Finding Meaning in the Flag: Rebel Flag

This post is the third in a series about the Confederate flag in history, memory, and culture. It offers one Fellow’s individual perspective as she investigates different sources and opinions. Please feel free to engage with the author and the Civil War Institute community in the comments section. Read the first post here and the second post here.

By Olivia Ortman ‘19

I’m sure that as fans of history, at some point in your pursuit of knowledge, you have either read or heard the phrase “language is key”. This is something my professors have harped on, class after class, explaining that the way we talk about things shapes the way they are viewed. This lesson holds true for the Union perspective of the Confederate flag during the war. In all the documents written by Northerners that I looked over for this post, I did not come across a single mention of the “Confederate flag.” This was because the flag was pretty consistently, and intentionally, known as the “rebel flag.” This term was used for each subsequent version of the flag, showing that each of the flags had the same meaning for Northerners, regardless of the changing design.

Rebel prisoners and battle flags captured at Chancellorsville, being taken to the rear by cavalry and infantry guards. Sketch by E. Forbes, 1863. Via Library of Congress

The language “rebel flag” is important for two reasons. The first is that by using the word “rebel,” Northerners gave Southern actions a negative connotation. These “rebels” were people throwing tantrums and acting out against the government. The second reason is that calling it the rebel flag gave the Confederacy an air of illegitimacy. The flags of established nations always have the country’s name in the title. Northerners refused to acknowledge the Confederacy as a true nation and that is reflected in their refusal to call the flag a Confederate flag. These ideas were illustrated in a stanza of a poem written by John Northrop.

“So up they hoist a Rebel flag;
They shake it in the Nation’s face —
An insolent old slavery rag —
To all the land disgrace!
Then Lincoln to the loyal said:
‘What will my brothers do?
You as the people, I the head,
To Justice must be true!
Come forth to meet this traitorous horde;
Defeat them where they stand;
They’d wreck the Nation with the sword,
Come and redeem the land!
They challenge us; shall we be brave,
Or cowards shall we be?
From basest treason shall we save
What God proclaimed was free?” Continue reading “Finding Meaning in the Flag: Rebel Flag”

A Call to Arms: Inciting the South with Poetry

By Jules Sebock ’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

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. Continue reading “A Call to Arms: Inciting the South with Poetry”

From Tragedy to a Christmas Carol: The Story of Longfellow’s "Christmas Bells"

By Jen Simone ’18

In times of intense despair, it can seem impossible to have any hope. All of us get caught up in the tragedies occurring all around us and begin to believe that life is a constant struggle without any good in it. Christmas time, though often a time of mourning for people who have recently lost loved ones, also is a time of restored hope for many.

Christmas carolers may arrive at your door this season offering to sing the carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The carol tells of a man who is troubled by the hateful world, but then has hope restored as he is reminded of God’s power. Though two stanzas concerning the Civil War were removed for the carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” was based on the poem “Christmas Bells” written during the Civil War by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Portrait of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1868 with the beard he grew to cover his burn scars. Photography via Wikimedia Commons.

The poem begins with the peacefulness that characterizes Christmas:

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!

Continue reading “From Tragedy to a Christmas Carol: The Story of Longfellow’s "Christmas Bells"”

Dead Broets Society: Masculinity in Walt Whitman’s War Verse

By Annika Jensen ’18

There are two images of masculinity in Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps, his collection of wartime poetry: one, the strong, hardened soldier, the image of manliness, and the other the boyish, rosy-cheeked recruit. Whitman’s sexuality, while not the Victorian social norm, was no secret, and he wrote openly of the hospitalized soldiers during his time as a Union nurse with admiration, affection, and love. Some critics, such as Thomas Wentworth Higginson, castigated Whitman’s queer themes to be overwhelming, distractingly sensual, and “unmanly,” while others, like William Sloane Kennedy, dissented, arguing instead that the overt sexuality present in Whitman’s work was precisely what contributed to its masculinity, whether its desires were traditional or not. Whitman’s work, “Drum-Taps” included, certainly does overflow with themes of gender and sex with hardly any mention of women. How, then, did the poet find himself in a crossroads of contradicting ideas of masculinity, and what are the implications of this dichotomy?

Whitman and his friend Peter Doyle. Photo via

I will admit that it has taken me a while to reach a conclusion to this question, and I still have doubts about my reasoning. I am a lover of Whitman’s poetry, and I have always had a respect for his daring display of his own homosexuality, but diving back into “Drum-Taps” and subsequent research stumped me a bit. I finally decided that my conclusion would not come from what was written or presumed by scholars, but from my own literary analysis. Continue reading “Dead Broets Society: Masculinity in Walt Whitman’s War Verse”

“The Colored Soldiers”—The Poem You Never Knew Existed

By Matt LaRoche ’17

I’m a poetry guy. When I expect to have some free time, I tend to carry a small book of poems somewhere on my person. I also have eclectic tastes, so the subject and the substance of my little pocket anthologies changes. This summer, while at home from Gettysburg National Military Park, I pulled a book off the shelf—War Poems, from the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets series. I found plenty of what you might expect to find in such a book—Lord Tennyson, Wilfred Owen, Randall Jarrell. The subjects were classic—the “wild charge” of the Light Brigade, the “froth-corrupted lungs” of gassed men on the Western Front, the callous “hose” that washes out the wet scraps of the tragic turret gunner. Most of the poems I had already read before, so I was doubly surprised to find—in an anthology of war poems spread across the full breadth of both the Western and Eastern traditions of war verse—Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “The Colored Soldiers,” published posthumously in 1913.

"Dutch Gap, Virginia. Picket station of Colored troops near Dutch Gap canal." Courtesy of Library of Congress, via the House Divided Project.
“Dutch Gap, Virginia. Picket station of Colored troops near Dutch Gap canal.” Courtesy of Library of Congress, via the House Divided Project.

Continue reading ““The Colored Soldiers”—The Poem You Never Knew Existed”

Personal Civil War Poetry

By Andrew Bothwell ‘13

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.

Continue reading “Personal Civil War Poetry”