- The Washington Times - Friday, May 23, 2003

Who would dare suggest that the Civil War inspired few songs with themes that rose above mediocrity or that most of the poetry about the war lacked merit? That person would point to too much passion and too little artistry in either lyric or poem, Northern or Southern viewpoint.

Exceptions were songs with distinctive qualities that were right for their time. Julia Ward Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (Northern) and James Ryder Randall’s “Maryland! My Maryland!” (Southern) rang with sincere patriotic fervor, were well-written and still can strike a responsive chord. Ethel Lynn Beers’ “The Picket-Guard,” which is best-known as John Hill Hewitt’s song “All Quiet Along the Potomac Tonight,” expresses no partisan opinions, conveying instead its author’s distress at war’s wastage of human lives.

These are classics of their period, but too many wartime ballads ranged from maudlin sentimentality to unrestrained saber-rattling.

As for poetry, who now reads Charles Dawson Shanly’s “Civil War,” Benjamin Sledd’s “Between Battles” or William Gordon McCabe’s “Dreaming in the Trenches”? Only poetry lovers who are drawn to the byways of literature. Walt Whitman is read, but he learned of war firsthand, and the quality of his writing ensures that he will not fade into oblivion.

Two major poetic works on the Civil War, both sympathetic to the North, emerged after the war. Stephen Vincent Benet’s “John Brown’s Body” was published in 1928, and Herman Melville’s “Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War,” which appeared in 1866, was republished in 2000.

Melville (1819-1891) had made himself unforgettable with “Moby-Dick” (1851) and had written “Typee” (1846), and “Billy Budd.” The latter was doomed to languish unpublished until 1924 and then was transformed in 1950 as the basis of an opera by the distinguished British composer Benjamin Britten.

Son of a New York merchant who went bankrupt in 1832, Melville sailed as cabin boy on the Highlander in 1839, bound for Liverpool. In 1841, he was aboard the whaler Acushnet, an experience that proved useful when he wrote “Moby-Dick.” The whaler took him to the Marquesas Islands, where he jumped ship to live with the natives, which undoubtedly inspired “Typee.” His career languished after the publication of Moby-Dick in 1851, but Melville is now recognized as among America’s greatest writers.

Melville’s “Battle-Pieces” is an oddity, a lengthy series of mostly short poems inspired by Civil War incidents or personalities, in a style Edmund Wilson described (in “Patriotic Gore” ) as “knotted and jolted.” The very long, and perhaps tedious “The Scout Towards Aldie” was inspired by a visit in April 1864 to see a cousin in Virginia who was serving with the Army of the Potomac. This dramatic poem tells of an unsuccessful attempt to capture John Singleton Mosby, whom Melville clearly did not admire.

He did have some respect, however, for one of the South’s greatest generals. In “Stonewall Jackson” can be found the lines, “In all his great soul found to do / Stonewall followed his star.” Lovers of Civil War poetry certainly should seek this out, to be read with an uncritical mind.

Benet’s “John Brown’s Body” is a minor classic and easy enough to read, in part because the format varies, and one need not admire Brown to enjoy it. It is a kaleidoscopic review of the war, idiosyncratic but never wearisome, and won for its author the Pulitzer Prize.

Benet (1898-1943) was born in Bethlehem, Pa., and attended Yale and the Sorbonne. Successful as a poet, novelist and short-story writer, he created some delightful verse, including “The Ballad of William Sycamore,” about a Western pioneer, and “The Mountain Whippoorwill,” which tells how a young man won a fiddling contest (both 1925).His superb short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1937) was dramatized.

A wealth of Civil War poetry and songs, good, bad and indifferent, can be found, and whatever the merits or lack of them, all are part of the Civil War’s history and as such are of interest.

Peter Cliffe is a retired administrator for a multinational company who writes from Hertfordshire, England. He became a student of the Civil War while working here.


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