was attacked and Maryland was invaded there was no longer a question of political issues—it was rather, to Southerners, a struggle of human passions, of liberty against despotism, and of the invasion of the sacred rights of home and commonwealth. As Sidney Lanier,3 himself then a young man just graduating at a Georgia college, said:

An afflatus of war was breathed upon us. Like a great wind it drew on, and blew upon men, women, and children. Its sound mingled with the serenity of the church organ, and arose with the earnest words of preachers praying for guidance in the matter. It [290] thundered splendidly in the impassioned appeals of orators to the people, it whistled through the streets, it stole into the firesides, it clinked glasses in bar-rooms, it lifted the gray hairs of our wise men in conventions, it thrilled through the lectures in college halls, it rustled the thumbed book leaves of the schoolrooms, it arrayed the sanctity of a righteous cause in the brilliant trappings of military display, it offered tests to all allegiances and loyalties,—of church, of state; of private loves, public devotions; of personal consanguinities, of social ties.

Of this solidarity of Southern opinion and feeling no better evidence could be given than the fact that practically all those who wrote poetry during the Civil War were either participants in the actual struggle or were intimately connected with those who were. Theodore O'Hara, who had been in active service during the Mexican War and had written The Bivouac of the dead in honour of those who died in that war, was colonel of an Alabama regiment and later a staff officer in the Confederate Army. Henry Rootes Jackson, who had also fought in the Mexican War and had written My wife and child and The red old Hills of Georgia, served under Hood in the battles around Atlanta, commanded a brigade in the Army of Tennessee, and was captured in the battle of Nashville. Their poems of the Mexican War were frequently quoted, and in fact were printed in nearly all the Southern anthologies of the Civil War. James Barron Hope, who had been Virginia's official poet at the Jamestown celebration and the unveiling of the Washington monument in Richmond (1858), was quartermaster and captain in the Army of Virginia, and came out of the struggle broken in fortune and in health. Albert Pike,4 born in Massachusetts and author of Hymns to the gods (1839), was Confederate Commissioner to the Indians and afterwards a brigadier-general. Margaret Junkin Preston, born in Philadelphia, revealed in Beechenbrook—a poetical transcript of her experiences and impressions of the war—what the war meant to a woman who was the wife of one of the most distinguished colonels of Lee's army, the sister-in-law of Stonewall Jackson, and the friend of Lee. John R. Thompson, successor to Poe as the editor of The Southern literary Messenger, became assistant secretary to the Commonwealth of Virginia and was [291] later sent to England in the hope that his poems and articles might help to win English sympathy for the Confederacy. Of the younger poets Paul Hamilton Hayne, Henry Timrod, and James Ryder Randall volunteered for service but were prevented by delicate constitutions from remaining in the army, though as staff officers, correspondents, or poets they followed the events of the war with the keenest interest. Henry Lynden Flash was on the staff of General Joseph Wheeler and was thus prepared by his experience to write his tributes to Zollicoffer, Polk, and Jackson. Dr. Francis O. Ticknor was in charge of the hospital work at Columbus, Georgia, and ministered to the needs of soldiers, among them the brave Tennessean whom he made immortal in Little Giffen. Abram J. (Father) Ryan could never have written The conquered Banner and The sword of Robert Lee if he had not visualized as a chaplain the heroism and tragedy of the long struggle. William Gordon McCabe, who went from the University of Virginia as one of the Southern Guards, was a poet of the trenches, giving expression in his Dreaming in the trenches and Christmas night of ‘62 to the quieter and gentler aspects of a soldier's life. Sidney Lanier and John B. Tabb,5 after living the romantic life of soldiers, sealed a memorable friendship by a common suffering in the prison at Point Lookout.

The feeling of the South as represented by all these poets first expressed itself in music. Southern soldiers were quick to seize upon Dixie, the words of which had been written by Dan D. Emmett for Bryant's minstrels in 1859. Except for the refrain and a few haunting phrases, the words were totally inadequate, but the music proved to be the chief inspiration of Southern armies throughout the long conflict. Sung for the first time by Mrs. John Wood in New Orleans late in 1860, it was taken up by the Louisiana regiments and was soon heard by the campfires and hearthstones of the South. From New Orleans, too, came The Bonnie blue flag, an old Hibernian melody, with words written by an Irish comedian, Harry McCarthy, a volunteer soldier in the Confederate Army from Arkansas. The enthusiasm aroused by its first rendition at the Varieties Theatre in 1861 is well described by a later writer. The [292] theatre was filled with soldiers from Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana on their way to the front. McCarthy appeared on the stage accompanied by his sister waving a Confederate flag. ‘Before the first verse was ended the audience was quivering with excitement. After he sang the second stanza the audience joined in the chorus and sang it over and over again amid the most intensive excitement. It was wafted to the streets and in twenty-four hours it was all over the Southern Army.’ For the crude words of both these melodies were soon substituted various versions more dignified and intellectually more worthy of the Southern cause. Of all these, the most striking version of Dixie was written by Albert Pike, and the most stirring words for The Bonnie blue flag by Mrs. Annie Chambers Ketchum. But not even these versions took the place in the army, or have since taken the place in the affections of the Southern people, held by the first forms.

