Through the Eyes of the Poet: Living Voices of the Civil War

"Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history." - Plato, Ion

The poetry of the Civil War captures the conflicted experiences of a divided nation like no other written account can. The vitality of sound and space that a well-constructed poem evokes transports the reader directly to a specific battlefield or war-torn home, allowing even the modern reader to experience the war from a personal perspective.

These poems stand in memoriam of the thousands of would-be silent stories and common experiences of all those affected by war. Further, they connect the desolate photographs and drawing of the divided nation to the personal experiences of the soldiers, officers, and their families.

Clara Barton, Walt Whitman, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow all make appearances in A Civil War Christmas. Their unique, personal perspectives on the situation deepen our understandings of the Civil War because they represent several groups of people that we don't always consider in our study of history.

Barton and Whitman performed influential duties both on the field and off, volunteering their time to consol the injured and nurse the sick. Longfellow spent the early part of the 1860s in a state of great confusion as he reflected on national disunity and personal grief.

All three of these individuals left behind poems that capture the conflicting feelings of hope/despair and isolation/unity that characterize a war-torn nation. Their poems allude to disturbance of peace and stability as hundreds of thousands of soldiers struggle for a liberated nation.

Though Henry Wadsworth Longfellow sought liberation for all people, he was troubled by the Civil War's destructive influence on the country. The 1860s proved to be a particularly stressful period of time for the poet, not only because of the divided nation, but also because Longfellow suffered a series of personal tragedies during the decade.

In 1861, Longfellow lost his beloved wife, Frances "Fanny" Appleton to a fire. The following year, his oldest son, Charles, became a lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac, despite his father's reservations that he join up. In 1863, Charles was severely wounded by a bullet that passed under his shoulder blades, removing one of his spinal processes.

Longfellow diligently kept a journal through this period that reflects a deep sense of grief and torment, particularly around the holidays. On his first Christmas without Fanny, Longfellow wrote, "How inexpressibly sad are all holidays."

He was still grieving the following Christmas, when he wrote, "A merry Christmas say the children, but that is no more for me." On Christmas Day 1864, Longfellow composed the seven-stanza poem "Christmas Bells" to reflect the mixture of grief over his family, the state of the country, and the importance of God in his life.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!"

This poem later provided the lyrics to the popular Christmas hymn "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," though the stanzas that reference the war directly are omitted in the hymn.

Clara Barton preferred to work on her own in the fields, despite resistance from the government-sanctioned health organizations. She founded hospitals and care centers, brought small gifts and words of comfort to the soldiers, and proved that women could do more than sit at home and mourn during this time of conflict.

After all of her experiences (including the identification of over 20,000 bodies at the end of the war), Barton composed a poem in honor of all the women who helped on the front lines. Below is an excerpt from "The Women Who Went to the Field."


The women who went to the field, you say,
The women who went to the field; and pray,
What did they go for? - just to be in the way? -
They'd not know the difference betwixt work and play,
What did they know about war, anyway?
What could they do? - of what use could they be?
They would scream at the sight of a gun, don't you see?
Just fancy them 'round where the bugle notes play,
And the long roll is bidding us on to the fray.
Imagine their skirts 'mong artillery wheels,
And watch for their flutter as they flee 'cross the fields
When the charge is rammed home and the fire belches hot; -
They never will wait for the answering shot.
They would faint at the first drop of blood, in their sight.
What fun for us boys, - (ere we enter the fight;)
They might pick some lint, and tear up some sheets,
And make us some jellies, and send on their sweets,
And knit some soft socks for Uncle Sam's shoes,
And write us some letters, and tell us the news.
And thus it was settled by common consent,
That husbands, or brothers, or whoever went,
That the place for the women was in their own homes,
There to patiently wait until victory comes.
But later, it chanced, just how no one knew,
That the lines slipped a bit, and some 'gan to crowd through;
And they went, - where did they go? - Ah; where did they not?
Show us the battle, - the field, - or the spot
Where the groans of the wounded rang out on the air
That her ear caught it not, and her hand was not there,
Who wiped the death sweat from the cold clammy brow,
And sent home the message; - "'Tis well with him now"?
Who watched in the tents, whilst the fever fires burned,
And the pain-tossing limbs in agony turned,
And wet the parched tongue, calmed delirium's strife
Till the dying lips murmured, "My Mother," "My Wife"!
The women of question; what did they go for?
Because in their hearts God had planted the seed
Of pity for woe, and help for its need;
They saw, in high purpose, a duty to do,
And the armor of right broke the barriers through.
Uninvited, unaided, unsanctioned ofttimes,
With pass, or without it, they pressed on the lines;
They pressed, they implored, till they ran the lines through,
And this was the "running" the men saw them do.
And what would they do if war came again?
The scarlet cross floats where all was blank then.
They would bind on their "brassards" and march to the fray,
And the man liveth not who could say to them nay;
They would stand with you now, as they stood with you then,
The nurses, consolers, and saviors of men.

— by Noelle Goodman-Morris, Long Wharf Theatre

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