Who among us has not heard the age-honored phrase “The pen is mightier than the sword?” Throughout the United States, April is designated as National Poetry Month. Across the Gettysburg battlefield, as one reads the casualty statistics on the various monuments, it is easy to find indicators reminding us of the power of the sword. Harder to uncover, yet still powerfully present, if one knows where to look, remain the opinions, insights, and beliefs of the generation that fought the battle, and those Victorian-Americans who dedicated monuments to those soldiers in the postwar period. Carefully fashioned in poetic verse, these creations, either encountered on the monuments themselves or, more commonly, presented as part of a dedication ceremony, add a deeper depth and texture – the power of the word - to the meaning of this special place. That certainly was the intention of their various contributors.
In 1866, the Southern poet William Gilmore Simms published War Poetry of the South. In the preface to his work he noted a basic, non-partisan truth regarding the value of historical poetry. Simms observed,
“The emotional literature of a people is as necessary to the philosophical historian as the mere details of events in the progress of a nation… The mere facts in a history do not always, or often, indicate the true animus, of the action. But, in poetry… the emotional nature is apt to declare itself without reserve–speaking out with a passion which disdains subterfuge, and through media of imagination and fancy, which …glows or weeps with emotions that gush freely and freshly from the heart.”
The same truth might well have come from Oliver Wendell Holmes or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, men possessed of entirely different political temperaments. It was the essential truth of the statement itself that makes the study of this poetry so necessary to a richer and more complete understanding of this complex period.
Following the battle, Gettysburg bred its own memorable brand of commemorative works, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address pre-eminent among them. Often described as “poetry in prose form,” Lincoln, a poet himself, utilized poetic techniques, particularly repetition, to reinforce larger meanings behind his words. His choice of terms, and their precise placement to his living audience that day, is significant. For example, Lincoln’s use of the term “people” in his closing line – “of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” is designed to strongly reinforce his ideas about equality, democracy, and the indissolubility of the Union. As he spoke to a living audience, not merely writing for posterity, his choice of words was precise and specific. Referring to the memory of the battlefield, he noted,“[W]e can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow – this ground,” acknowledging the sacrifice of the Union soldiers at this place was paramount above all ceremony.
To accentuate this point, Lincoln employed the art of contrast. “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” Indeed, the country did not forget – battle losses remained heavy throughout the remainder of the war, and the memory of these sacrifices was preserved [and enshrined] during the post-war generations. Memorial poetry of all types flourished. Iconic Gettysburg examples included:
Edmund Clarence Stedman’s Gettysburg – 1871 (“They yield, they turn, they fly the field: we smite them as they run;/ Their arms, their colors are our spoil; the furious fight is done!/ Across the plain we follow far and backward push the fray:/ Cheer! cheer! the grand old Army at last has won the day!”) and Will Henry Thompson’s The High Tide at Gettysburg – 1888 (“A thousand fell where Kemper led/ A thousand died where Garnett bled.”)
Soon afterwards, monumentation began to appear on the battlefields, including, of course, at Gettysburg. At their various dedication ceremonies, it was quite common to have a “poetic contribution” of some sort given; some grand, some not-so-grand, but all heartfelt recognitions of the bravery and sacrifices endured by the men for whom their monuments were intended.
These verses of poetry are much more than mere patriotic rhymings, however. Often, they harken back to the ancient, Biblical tradition of a poet crafting a “victory song” following a great battle – in some cases, for the glory of a very specific unit. Consider the case of the dedication of the 120th New York monument, a regiment of General Daniel Sickles’ ill-fated corps. [3rd Corps, 2nd Brig., 2nd Division.] As the pressure of the Confederate attack began to mount on the afternoon of July 2nd, and the regiments of the “Excelsior” Brigade began to move forward to engage General William Barksdale’s Mississippians, the One-hundred and twentieth likewise did so, offering what resistance it possessed to the Southern advance. Positioned in the reserve line, the men were treated to the discomfiting sight of a disaster in the making. Reported Capt. Abram Lockwood of the regiment,
“Our brigade was ordered to a position in the left center, to support the First Division (Birney’s) of our corps, and in doing so we advanced across an open field, exposed to a terrific and murderous artillery fire from the enemy, which was kept up without cessation during the rest of the day…The enemy at last broke the first line, and we advanced to meet him.”
Major-General George H. Sharpe, delivering the dedicatory address, clarified the moment. “[Gen.]Doubleday says that that when [Gen.] Birney assumed command of the Third Corps, after the wounding of Sickles, he ordered Humphreys to move his left wing back…and that he (Humphreys) was obliged, while executing the difficult maneuver of a change of front to the rear, to contend with Barksdale’s Brigade; and Humphreys was there, in the rear of our regiment and with ours only.”
This determined stand, which slowed the Confederate advance towards Cemetery Ridge, cost the 120th the highest number of casualties in the 2nd Brigade (203 men, out of a total of some 427.) It was recalled, on a dreary June day in 1889, with justifiable pride, as the survivors of the regiment gathered in Gettysburg to dedicate their memorial. As a part of that ceremony, a six-stanza poem, “The Men Who Held the Line,” was read. A portion (v. 1,6) appears below.
Right brave the clash of the Calvary’s dash,
As it sweeps o’er hill and plain,
While bugles sing, and banner fling
Their smiles to the glorious slain;
With footsteps solemn the serried column
May grandly cross the field,
While red gaps made by the ball’s round blade,
By heroes are swiftly healed;
The charge’s story is full of glory,
In history-wreaths to shine;
But bravest of all, we still must call
The men who hold the line!
The battle is done; the smoke-veiled sun
Creeps low to a misty west;
Fair Victory’s crown sweeps grandly down
On those who have fought the best.
Once the tide of the foeman’s pride
Is rolled, like a torrent, back;
Rebellion’s way, from this very day,
Will creep on a downward track.
Lift proud the head – O living and Dead!
Ye have compassed Heaven’s design!
In every zone you shall e’er be known
As the men who held the line!
- Will Carleton, 1845 -1912
Unfortunately, poetry of this sort, and the broader images it once inspired, is no longer a portion of the popular literary landscape. A once widely-shared appreciation of our poetic culture is now nearly lost. On the battlefield, there are approximately 1,300 monuments. A handful actually boast portions of poems upon them (for a variety of reasons;) many more, like the 120th N.Y., had an independent dedication ceremony; a goodly number of these were attended by the reading of a “Dedicatory Poem.” They need only be rediscovered to enhance our understanding of who we as a people have been, and may yet aspire to be. As such, they are a part of our shared literary and cultural heritage.
Bert Barnett, Park Ranger