If New Orleans may lay claim to the first popular melodies, it was natural that from Charleston should come the first notable expression in verse of the South's feeling with regard to the war. Aside from the fact that this city was the meeting place of the convention which proclaimed the secession of South Carolina, aside from the fact, too, that the first incident of the war was connected with Fort Sumter, Charleston, at the outbreak of the war, was the one Southern city that might have been considered a literary centre. Here for many years Simms,6 as the editor of many magazines and as a prolific romancer, had made his brave fight for literary independence, and here he had gathered about him in his later years a group of young men, two of whom especially were to respond as poets to the call of the new nation. He himself was now an old man, moving among his friends ‘like a Titan maimed.’ As the struggle tightened about Charleston in the later years of the war, he wrote some fiery appeals against the besieging foe, but there is in his verse excitement rather than inspiration, heat rather than light.

Of the group of friends and younger men who gathered about Simms, the most promising was Paul Hamilton Hayne (1830-86). The descendant of several generations of Carolina gentlemen and gentlewomen, he had deliberately turned [293] away from the attractive profession of law and politics and had definitely chosen literature as his profession. In his first published poem he had announced his dedication to the poet's life in words that are in striking contrast to the views of the Southern people in general, and even of Southern poets, who had looked on the writing of poetry as a pastime and not a passion. Before the war he had edited Russell's magazine (1857-60) and had published three volumes of poetry—poems characterized by a certain imitativeness and yet a genuine love of nature and a feeling for idyllic life. When the war came he volunteered, only to find that his delicate health would not allow him to share the hardships of a campaign. From the first, however, he hailed his native state as his mother, who, like a priestess ‘blessed with wondrous vision of the things to come,’ would not wait till the sister nations would join her in the conflict. While he wrote constantly of many incidents of the war in other places, Charleston was the centre of his tenderest affections; perhaps his greatest poem of those years was The battle of Charleston Harbor. In certain reminiscences that he wrote after the war, as well as in the poems written during the war, one realizes what a charm this city, with its distinct flavour and atmosphere, had for him. If to Henry James and Owen Wister Charleston is today ‘the most appealing, the most lovely, the most wistful town in America,’ how much more so was it to a sensitive soul who from infancy had known its legends and its history, and whose most tragic thought in his later life was that he was an-exile from the City by the Sea.

Henry Timrod (1829-67), the friend of Simms and Hayne, had also definitely dedicated himself to the work of a poet, having already published a volume of poems in Boston (1860) and many individual poems in Russell's magazine and The Southern literary Messenger. A poet by natural temperament, he was a critical student of the classics and of the best English poetry. A poet hitherto of nature and of love, he was now to show himself the greatest Southern poet of the Civil War. Even before the Southern Confederacy was formed he wrote The Cotton boll, which struck a new note in that it was almost the first Southern poem of local colour. The single boll of cotton which he holds in his hand as he reclines beneath an immemorial pine suggests the great plantation near Charleston [294] from which it came, and then all the cotton fields of the South, from gray Atlantic dawns to the evening star; and not only cotton fields, but the rivers and mountains and forests of this land, which blesses the world with its mighty commerce, joining ‘with a delicate web remotest strands.’ In offices of peace and love his country's mission lies; but now the enemy is coming-war is inevitable. In words of passionate indignation and patriotism he exclaims:

Oh, help us, Lord! to roll the crimson flood
Back on its course, and, while our banners wing
Northward, strike with us! till the Goth shall cling
To his own blasted altar—stones, and crave
Mercy; and we shall grant it, and dictate
The lenient future of his fate
There, where some rotting ships and crumbling quays
Shall one day mark the Port which ruled the Western seas.

The closing lines—partly ridiculous and partly pathetic in the light of today—are typical of the absolute confidence of the South.

When the Confederate Congress met in Montgomery in February, 1861, Timrod hailed the birth of the new nation in his stateliest ode, Ethnogenesis. All nature's blessings are with the South and take part with her against the North, mad and blinded in its rage. The strength of pine and palm, the firmness and calm of the hills, the snow of Southern summers (cotton), the abundance of the harvests, the heart of woman, the chivalry of men are arrayed against materialism and fanaticism. To doubt the end were want of trust in God. The poem closes with a passage that still remains the most felicitous expression of the Southern temperament. Although the poet's vision of a separate nation was an illusion, there will never be a time when these words should not be quoted in any characterization of the natural warmth and cordiality of the Southern people:

The hour perchance is not yet wholly ripe
When all shall own it, but the type
Whereby we shall be known in every land
Is that vast gulf which lips our Southern strand, [295]
And through the cold, untempered ocean pours
Its genial streams, that far off Arctic shores
May sometimes catch upon the softened breeze
Strange tropic warmth and hints of summer seas.

