Poetry and the American Civil War

[I’m currently taking a class about the American Civil War, a topic that, in Canada, isn’t even discussed in high schools. I’m ashamed to say that I knew virtually nothing about the Civil War prior to September. However, I’m glad to have fixed that problem and have been finding myself incredibly intrigued by the number of complexities associated with this war. This week I’ve been working on a paper about the role of poetry in the Civil War and have decided to share a bit of it with you this week as the topics explored in this paper fit within the spheres explored by this blog.]

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The role of literature in war is that of a shadowless leader. It’s presence is as paramount as it is subtle. Unlike the body, which is ultimately subject to decomposition, war literature offers a voice that lasts, one that reveals attitudes and ideologies crucial to understanding how individuals have interpreted wars throughout history. By analyzing writings that emerged during the American Civil War, it becomes clear that the war’s predominant causes, its effects on American society and feelings developed by American citizens towards the war could be discussed within a literary context. In many senses, the war effort worked its way from the hands of writers onto the page and acted as a goad for political change.

This paper will explore the impact of sentimentality in Civil War literature. Civil War poems not only provide an interesting historiography but were crucial instruments in shaping perceptions of the war. Discrepancies between Southern and Northern literature offers a glimpse into how sentimental literature was used propagandistically to further Union and Confederate efforts. During this era, citizens were exposed to poetry on a regular basis. Holding a less obscure position in society than it would today, poetry extended into the hearts and minds of American citizens. The poems introduced in this essay will therefore demonstrate how sentimentality often infused civil war poems with patriotic emotionalism.

While some critics dismiss civil war poetry as mere rumination, or, in the words of American writer Edmund Wilson, as “versified journalism,” countless poets writing during this era suffused their work with political importance. Northern writers like Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, or Herman Melville wrote voraciously in an attempt to end slavery or bolster unionist efforts. Likewise, poets such as Henry Timrod supported confederate efforts. Nevertheless, these works were highly sentimental and the era’s political polarity is therefore reflected in many of the era’s greatest poems. Meanwhile, I’d argue that tensions between the North and the South were uniquely distilled within the poetic genre.

Within the poetic genre, a wide range of poetic topics and modes of expression existed. Poems written by politicians, scholars and soldiers, as well as by women left behind may be categorized as poems belonging to the civil war genre. As a result, historians may study the links between emotionality and the Civil War, which in turn reveals key aspects about the relationships between the Civil War, the home front and the war front. To begin, this paper will analyze a series of poems, the first of which are unionist. In analyzing both unionist and confederate poems, a general commonality emerges. The commonality is one that likens unionist poems to confederate poems while simultaneously highlighting an important distinction. For the sake of this paper, confederate poems and unionist poems will be considered genres unto themselves. The aforementioned commonality is one that rests in the palm of nationalist ideology. Both unionists and confederates turned to poetry as a means to convey and discuss heroism, solidarity and American policy. As a sweeping generalization, the poets of the Confederacy and the poets of the Union might be considered “nationalist poets” and it is this “nationalism” that illuminates their commonality. By further analyzing their work one can note that this very commonality also divides them. The consideration of these poems makes clear that poets belonging to the civil war era viewed poetry as a medium worthy of conducting cultural and political conversations, conversations that would ultimately shape the nation’s future. Whether or not these poems were worthy of conducting cultural and political conversations may be debated. Their sentimentality is likely the result of a closeness to the war’s unfolding events. In For the Confederate and Union Dead: Reflections on Civil War Poetry, Henry Hart argues that the majority of poets only acquired the “distance and aesthetic skill to write about the war effectively” after several decades had passed. Hart further discusses the impact of time and distance by arguing that twentieth-century poets, in reflecting on the war, might attempt to “juxtapose the war’s grim realities with the mythical or naïve conceptions of fighting that perpetuate wars.” Upon analyzing Hart’s argument, one might note that poems produced during the war as opposed to after the war were highly “mythical” or “naïve.”

In an attempt to attribute one word to unionist poetry, one might consider the word “castigating.” The poems written by unionists admonish the South’s desire to secede and a common theme among these poems is that of betrayal. Southerners were typically portrayed as traitors. This theme is apparent in myriads of works. Consider the following excerpt from a poem titled That’s What’s the Matter by Stephen C. Foster:

“We live in hard and stirring times,

Too sad for mirth, too rough for rhymes;

For songs of peace have lost their chimes,

And that’s what’s the matter!

