As far as popular literature is concerned, the discussion of Civil War poetry often begins and ends with Walt Whitman. Other poetry of the time has often been deemed by modern audiences as mediocre and mere propaganda. The poetry of Civil War soldiers and civilians, however, held a greater purpose than the amusement of future generations.
A week before the Battle of Gettysburg, Franklin County, Pennsylvania resident Michael Hege had an unforgettable encounter with Confederate soldiers at his home. Hege composed a poem to record his experience. “On the 27th day of June,” he writes,
Between eight and nine on this very day,
Three rebels appeared in bright array;
They demanded our money, gave a frightful curse,
While I reluctantly produced my purse.
He goes on to detail his struggle with the Confederates. They tore him from his family, stole all they could and intended to kill him. Only by the grace of God, Hege believed, was he delivered from the incident when the robbers decided against the murder. By the end of his poem, Hege reveals its significance:
It is my intention to write this poem,
And may it never so be known,
That I did this just for name or fame,
But simply to relate what to us came.
Here the poet’s intentions are disclosed. The poem acts as a means to relate the events of the day. Hege does not need an audience to treasure his writing; he uses the poetic form to come to terms with the encounter. By putting his experience into writing, conscious of its form and sound, Hege uses the writing process to reflect on the experience and master it. The Civil War caused many civilians and soldiers to encounter such scenes that required such reflection.
For soldiers, near death experiences were common and the need to reflect was more valued. Mortality was a concept the Civil War soldier had to come to terms with. Poetry offered a way to reflect on mortality, not just through its composition, but also through its recitation. It was not unusual for soldiers to read poetry and copy their favorite poems in letters to loved ones. In a letter to his sister, Matthew Skinkle copied a poem aptly named “Mortality.” His letter reveals the importance of the exchange for both Skinkle and his sister: “In receiving the poetry which you [were] so kind as to [relay] and send to me, I received a great mental treat, for which I am very grateful, [a]nd as a slight effort to return the favor, I have [relayed] the beautiful and truthful lines above, which I hope you will accept from [your] affectionate brother.” The poem, written by William Knox, was partially transcribed above Skinkle’s correspondence. It focuses on the fleeting moments of life but with optimism for what occurs after death, a theme that Skinkle no doubt relished.
Poems also held a religious association. They acted much like prayers and hymns. Soldiers often wrote down their prayers and recited religious hymns. Poems combined the effects of both forms. The writing of a prayer was a way for the soldier to confer his thoughts and trepidations. The reciting of a hymn could bring those thoughts together through communication. George Washington Beidelman, a private in the 71st Pennsylvania, wrote poetry as a form of prayer. Through verse he resolves the anxiety caused by war:
Here let us pledge ourselves anew:
Ever to touch the cure of death;
Let what will come, we will be true
And faithful to our latest breath.
Beidelman resigns himself to the will of God. Through the poem’s form, he addresses his fear of mortality. Like the other men, he made sense of the uncertainties of war through developing his faith. The poem, thus, became a form to reflect on this faith.
Because poetry was a formal and accepted method for the expression of feelings, these men could display their emotions, their fears and their worries without being unmanned. It was also a way for them to personally cope with the anxieties of war. The act of composing or reading a poem helped them reflect on their emotions and to compose those emotions in a thoughtful way. Attention given to each line allowed the transcriber of the poem to write the words with intent, a way to tap into those emotions that may be suppressed by the hardships and uncertainties of war. The poem became a way for the individual to rectify his doubts by putting them across in a formal dialogue and setting them straight.
Beidelman, George Washington. “Opening Ode.” Poem. Gettysburg College, Musselman Library Special Collections and College Archives. MS-043, George Washington Beidelman Collection, Box 1, Folder 22.
Hege, Michael. “God’s Help in Trouble.” Poem. Translated by Harvey S. Reiff. Gettysburg College, Musselman Library Special Collections and College Archives. CW/VFM-40, Michael Hege.
Skinkle, Matthew to his sisters, undated. Gettysburg College, Musselman Library Special Collections and College Archives. CW/VFM-86, Matthew Skinkle.
Fahs, Alice. The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North and South, 1861-1865. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
Wilson, Edmund. Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.