With the outbreak of hostilities in April, Timrod wrote his passionate lyric A Cry to Arms, and later, Carolina. But none of Timrod's poems had the lyric quality that fits them for popular music. The union of music and poetry in a splendid impassioned utterance came from James Ryder Randall (1839-1909). Seldom in history have the man, the moment, and the word met in such happy conjunction as in the composition of My Maryland. Randall, a native of Baltimore—just from college in Maryland, and, as he said, full of poetry and romance —was teaching English literature in Poydras College at Pointe Coupee, Louisiana, when he read in the New Orleans Delta an account of the attack on the Massachusetts troops as they passed through Baltimore:

This account [he said in later years] excited me greatly; I had long been absent from my native city, and the startling event there inflamed my mind. That night I could not sleep, for my nerves were all unstrung, and I could not dismiss what I had read in the paper from my mind. About midnight I arose, lit a candle, and went to my desk. Some powerful spirit appeared to possess me, and almost involuntarily I proceeded to write the song of My Maryland. I remember that the idea appeared to first take shape as music in the brain—some wild air that I cannot now recall. The whole poem was dashed off rapidly when once begun. It was not composed in cold blood, but under what may be called a conflagration of the senses, if not an inspiration of the intellect.

He read the poem the next morning to his students, and at their suggestion sent it to the New Orleans Delta, from which it was copied in nearly every Southern journal. The finding of an appropriate melody for the words was the achievement of the Cary sisters of Baltimore. A glee club, which was in the habit of singing at their home, sang the words to the tune Lauriger Horatius, well known as a college tune that had come from a modification of the German Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum. A few weeks later, shortly after the battle of Manassas, [296] the two sisters and their brother went through the Southern lines. One night while visiting the headquarters of General Beauregard they were serenaded by a regiment of soldiers from New Orleans, who in turn asked for a song. One of the sisters sang My Maryland; the refrain was speedily caught up and tossed back from hundreds of rebel throats, who shouted, ‘We will break her chains; she shall be free!’ Soon the words which had been read far and wide were being sung in every part of the South—had become indeed a great national song, the Marseillaise of the Confederacy.

The words—too familiar to be quoted—suggest every aspect of the great struggle from the Southern standpoint. They summarize in passionate, concentrated lines the points of view that are scattered here and there throughout all the anthologies of Southern poetry. The feeling of an exiled son at the invasion of his home, the crushing of liberty under the despot's heel, the peerless chivalry of Maryland's former heroes of history and tradition, his love for the state as a mother, the appeal for a sister state's aid to Virginia, and, on the other hand, the fierce indignation at the ‘vandal,’ the ‘despot,’ the ‘Northern scum’—all these are suggestive of the passion of a people giving themselves entirely to the great struggle.

The popular melodies, the odes of Timrod, and the lyric cry of Randall—all of them the best illustrations of their various types—were prophetic of an outburst of poetry in all parts of the South. Such papers as the Charleston Mercury, the Richmond Examiner, the Louisville Courier, the New Orleans Delta, and such magazines as The Southern literary Messenger, The Southern field and Fireside, and The Southern illustrated news published constantly poems written by men and women in all sections. As there were no general means of communication, many poems were attributed to various authors and many were published anonymously. On account of the lack of publishing houses practically no volumes of poetry were published during the war. The problem, therefore, of making anthologies of these poems was a difficult one—much more difficult than was the case in the North, where so many poets already famous were writing constantly during the war, and where there were so many means of communication and of publication. Southern readers had to be satisfied with scrapbooks [297] in which were treasured many of the poems that in this way became the common property of a good many people.

Of distinctly different quality from the poems already referred to, and all other ‘literary’ poems, are certain crude vernacular verses. With some of the characteristics of popular ballads, they had much currency in the camps. A writer in the Southern Bivouac (July, 1885) recalls and characterizes some of these as follows:

As the long contest dragged on, and war, losing much of its earlier illusions, became a stern, bitter, and exceedingly monotonous reality, these ‘high-toned’ lyrics were tacitly voted rather too romantic and poetical for the actual field, and were remitted to the parlor and the piano stool. The soldiers chanted in quite other fashion on the march or seated at the campfire. In these crude rhymes, some of them improvised for the moment, there was less of flourish but more of meaning, not so much bravado but a good deal more point. They were sappy with the homely satire of the camps, which stings friend and foe alike. Innumerable verses were composed and sung to popular refrains. The Army of Virginia and the Army of Tennessee had each its history rudely chronicled as fast as made in this rough minstrelsy. Every corps and command contributed some commemorative stanza. The current events of campaigns were told in improvised verse as rapidly as they occurred and were thereafter skillfully recited by the rhapsodist who professed to know the whole fragmentary epic.

Forms of such rhymed narratives may be seen in typical stanzas:

Marse Robert said, ‘My soldiers,
You've nothing now to fear,
For Longstreet's on the right of them,
And Jackson's in the rear.’

The Fourteenth Louisiana,
They charged 'em with a yell;
They bagged them buck-tailed rangers
And sent 'em off to hell.

[298] O Morgan crossed the river,
And I went across with him;
I was captured in Ohio
Because I could not swim.

No matter where this song was sung, or by whom, or which of its multitude of stanzas happened to be selected by the minstrel, the following verse always closed it:
But now my song is ended,
And I haven't got much time,
I'm going to run the blockade
To see that girl of mine.

