- The Washington Times - Friday, May 4, 2007

Chaplains have long accompanied troops into battle. Writers and poets, too, have witnessed war, leaving a legacy of words. Few, however, combined a religious calling with a writer’s insight. One who did was Abram Joseph Ryan, known as the poet-priest of the Confederacy.

Born in Hagerstown, Md., in 1838 to Irish immigrant parents, Ryan’s family moved to St. Louis, Mo., where he attended the Christian Brothers School. As a young man, he studied for the Roman Catholic priesthood at upstate New York’s Niagara University and then Our Lady of Angels Seminary. He was ordained a Vincentian priest on Nov. 1, 1856.

Ryan returned to Niagara as a teacher of theology, but soon moved to the diocesan seminary in Cape Girardeau, Mo., where he also taught theology. It was from there that he enlisted as a chaplain in the Confederate army in 1862.

A question arises here about his choice to defend the South, since he was born in one border state and grew up in another, both of which remained in the Union, despite much sympathy for the Confederacy. But Ryan felt deeply that he was a true Southerner and so was committed to its survival. He served as a chaplain for the Confederacy in Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia, giving succor to the wounded and last rites to the dead on both sides.

It was during the war, too, that he was inspired to put his feelings into words, especially after a younger brother died in battle in Kentucky. Appropriately, he titled these first pieces “In Memoriam” and “In Memory of My Brother.”

When the war ended, Ryan remained in the South, serving in parishes in Tennessee, Mississippi and Georgia. His most famous poem, “The Conquered Banner,” appeared in the Freeman’s Journal on May 19, 1866, 13 months after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. It struck straight at the heart of the defeated South, whose people quickly adopted it as a rallying cry. In Georgia, he established “The Banner of the South,” a weekly religious, political and literary magazine that eventually contained most of his poetry. Additionally, he published “Father Ryan’s Poems” and “A Crown for Our Queen.”

Because of his emotional and poignant writing style, his crusades to aid the sick and the dying, and his religious dedication, Ryan’s fame grew throughout the South and beyond. In addition to his priestly duties, he was called upon as an orator and earned a reputation as one who would help in time of trouble.

He worked tirelessly during the yellow fever epidemic in Memphis and other Southern cities in the 1870s. His unrelenting crusade combined with pressure from other Southern leaders eventually led to aid from the Federal government that helped bring the epidemic to an end.

In 1880, Ryan retired to St. Mary’s Parish in Mobile, Ala. There he continued to write and speak, never apologizing for his undying defense of the South during the war. Even though he opposed slavery, his poetry continued to memorialize the people who went out to defend their native land against what they considered an invasion. Among those poems were “C.S.A.,” “The Sword of Robert E. Lee” and “The South.” He spent December of that year at Loyola College in Baltimore, where he lectured and published his “Poems: Patriotic, Religious, and Miscellaneous.”

Much of his later writing aimed to heal the breach between North and South. One unpublished poem written a few years before he died was a “Requiem Chant to the Federal Dead,” in which he asked that all hatreds end between the Blue and the Gray.

In 1886, at only 48 years of age, Ryan died suddenly at a Franciscan monastery in Louisville, Ky. His body was returned for burial to St. Mary’s in Mobile. In his honor, a stained glass window, inscribed with his most famous poem, “The Unconquered Banner,” was later placed in the Confederate Memorial Hall in New Orleans. It is by no means the only memorial dedicated to the “Poet Laureate of the South.”

A memorial plaque in his honor was erected at one of his former parishes in Knoxville, Tenn. The Roman Catholic high school in Nashville, a private college preparatory school with an enrollment of some 1,000 students, proudly carries the name of Father Ryan High School. It was dedicated in September 1929 to the Confederate chaplain known not only for his compassion for the injured but also for his literary contribution in poetry.

In 1993, the Sons of Confederate Veterans in El Cajon, Calif., organized the Father Abram Joseph Ryan-San Diego Camp 302. The 302 is the resurrected number of the old Robert E. Lee camp active during the 1920s in San Diego.

Ryan’s home in Gulfport, Miss., became a state historical landmark. His final parish in Mobile, where he was buried, erected a life-sized statue of him “to honor his service as a priest, a citizen, and a patriot.”

Although ranked today as a minor poet, Ryan’s words echo down the long hallways of nostalgia for a time today’s Southerners know only from history books.

THE CONQUERED BANNER

by Abram Joseph Ryan

(1838-1886)

Furl that Banner, for ‘tis weary;

Round its staff ‘tis drooping dreary;

Furl it, fold it, it is best;

For there’s not a man to wave it,

And there’s not a sword to save it,

And there’s no one left to lave it

In the blood that heroes gave it;

And its foes now scorn and brave it;

Furl it, hide it — let it rest!

Take that banner down! ‘tis tattered;

Broken is its shaft and shattered;

And the valiant hosts are scattered

Over whom it floated high.

Oh! ‘tis hard for us to fold it;

Hard to think there’s none to hold it;

Hard that those who once unrolled it

Now must furl it with a sigh.

Furl that banner! furl it sadly!

Once ten thousands hailed it gladly.

And ten thousands wildly, madly,

Swore it should forever wave;

Swore that foeman’s sword should never

Hearts like theirs entwined dissever,

Till that flag should float forever

O’er their freedom or their grave!

Furl it! for the hands that grasped it,

And the hearts that fondly clasped it,

Cold and dead are lying low;

And that Banner — it is trailing!

While around it sounds the wailing

Of its people in their woe.

For, though conquered, they adore it!

Love the cold, dead hands that bore it!

Weep for those who fell before it!

Pardon those who trailed and tore it!

But, oh! wildly they deplored it!

Now who furl and fold it so.

Furl that Banner! True, ‘tis gory,

Yet ‘tis wreathed around with glory,

And ‘twill live in song and story,

Though its folds are in the dust;

For its fame on brightest pages,

Penned by poets and by sages,

Shall go sounding down the ages —

Furl its folds though now we must.

Furl that banner, softly, slowly!

Treat it gently — it isholy —

For it droops above the dead.

Touch it not — unfold it never,

Let it droop there, furled forever,

For its people’s hopes are dead!

Joanne E. Dumene is a freelance writer from Fairfax County.

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