The men we held as brothers true

Have turned into a rebel crew;

So now we have to put them thro’,

And that’s what’s the matter!”

The sense of loss and betrayal in Foster’s work evokes immediate empathy by conjuring the familial, by depicting secession as a divorce that will destroy the American family. Lee Steinmetz, in discussing Northern writer F.O. Sayles, a poet who considered himself both a satirist and political and social critic, introduces Sayles as “a child of his time.” He further argues that Northerners were portrayed as embodying justice, while the South was depicted as responsible for the war. Sayles, Lee explains, found it “impossible to forget that the South has been guilty for the twin crimes Slavery and Rebellion.” The following is an excerpt from Sayles poem Follies of the Day, a Satire, in which Sayles laments Southern betrayal and glorifies Northern loyalty:

“The union of the States, which blood had bought,

To sunder, made Rebellion vainly sought.—

Its hellish enginery caused blood to flow,

And fill the land with mourning and with woe;—

It wasted treasure, and it slew the brave!

Yet, loyal patriots had power to save

The sacred bond, the adamantine chain,

Unbroken,—and the triumph will remain,

The proudest monument of ages past,

And, to the end of time, shall all its glory last.”

Sayles’ emphasis on “the sacred bond” and “loyal patriots” certainly radiates patriotic emotionalism. Meanwhile, one could argue that sweeping generalizations such as depicting the North as inherently loyal or the South’s “hellish enginery” as having caused “blood to flow” is propagandist as a result of its narrow consideration of the war’s origins. Writers, as proponents of Southern or Northern values, thus appealed to the people’s hearts by tailoring their poems’ language to reflect either Unionist or Confederate definitions of justice. Lee Steinmetz accurately describes the dramatic flair attributed to much of the era’s writing as “highly coloured diction.” The lack of realism infused within these works enabled sentimentalism to creep in and affect the tone of many such poems.

While many poems were written as direct attacks on the South, such as Union Dixie, in which the South was vilified as “the land of traitors, Rattlesnakes and Alligators,” other poems strayed from such vague generalizations to focus on identifying with the individual soldier. By focusing on the individual soldier, the poet could effectively articulate the atrocities of war. Henry Hart argues that poets tended to ruminate on the importance of family connection and accounts offered by soldiers were influenced by their biased affiliations. The notion of the “individual soldier” is perhaps best depicted in the work of Walt Whitman, since Whitman wrote based on his personal experiences (many other poets did too but none became as iconic as Whitman.) In 1862, Whitman traveled to Virginia to find his brother George, a Union soldier who’d been wounded in the Battle of Fredericksburg. Hart discusses Whitman’s collection of poems, Drum-Taps, by considering them to be Whitman’s “firsthand encounters with soldiers, which included dressing wounds, helping with amputations, and consoling the dying.” The focus on “consoling the dying” is also prominent in civil war poetry and may be considered in connection to the previously mentioned theme of “patriotic emotionalism.” Poems often attempt to console the dying soldier by extending commendation and associating their death with acts of valiance.

The focus on death, however, is a general trend that may not be an exclusive result of the war. One explanation for this is given by Lee Steinmetz. He describes a mid-nineteenth century tendency that involves writing obsessively about death. Death, he explains, was conceived as the most poetic of subjects “whether they were writing about war between Northerners and Southerners, war between the Flesh and the Spirit, or war between God and Satan for the souls of men.”

 

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[As mentioned, this is just an excerpt from a work in progress. The research thus far has proved quite interesting and as I carry on writing I plan to explore the differences between unionist and confederate poetry. Thank you for reading and if you have any questions please comment below and I’ll happily get back to you.]

Sources:

Steinmetz, Lee, James M. Lundberg, and Inc ebrary. 2013;2012;. The poetry of the american civil war. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.

Henry Hart. “For the Confederate and Union Dead: Reflections on Civil War Poetry.” Sewanee Review 121, no. 2 (2013): 205-224. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed March 12, 2017).

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