Some of these poems are found in Rebel Rhymes and rhapsodies (1864) edited by Frank Moore as a companion volume to two other volumes of war poetry of the North. In his preface to this first anthology of Southern war poetry Moore says:

It has been the purpose of the editor to present as full a selection of the songs and ballads of the Southern people as will illustrate the spirit which actuates them in their rebellion against the government and laws of the United States. Most of these pieces have been published in the magazines and periodicals of the South, while many are copies of ballad-sheets and songs circulated in the Rebel armies, and which have come into the possession of the forces of the Union in their various moves and advances during the present conflict.

We find in the volume many humorous poems of the kind just described. The more serious include two poems each by Randall and Ticknor, one each by Hayne, Hope, Flash, Meek, Pike, Simms, and J. R. Thompson, Timrod's A Cry to Arms and Palmer's Stonewall Jackson's way, the last two published, however, anonymously. There are also many parodies of famous songs such as Annie Laurie, Gideon's band, Bannockburn, Columbia, Wait for the wagon, The star Spangled Banner, etc.

It was probably this collection that formed the basis of the selections from Southern poetry published as an appendix to [299] Richard Grant White's Poetry, lyrical, narrative, and satirical of the Civil War (1866). In his preface White says:

I have read all that I could discover of the war poetry, written by the confederated enemies of my government, and have preserved here all that, in a most catholic spirit, I deemed of any intrinsic merit or incidental interest. It was my original purpose to embody them with the substance of the volume, giving each piece its place in the order of time; but finding so little of this poetry which possesses any kind of interest, instead of scattering it sparsely through the collection, I put it in an appendix. The secessionists fought much better than they wrote; and it is worthy of remark that the best poem on that side, ‘The Conquered Banner’ was published in a New York newspaper, The Freeman's journal.

Omitting the humorous poems published by Moore, White has only the ten or twelve of a more serious and important nature, and these, in the main, not the ones that might be considered the most important by the leading Southern poets. The selections are a good illustration either of the difficulty of getting hold of Southern poems or of a provincial point of view that happily no longer exists.

Inadequate as these anthologies were, they were much better than the volume entitled War lyrics and Songs of the South, published in London in 1866, and edited by ‘a faithful few Southern women’ who had thrown ‘hastily together this book of poems,’ in the hope that

its sale to the charitable might secure a fund for the relief of the crippled and invalid men who fought as soldiers in the war in the South; the impoverished women and children, widows and orphans, as well as those who from sorrow, need, sickness, and other adversity have lost their health and their minds.

In this volume The Virginians of the Valley, by Ticknor, and Stonewall Jackson's way and The conquered Banner, both published anonymously, are the only poems of any value. An illustration of the carelessness of the editors is that Henry R. Jackson's My wife and child is attributed to General J. T. [T. J., or Stonewall] Jackson. More than half of the volume is given up to Songs of the Southland and other poems by ‘Kentucky.’ [300]

In the following year Miss Emily V. Mason of Virginia edited The Southern poems of the Civil War. She had from the beginning of the war conceived the design of ‘collecting and preserving the various war poems which (born of the excited state of the public mind) then inundated our public newspapers.’ With her collection, supplemented by those of her friends, she made an edition of 247 poems, not only as a memorial to the lost cause, but ‘to aid the education of the daughters of our desolate land’ and especially to fit a certain number to be teachers. The volume proved popular, for by 1869 a third and enlarged edition was published, consisting of 288 poems. The first edition is notable for the large number of women writers selected from, 71 in all, the only noteworthy one being Mrs. Preston. There are thirteen poems on Stonewall Jackson, only two poems by Timrod, an indiscriminate list by Randall, and many anonymous poems. In the third edition we have eight by Timrod, four by Father Ryan, and good, though not the best, selections by Lucas, McCabe, Flash, and others.

The improvement in this edition may doubtless be attributed to William Gilmore Simms's War poetry of the South (1866). It was a noble task undertaken by this ‘weary old Titan’ of Southern letters to preserve the writings of the younger poets, many of whom had been inspired by his friendship or by his lifelong devotion to Southern letters. The spirit in which he made the book is indicated in the following words from the preface:

Though sectional in its character, and indicative of a temper and a feeling which were in conflict with nationality, yet, now that the States of the Union have been resolved into one nation, this collection is essentially as much the property of the whole as are the captured cannon which were employed against it during the progress of the late war. It belongs to the national literature, and will hereafter be regarded as constituting a proper part of it, just as legitimately to be recognized by the nation as are the rival ballads of the cavaliers and roundheads by the English in the great civil conflict of their country.

Not much can be said for the critical standards which allowed Simms to publish so much unworthy poetry, none more so than the seven poems from his own pen. His desire to give [301] a place to representative poets of all states, and especially to his personal friends, is in part responsible. Furthermore, the book was thrown hastily together without any arrangement of the material with regard to authorship or chronology. When all has been said, however, we find in this volume the first anthology of practically all the important poems produced by the South during the war—seven each by Randall, J. R. Thompson, and Simms himself, six by Hayne, three by Ticknor, three by Flash, and, above all, eleven by Timrod. It is this recognition of Timrod's greatness as a poet, this first setting him forth as the poet of the South who expressed in adequate verse every aspect of the struggle, that increases the value of the book and our appreciation of Simms's critical judgment.

