A Call to Arms: Inciting the South with Poetry

By Jules Sippel ’18

Born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1828, Henry Timrod was the son of an amateur poet who passed the talent on to his son. The younger Timrod was classically educated at the University of Georgia, after which he studied law and finally served as a teacher and tutor back home in Charleston. Though he hadn’t published more than one volume’s worth of poetry before the Civil War, Henry would become the unofficial “poet laureate” of the Confederacy, known for his rousing, patriotic poems.

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Photo via Wikimedia commons: Illustrated from a book “Southern life in southern literature; selections of representative prose and poetry (c1917)” edited by Maurice Garland Fulton from https://archive.org/details/southernlife00fultrich.

Unlike many of his fellow war poets, Timrod was not a hardened soldier–in fact, his short enlistment ended almost immediately due to his poor health. However, his service as a correspondent meant that he bore witness to dramatic moments such as the Battle of Shiloh.

Initially, Timrod’s wartime poetry was overwhelmingly hopeful, not surprising in a nation that expected the war to soon be over. The moods of his works fluctuated with the world around him, however, and changed drastically as the war progressed.

By 1862, that dream of a fleeting war was long gone, replaced by soldiers and civilians on both sides already growing weary of battle. Both armies strove for perfection amid a general setting of chaos. As Buell and Halleck struggled to cooperate in the North, Grant, under Halleck, took Forts Henry and Donelson.

In the South, these losses were disheartening, low points from which the Confederacy would never truly rise. As morale fell, Timrod wrote a piece entitled “A Cry to Arms” that sought to call Carolinians and other Southerners to the cause.

“Ho! woodsmen of the mountain side!

Ho! dwellers in the vales!

Ho! ye who by the chafing tide

Have roughened in the gales!

Leave barn and byre, leave kin and cot.

Lay by the bloodless spade;

Let desk, and case, and counter rot.

And burn your books of trade.

The despot roves your fairest lands;

And till he flies or fears,

Your fields must grow but armed bands,

Your sheaves be sheaves of spears!

Give up to mildew and to rust

The useless tools of gain;

And feed your country’s sacred dust

With floods of crimson rain!

Come, with the weapons at your call —

With musket, pike, or knife;

He wields the deadliest blade of all

Who lightest holds his life.

The arm that drives its unbought blows

With all a patriot’s scorn,

Might brain a tyrant with a rose,

Or stab him with a thorn.

Does any falter? let him turn

To some brave maiden’s eyes,

And catch the holy fires that burn

In those sublunar skies.

Oh! could you like your women feel,

And in their spirit march,

A day might see your lines of steel

Beneath the victor’s arch.

What hope, O God! would not grow warm

When thoughts like these give cheer?

The Lily calmly braves the storm,

And shall the Palm-tree fear?

No! rather let its branches court

The rack that sweeps the plain;

And from the Lily’s regal port

Learn how to breast the strain!

Ho! woodsmen of the mountain side!

Ho! dwellers in the vales!

Ho! ye who by the roaring tide

Have roughened in the gales!

Come! flocking gayly to the fight,

From forest, hill, and lake;

We battle for our Country’s right,

And for the Lily’s sake!

This piece is unquestionably a cry to arms, but the beauty of it is the work put into the individual lines and verses.

Initially, Timrod is calling everyone–those in the mountains, those in the valleys, and those on the coast–to leave their farms, families, business, and homes.

With these images of hearth and home, the speaker switches to defending the nation of the Confederacy. “The despot,” a cruel, all-powerful ruler, is coming into the

South and until he is eradicated, those there must rise to maintain the “fairest lands.” To do so, they must put away their farming tools and spill the blood of the enemy.

As these citizen-soldiers take up arms, the speakers summon some of the deepest motivations of Civil War armies: courage and duty. In holding his life lightly, the soldier is performing honorably for his country, putting the safety of his nation above that of himself.

Next, the speaker confront cowardice, another primary theme of the era’s writing: “Does any falter?” If so, he should look to the brave women of the South. They are supporting the country with courage and pride, and the men should too. After all, if this weaker sex can confront the enemy with a straight face, a man sure as heck better be able to.

The speaker beckons the motivation that he feels to be inherent in his words and once again returns to specifically to South Carolina, the Palm-tree. It should not fear, for the Lily, traditionally a symbol of the Virgin Mary and, by association, Christianity, is calmly on its side.

In fact, as he calls once more to the citizens from all around, he asks them to come “gayly to the fight,” not just for the country, but for the Lily, in support of the God for which the South claimed to fight.

Although Timrod himself was only in the military for a short time because of his poor health, he embodied the spirit of the Confederacy in A Cry to Arms. While it looks, at first glance, to be just another call to action, the layers of intricacy within it are astoundingly insightful.

For Civil War-era Americans, poetry was an ever-present part of life (unlike its comparatively sad status today), arguably the most visible literary form of the time. Victorian poetry had become more socially-oriented than that which had come before, promoting causes like Timrod’s. Rather than focusing on a more abstract ideal, like that of Shakespeare’s romantic sonnets, A Cry to Arms is firmly rooted in the imagery and symbols of Southern pride. This piece and others like it would have resonated with readers, male and female, bringing more support to the Confederate cause.


Sources:

Moore, Rayburn S. “Henry Timrod.” Poetry Foundation. Accessed February 26, 2016. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/henry-timrod#poet.

OFFICE OF THE CHIEF OF MILITARY HISTORY UNITED STATES ARMY. “The Civil War, 1862.” In AMERICAN MILITARY HISTORY: ARMY HISTORICAL SERIES, 209-35.

Timrod, Henry. The Poems of Henry Timrod. Edited by Paul H. Hayne. New York: E. J. Hale & Son, 1873.

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