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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Ode to Civil War soldiers

On the heels of the poem by Walt Whitman entitled The Artilleryman's Vision, I'd like to share two additional poems from the Civil War era that I came across while reading The Columbia Book of Civil War Poetry: From Whitman to Walcott edited by Richard Marius.

The first, All Quiet along the Potomac Tonight, reminded me of the hand-written description by Thomas Cowey of he and his brother's own time spent at the Potomac River during the year 1861.
All Quiet on the Potomac Tonight
by Thaddeus Oliver

"All quiet along the Potomac to-night,"
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-fires, are gleaming.

A tremulous sigh, as the gentle night-wind
Through the forest leaves slowly is creeping,
While the stars up above, with their glittering eyes,
Keep guard--for the army is sleeping.

There is only the sound of the lone sentry's tread,
As he tramps from the rock to the fountain,
And thinks of the two on 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 his children asleep--
For their mother, may Heaven defend her!

The moon seems to shine as brightly as then,
That night, when the love yet unspoken
Leaped up to his lips, and when low-murmered 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 close 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 shades of the forest so dreary.

Hark! was it the night-wind that rustled the leaves?
Was it the moonlight so wondrously flashing?
It looked like a rifle--ah! Mary, good-bye!
And the life-blood is ebbing and splashing!

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!

If my great-great-grandfather had met the same fate as the private in the poem, I would not be here today nor would hundreds of his other descendants.

The second poem, Ode, was first sung while decorating graves of Confederate soldiers in South Carolina in 1867:

by Henry Timrod

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 garlands of your fame are sown,
And somewhere, waiting for its birth,
The shaft is in the stone!

Meanwhile, your sisters for the years
Which hold in trust your storied tombs,
Bring all they now can give—tears,
And these memorial blooms.

Small tributes! but your shades will smile
As proudly on these wreaths today,
Than when some cannon-molded 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!

For more poetry and song lyrics from the Civil War Era, you might enjoy Rick Hearn's Civil War Poetry website.

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