In 1869 appeared The Southern Amaranth, characterized by its editor, Miss Sallie A. Brock, as ‘a carefully selected collection of poems growing out of and in reference to the late war.’ In the preface of March, 1868, she expresses a wish to render to her Southern sisters ‘some assistance in gathering up the remains of the Confederate dead.’ Her regret is that ‘a vast number of beautiful and worthy productions are compelled for want of space to be crowded out of this volume.’ In florid style she exclaims:

The Muse of the Southland is one of tireless wing, and though her theme is lofty and glorious as the golden sunset splendor upon the purple sky of evening, her song is often as sad as the weary echoes of the winter wind through her matchless forests—the mournful wailings of broken hearts.

The most striking new features of the volume are Timrod's Ode on the Confederate dead (written in 1867) and Dr. Ticknor's Little Giffen of Tennessee, which, though probably written in 1863, was not published until October, 1867, in The land we love. The latter poem is not given, however, as it appears in the revised form of later years, the last stanza being especially faulty.

All these anthologies had appeared with but little introductory material or notes regarding the lives of the writers or the circumstances under which the poems were written. They were all practically a conglomeration of poems with little to aid [302] the student of literary history. In 1869 James Wood Davidson's Living writers of the South was published in New York, with salient facts as to the biographies and bibliographies of some 241 writers—166 men and 75 women. Of these he puts down 112 as having written ‘verse’ and eight as having written ‘poetry.’ He adds:

Some of these specimens are poor enough, in all conscience,— some inartistic of course; and some, it may be, frivolous,— but each in its way and all together have their use in the general design. Some of the writers have talents and character, with corresponding results, which enable them to stand in the front rank of American authorship. Some have limited ability. And some have none.

These words are typical of the judgment and sense that run through the volume. There are, for instance, critical estimates, biographical sketches, and bibliographies of Simms, Hayne, Mrs. Preston, Flash, and Randall, and surprisingly short ones of Ticknor and Lucas. It required courage on the author's part to characterize the poems of the veteran Simms as ‘prosaic, commonplace, and Tupperesque.’ After citing some sixty-five titles of his books of all kinds he remarks: ‘He has not written an epic; why, I have no idea, but we may be infinitely grateful that he has not.’

In his criticism of Flash, for whom he shows much enthusiasm, Davidson puts his finger upon the cardinal defects of many of the Southern poets. Flash, he says, ‘has never written anything which was not finished at a single sitting, and has never been more than two hours writing anything he has ever published.’ He wrote his poem on Polk when his foreman told him that he lacked six or seven inches for the makeup of The daily Confederate. ‘You have written about Zollicoffer and Jackson, you might as well write about Polk, who was killed the other day.’ Flash quickly responded to the suggestion, and in five minutes the poem was in the hands of the composer, and in twenty minutes was being printed. Paying full tribute to Flash's good qualities, the author warns him that without work there is not the remotest chance for an enduring reputation, and at the same time makes the same suggestion to others who may have acquired ‘a reverence for inspiration so called, and a contempt for the art of versification.’ [303]

Apart from his critical judgment Davidson shows the ability of a careful editor in weighing evidence as to the authorship of All quiet along the Potomac—a poem that all Southerners had claimed as the work of Lamar Fontaine.7 Davidson publishes Fontaine's letter claiming positively the authorship, but side by side with it is one from Joel Chandler Harris, who was at that time, according to the editor, planning an edition of Southern poems, and who after much deliberation expresses the opinion that Mrs. Beers is the author of the poem. He quotes also a letter to the same effect from the editor of Harper's magazine. While he himself does not express an opinion, it is not difficult for the reader to be convinced by the reasoning submitted by Joel Chandler Harris. The mention of Harris suggests that in this volume he himself appears as the author of several poems which are as unlike his later writings as anything could well be. Davidson has the credit too of publishing for the first time in this volume McCabe's Dreaming in the trenches and Christmas night of ‘62, and certain recent poems of Maurice Thompson and Sidney Lanier. He also has much to say of poems that do not relate to the war.

In 1882 Francis F. Browne of Chicago carried out the purpose that Richard Grant White had expressed by publishing Bugle echoes—a collection of poems of the Civil War, Northern and Southern. Drawing upon the anthologies that have been discussed and upon separate editions of Southern poets, such as Hayne's edition of Timrod (1873), of Ticknor (1879), of Hayne (1882), he finds a much larger number of Southern poems that fit into his plan of suggesting the story of the Civil War by poems written at the time. Thus for the first time a systematic arrangement was made of this material. The result is altogether striking. The Southern poems, while slightly fewer in number (the proportion is 60 to 85), measure up well with those of the North. Side by side in this volume appear Bryant's Our country's call and Timrod's A Cry to Arms, Whitman's Beat, beat drums and Randall's My Maryland, Pike's Dixie and The battle hymn of the republic, Holmes's Voyage of the good ship Union and Ticknor's Virginians of the Valley, Lowell's Commemoration ode and Timrod's Ode to the Confederate dead, and at the very end Finch's The blue [304] and the Gray and Lanier's The Tournament—both of them prophetic of a new national era. Not only was Browne's idea happy and well executed; his introduction and notes are invaluable. He established the fact that the author of Stonewall Jackson's way was Dr. J. W. Palmer. He printed in connection with the poems valuable letters as to the circumstances under which were written My Maryland and The conquered Banner. The volume as a whole was so marked by a careful critical judgment and good taste as to distinguish it from the hastily prepared anthologies by Southerners.

