A Poet for the High Water Mark Dedication

Colonel John Badger Bachelder, known by many as “the government historian of the Battle of Gettysburg,” compiled voluminous correspondences with many of its participants. Among these letters is a curious one – a rejection from an elderly doctor to construct a poem for the dedication ceremony of the new “High Water Mark” monument. In his response to Col. Bachelder, dated March 2, 1892, the eminent physician and poet, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, rightly observed,

[T]he battle was fought by younger men than I was thirty years ago, and it must look for its poet in the ranks of those less advanced in years than I find myself…

Why would Col. Bachelder make this request of such an aged man? (Holmes was 83, in declining health, and would live but two more years.)  Perhaps it was the power of Holmes’ prolific pen, stretching across the years, that was familiar to the colonel.  In 1830, while

Oliver Wendell Holmes

just 21, Holmes had written “Old Ironsides,” a plea for the preservation of the U.S.S. Constitution, then set to be scrapped.  The work became one of the most well-remembered historical poems of the era.  Memorized by generations of New England schoolchildren, including the young Bachelder, it powerfully evoked the values of sacrifice and remembrance.  Thus, in 1892, it was natural for the colonel to seek assistance from a voice that had touched the same ideals as embodied in the new, “High Water Mark” monument to be dedicated on the Gettysburg battlefield.  Not far distant, the monument to the 12th New Hampshire, dedicated in 1888, actually contains a couplet from another of Holmes’ poems

Our Union is river, lake, ocean and sky;
Man breaks not the medal when God cuts the Die

reaffirming the indissoluble nature of the Union. Taken from Brother Jonathan to Sister Caroline, composed at the time of South Carolina’s secession, it reflected the good doctor’s take on the ultimate end of any conflict that might threaten the life of the nation.

As for Dr. Holmes’ recommendation to Col. Bachelder to seek a younger man, one may let history judge the result. On June 2nd1892, James J. Roche, a 45-year old Bostonian, read his poem, Gettysburg, at the dedication ceremony. In it, Roche acknowledged a qualified sectional reconciliation to be the mood of the moment, noting

They faltered not who stood that day
And held this post of dread;
Nor cowards they who wore the grey
Until the grey was red

High Water Mark Monument. Library of Congress

Yet Roche dared touch a theme not visible on the monument itself, as he referenced the“dead wrong” of slavery.

Here standing by a dead wrong’s grave
The blindest now may see,
The blow that liberates the slave
But sets the master free!

James Jeffrey Roche. The Magazine of Poetry, Vol. I, 1889.

The poet’s comment was apparently the only direct comment made on this issue that day, the focus of the events being commemorative speechifying. Today, if one studies the many monuments that adorn the battlefield, one will find other hidden stories for those willing to look beyond the landscape.

Bert Barnett, Park Ranger


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