Two books of similar nature are Eggleston's American War ballads and Burton E. Stevenson's Poems of American history, in both of which the poems are published in chronological order, and in Stevenson's book with the historical setting which interprets many of the individual poems. In later years selections from Southern writers by Miss Manly and Miss Clarke and Professors Trent, Kent, and Fulton, and biographical sketches by Baskervill and Link, have brought the best poems and poets within the reach of a larger circle of students and readers. The Library of Southern literature is a valuable mine of selections and biographical material.

When one tries to make a general estimate of this war poetry as a whole, there are three standpoints from which it may be considered. Judged from the standpoint of absolute criticism, it affords another illustration of the contention that war produces a quantity of mediocre poetry but little of enduring worth. Four or five poems at best have stood the winnowing process of time and judicial criticism. Randall's My Maryland, Ticknor's Little Giffen of Tennessee, and Timrod's Ode on the Confederate dead in Magnolia Cemetery might well be included in any anthology of lyric poetry, ancient or modern. If we consider the poems from the standpoint of either literary or social history, a larger number must be considered significant. They rightly find their place in such a collection as Stedman's American Anthology as affording material for the comprehensive survey of American poetry; or in the books of Stevenson and Browne, where the various stages of the Civil War are suggested in poems rather than in army orders, political tracts, or newspaper comment. When President Lincoln said at the end of the war that the Northern [305] army had captured Dixie he might have extended his remarks to other poems that have become a part of our national heritage.

Still another interest attaches to it. Much of it is an adequate, if not felicitous and final, expression of the ideas and emotions of Southerners at a time when they felt as one people. The emotional fervour that swept over the South was somehow the inspiration of a literature different from that of any other era in its history. Southern literature before the war had been marked by its absorption in politics, or its divorce from real life, or its amateurishness and sentimentalism. A people that had been all too inclined to underrate poetry and to discourage literary production found their deepest emotions expressed in martial strains, or in meditative lyrics. Written for local newspapers, preserved in scrap-books, collected in volumes like those of Simms and Miss Mason, sifted by the later editors and collectors, they preserve heroes and incidents, landscapes and sentiments that will always endear them to the Southern people.

If we consider the poems from this last point of view, they serve to suggest the principal events of the war in rapid review. The gauntlet was thrown down in the poems hitherto cited and also in Tucker's The Southern Cross, Miles's God save the South, Randall's Battle Cry of the South, Mrs. Warfield's Chant of Defiance, Thompson's Coercion, and Hope's Oath of freedom. Among the group of Virginia poets who wrote of the early battles on Virginia soil, John R. Thompson (1822-73) and Mrs. Preston (1820-97) stand out as the most conspicuous. Of distinctly higher quality than the crude rhymes already referred to were Thompson's humorous poems on some of the early Southern victories. His On to Richmond, modelled on Southey's March to Moscow, is an exceedingly clever poem. His mastery of double and triple rhymes, his unfailing sense of the value of words, and his happy use of the refrain (‘the pleasant excursion to Richmond’) make this poem one of the marked achievements of the period. Scarcely less successful in their brilliant satire are his Farewell to Pope, England's Neutrality, and The Devil's delight.

The humour of these poems soon gave way, however, to the more heroic and tragic aspects of the war. Thompson himself wrote dirges for Ashby and Latane, both of them the finest [306] types of Virginia gentlemen. Mrs. Preston wrote a still more beautiful tribute to Ashby, in which she expresses one of the favourite ideas of the South—that the struggle was between the cavaliers and men of low breeding. The tragic aspects of Virginia and the heroism of her people were visualized also by a Georgia poet, Francis O. Ticknor (1822-74), whose wife was one of the distinguished Nelsons of the Old Dominion. His Our left is the most vivid account of the second battle of Manassas. Virginia is the best tribute we have to the commonwealth that bore the brunt of the struggle. The more popular Virginians of the Valley suggests the most romantic story of early years and adds that the same spirit pervades their descendants:

We thought they slept! the men who kept
The names of noble sires,
And slumbered, while the darkness crept
Around their vigil fires!
But aye! the golden horse-shoe Knights
Their Old Dominion keep,
Whose foes have found enchanted ground,
But not a Knight asleep.

One phase of the struggle ends with Lee's whole army crossing the Potomac into Maryland—an event celebrated by Hayne in his Beyond the Potomac. Then the fighting changed to the West, and we have Thompson's poem on Joseph E. Johnston in which he exhorts the West to emulate Virginia in its struggle for freedom. Requier's Clouds in the West is followed by Flash's tribute to Zollicoffer, Ticknor's poem on Albert Sidney Johnston, Hayne's The Swamp Fox—a spirited characterization of Morgan, who seems to the poet a reincarnation of the South Carolina Revolutionary patriot Marion. Connected also with the battles of the West were Ticknor's Loyal and Little Giffen of Tennessee—the latter based on a story of real life and a striking illustration of the heroism with which the sons of the masses threw themselves into the Southern struggle. This poem, so dramatic in its quality, so concise in its expression, so vital in its phrasing, is destined to outlive all the tributes to the great leaders of the Confederacy. Mrs. Preston's Only a private and Mrs. Townsend's The Georgia [307] Volunteer and the anonymous Barefooted boys are poems of the same general tenor, but they lack the freshness and the vigour of Ticknor's poem.

With the publication of Hayne's poems on Vicksburg and the battle of New Orleans, the scene shifts again to Virginia, and especially to the dramatic death of Stonewall Jackson after some of the fiercest battles of the war. This event more than any other pierced the heart of the South and called forth scores of poems from all sections. One of the early collectors claimed to have found forty-eight of these; at least four or five rise to a high level of expression. No other poem gives anything like so adequate an expression of Jackson—his personal appearance, his religious faith, his impressive commands, his almost magical control of his men—as Stonewall Jackson's way by John Williamson Palmer (1825-1906). Excellent also are Margaret J. Preston's Stonewall Jackson's grave and Under the shade of the trees, Flash's Death of Stonewall Jackson, Randall's The Lone Sentry, and the anonymous The brigade must not know, Sir.

In 1863 Charleston was attacked by the Northern fleet and her group of devoted poets gathered about her in suspense. Timrod described the dawn of the eventful day as the city in the broad sunlight of heroic deeds waited for the foe. The hostile smoke of the enemy's fleet ‘creeps like a harmless mist above the brine.’ He knows not what will happen—the triumph or the tomb. With his Carmen Triumphale he sings the rapturous joy of the victory. Paul Hamilton Hayne sang a nobler song of victory, giving the details of the battle, ending in the triumphant victory of Sumter's volleyed lightning, and closing with an apostrophe to his native city:

O glorious Empress of the main, from out thy storied spires
Thou well mayst peal thy bells of joy and light thy festal fires,—
Since Heaven this day hath striven for thee, hath nerved thy dauntless sons,
And thou in clear-eyed faith hast seen God's angels near the guns.

This victory was short-lived, however, for on 27 August, by a land attack, Fort Sumter was reduced to a shapeless mass of ruin, though the city itself stood unshaken. As the fate of the city became more and more uncertain, William Gilmore [308] Simms, now in his old age, did all in his power to rouse the Spirit of the inhabitants. In a series of poems, Do Ye Quail? The Angel of the Church, and Our city by the sea, he presents in passionate words the claims of the historic city upon its inhabitants. Especially vivid is his plea for St. Michael's church, whose spire for full a hundred years had been a people's point of light, and the sweet, clear music of whose bells, made liquid-soft in Southern air, had been a benediction in the life of the city.

But the words of her poets could not avail the doomed city when, in 1865, Sherman's army marched north from Savannah. Timrod, now a citizen of Columbia, wrote his greatest lyric, Carolina, which comes nearest to My Maryland of all the poems of the war in its indignation and power. He reproaches the idle hands and craven calm of the inhabitants, but calls upon the descendants of Rutledge, Laurens, and Marion to rouse themselves against the despot who treads their sacred sands. The answer to this appeal was the burning of Columbia. Hayne and John Dickson Bruns still had hope that Charleston might escape the doom. As Timrod from Charleston had given to the world the first expression of the new nation's hope, so his friend and fellow townsman, Dr. Bruns, was to utter the last appeal for Charleston in his The foe at the Gates. There is nothing more tragic in the Civil War than the fall of Charleston—the proud, passionate, and romantic city that had issued her challenge to the South to join her in the conflict with the North. In her last despairing cry the poet calls upon her children to ring round her and catch one last glance from her imploring eye:

From all her fanes let solemn bells be tolled;
Heap with kind hands her costly funeral pyre,
And thus, with paean sung and anthem rolled,
Give her unspotted to the God of Fire.

The fall of Charleston was the beginning of the end. Various poems on Lee, notably Ticknor's Lee, Thompson's Lee to the Rear, and the anonymous Silent March, suggest the last battles in Virginia. The dominant note of the later poetry is that of melancholy, now and then tempered by a sort of pathetic longing for peace. Eggleston tells us that the most [309] popular poem on both sides came to be C. C. Sawyer's When This Cruel War Is Over.8 The sentiment of the poem is echoed in poems on peace by George Herbert Sass, Ticknor, Bruns, and Timrod. Very different from the concluding lines of the Cotton boll is Timrod's pathetic yearning for peace, in the poem entitled Christmas:

Peace in the quiet dales,
Made rankly fertile by the blood of men,
Peace in the woodland, and the lonely glen,
Peace, in the peopled vales!

Peace on the whirring marts,
Peace where the scholar thinks, the hunter roams,
Peace, God of Peace! peace, peace, in all our homes,
And peace in all our hearts!

When peace came, the defeat of the South, its unconquerable loyalty to the lost cause, and its sad resignation at the inevitable found expression in Mrs. Preston's Acceptation, Requier's Ashes of glory, Flash's The Confederate flag, and, above all, Father Ryan's The sword of Robert Lee and The conquered Banner. Not until the end of the war did the last-named poet suddenly flash forth as the most popular of all Southern poets. The conquered Banner was written under somewhat the same circumstance as My Maryland—written in less than an hour as he brooded over the thought of the dead soldiers and the lost cause. He wrote other poems, chiefly religious, but none that has ever stirred the hearts of the people like these two written in the shadow of defeat.

Somewhat different in tone and spirit is The land where we were dreaming, by Daniel B. Lucas. Written and first printed in Montreal, whither the author had fled at the end of the war, it is a striking expression of a Southerner's awakening from the illusions which had so long dominated the thought of the people. There is the same loyalty to the leaders and the principles of the South, but a glimpse of reality that augured a readjustment for the future.

Two years after the war, Timrod, suffering from tuberculosis and the direst poverty, wrote his greatest poem, the Ode [310] Sung on the Occasion of Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead at Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston, S. C., 1867. The poem is a fit ending to any consideration of Southern War Poetry, for it is the last word to be said of those who died and of those who would honour their memory.


Sleep sweetly in your humble graves,
Sleep, martyrs of a fallen cause;
Though yet no marble column craves
The pilgrim here to pause.


In seeds of laurel in the earth
The blossom of your fame is blown,
And somewhere, waiting for its birth,
The shaft is in the stone!


Meanwhile, behalf the tardy years
Which keep in trust your storied tombs,
Behold! your sisters bring their tears
And these memorial blooms.


Small tributes! but your shades will smile
More proudly on these wreaths to-day,
Than when some cannon-moulded pile
Shall overlook this bay.


Stoop, angels, hither from the skies!
There is no holier spot of ground
Than where defeated valor lies,
By mourning beauty crowned!

The question inevitably arises as to how these poets developed after the Civil War. One would naturally suppose that many of the younger ones especially would grow in power and influence. But all the causes generally assigned for the lack of poetry in the ante-bellum South prevailed in the new [311] era; and thereto were added poverty, widespread disaster, and an overwhelming confusion in the public mind. Lanier tersely expressed the chief limitation under which the writer laboured when he wrote to Bayard Taylor: ‘Perhaps you know that with us of the younger generation of the South since the war, pretty much the whole of life has been merely not dying.’ Simms wrote to Hayne just before his death in 1870: ‘I am rapidly passing from a stage where you young men are to succeed me,’ and inscribed for his tombstone the poignant words: ‘Here lies one who, after a reasonably long life, distinguished chiefly by unceasing labours, has left all his better works undone.’ Meek, O'Hara, John R. Thompson, and Henry Timrod were all dead by 1875. Randall spent many years in the drudgery of a newspaper office, never recapturing the first fine careless rapture of his great song. Ticknor and Bruns followed with devotion the life of a doctor, while McCabe became one of the best-known schoolmasters of Virginia—a position which seemed to deaden his poetic inspiration, though he remained an inimitable raconteur, and the friend of some of the most gifted poets of England and America. Mrs. Preston continued to write as late as 1887, when she published Colonial ballads, but she added nothing to her fame. Flash became a merchant and lived for many years in the Far West.

Paul Hamilton Hayne alone made progress after the war. With magnificent courage and faith, after the destruction of his city and his home, he moved to a small cabin of his own building in the pine barrens near Augusta, Georgia. Here on a writing desk made out of a carpenter's work-bench he wrote poems for the remainder of his life. To Mrs. Preston he wrote: ‘No, no! By my brain—my literary craft—I will win my bread and water; by my poems I will live or I will starve.’ In 1872 he brought out a volume of Legends and lyrics; in 1875 The Mountain of the lovers and other poems; and in 1882, a complete edition of his poems. Two or three of his best poems were written in his last years, notably A Little While I Fain Would Linger Yet, and In Harbor. While Hayne did not strike a deeply original note, he cultivated faithfully the talents with which he was endowed. His best poems are characterized by delicacy of feeling, conscientious workmanship, and a certain assimilation of the best qualities of other poets. His magnanimous [312] spirit after the war, as revealed in his tributes to Whittier and Longfellow, his revelation of the picturesqueness of the Southern landscapes and especially of the pine forests of Georgia, are the substantial features of his poetry. As a connecting link between Simms and Lanier he has a permanent place in the literary history of the South.

1 See Book II, Chap. XIV.

2 See Bibliography

3 See also Book III, Chap. IV.

4 See also Book II, Chap. VII.

5 See Book III, Chap. IV.

6 See also Book II, Chap. VII.

7 Now by some ascribed to Thaddeus Oliver (1826-64).

8 See Book III, Chap. II

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