In Battle Lines, Eliza Richards charts the transformation of Civil War poetry, arguing that it was fueled by a symbiotic relationship between mass media networks and modern warfare and that the unprecedented scope of the war generated a collectivity among readers and writers that altered the terms of poetic expression.
2018 | 256 pages | Cloth $65.00
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Table of Contents
Introduction. "How News Must Feel When Traveling"
Chapter 1. "Strange Analogies": Weathering the War
Chapter 2. The "Ghastly Harvest"
Chapter 3. "To Signalize the Hour": Memorialization and the Massachusetts 54th
Chapter 4. Poetry Under Siege: Charleston Harbor's Talking Guns
Chapter 5. Poetry at Sea: Naval Ballads and the Battle of Mobile Bay
Epilogue. Writing's Wars: Stephen Crane's Poetry and the Postbellum Turn to the Page
"How News Must Feel When Traveling"
How News must feel when traveling,In these lines, Emily Dickinson implies that though news may not have "any Heart," poems do, and it is their duty to imagine the emotions that the news generates in people while it circulates, even if they are excruciating. The autonomy and anonymity of Dickinson's news, along with its travels and seemingly random, violent visits to homes, emphasize mass circulation networks over more intimate circulatory modes, like gossip, or epistolary exchange. Alternative lines for the first stanza, noted at the end of the manuscript, affiliate the poem more closely with wartime violence: "Advancing on the Transport / 'Twill riddle like a Shot." The riddling of the mind, aligned with a body riddled with bullets, are so perfectly analogized they present as one experience in the poem. These terse lines begin to lay out the process I will explore in this book.
If News have any Heart.
Alighting at the Dwelling
Twill enter like a Dart!
Battle Lines charts transformations of American poetry during the U.S. Civil War, which, I argue, are fueled by a symbiotic relationship between the development of mass media networks and modern warfare. A syncretic conjunction of new technologies and catastrophic events stimulated the development of news into a central cultural force. Reacting to the ascendance of the news, poets articulated an urgent need to make their work not only relevant, but immediately responsive to current happenings. Poetry's compressed forms traveled more easily than stories, novels, or essays through ephemeral print media, allowing it to move alongside and rapidly respond to news reports. Civil War-era poets took on the task of imagining what correspondent mental states arose for readers upon receiving news from the war front: how to think and what to feel about the mass violence of modern warfare happening elsewhere, but brought close with new intensity via mass media networks. Newspaper and magazine poetry had of course long editorialized on political happenings: Indian wars, slavery and abolition, prison reform, women's rights. But the unprecedented scope of what has been called the first modern war, and the centrality of the issues involved for national futures, generated a powerful sense of single-minded collectivity among readers and writers, which altered the terms of poetic expression.
Writers of the time thought about the ways that new communication technologies affected individual and collective states. In an essay entitled "Bread and the Newspaper," published in the September 1861 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. dubs the Civil War communications network "our national nervous system." Dr. Holmes speculates that the "iron nerve pathways" of the newspaper and telegraph and the "iron muscles" of the railroad, along with the animating force of the war, have created a superhuman national body. These "new conditions of existence": "make war as it is with us very different from war as it has been. The first and obvious difference consists of the fact that the whole nation is now penetrated by the ramifications of a network of iron nerves which flash sensation and volition backward and forward to and from towns and provinces as if they were organs and limbs of a single living body. The second is the vast system of iron muscles which, as it were, move the limbs of the mighty organism one upon another." The nervous network binds the nation (which is specifically the Union, for Holmes) into a living, responsive entity that acts on impulses: a central aggressive force with a single aim coordinates the massive technological body to enact state violence. Once the iron nerves send their messages, the iron muscles respond, resulting in a mass mobilization that Holmes hopes will win the war. He offers an example of perfect military coordination: "What was the railroad-force which put the Sixth Regiment in Baltimore on the 19th of April but a contraction and extension of the arm of Massachusetts with a clenched fist full of bayonets at the end of it?"
The nervous network that powers troop movements extends to civilians, who are kept in a constant state of excitement by what Holmes calls "perpetual intercommunication." Being wired into a force so much larger and more powerful than individuals takes a toll. For Holmes, the impact of news circulation upon noncombatants results in a version of the "war fever" contracted by soldiers. Associating the absorption of shocking events with troop movements, he tells readers that thinking about news ages the brain prematurely: "When any startling piece of war news comes, it keeps repeating itself in our minds in spite of all we can do. The same trains of thought go tramping round in a circle through the brain like the supernumeraries that make up the grand Army of the stage show. Now, if a thought goes round the brain a thousand times in a day, it will have worn as deep a track as one which has passed through it once a week for 20 years. This accounts for the ages we seem to have lived since the 12th of April last." Because people can't stop reading and thinking about the news, their brains register the physical stress of war. In defining and diagnosing this mental condition, Dr. Holmes forges correspondences between external and internal events via trope. Just as soldiers tramp in line for a stage show, so those who read about the spectacle of war will find that their thoughts leave deep grooves in their brains. Though he uses metaphor and analogy, Holmes goes beyond loosely associating the massive intake of information with troop movements, instead asserting a direct, causal impact. He imagines that, in thinking about the calamity, the brain receives shocks—or "impressions"—that are as physical as wounds to other parts of the body. Trains of thought are as inexorable and potentially lethal as the trains that carry troops bristling with bayonets. Holmes's idea of the national nervous system blurs the distinction between figure and ground, vicarious and direct experience of events. Because violent shocks are transmitted directly from the war front to the home front, readers of the news become casualties of war.
Though Holmes's particular theory may seem idiosyncratic, he addresses a central concern of his time: the effect on perception of mass media warfare. The conglomeration of new communication and transportation technologies, combined with a large literate population, created the conditions for the flow of information to influence the struggle, and the war in turn to stimulate the development of news into a central cultural force. By the late 1850s, technological developments had transformed American newspapers into "truly mass media, with the power that term now implies": the steam press allowed for rapid reproduction of newspaper copies; railways supported broad dissemination of the news; and a network of telegraph lines could almost instantaneously transmit information across large distances. Journalism became a profession in this period; an early generation of war correspondents traveled with army regiments in order to convey eye-witness accounts back to the home front. Illustrated newspapers established a popular audience during the war years (they were already popular in England); sketch artists conveyed renditions of battle scenes that appeared alongside verbal reports.
The consolidation of mass media networks in wartime informed what Holmes called a profound "change in our manner of existence." Because "reading habits changed dramatically with the onset of the war," the literary landscape transformed. Booksellers complained that the public was entirely absorbed by current events and was no longer buying books. Alice Fahs asserts that during the Civil War, "newspapers suddenly became an urgent necessity of life, with readers eagerly gathering at bulletin boards outside newspaper offices in order to read the news as soon as it was printed." A poem in Harper's Weekly portrays this scene:
The "Extras" fall like rain upon a drought,Stimulated by bulletins traveling over the nervous network, "startled people" experience collectivity, becoming part of a national body. Crowding around the board, they receive the news together; its characters, the poem suggests, are "scored" into the people as well as on the bulletin: the news is imprinted upon them. The news itself has become news as people contemplate this "new necessity": sketch artists capture groups of people reading newspapers and telegraph bulletins in various locations, from New York City to the army camps.
And startled people crowd around the board
Whereon the nation's sum of loss or gain
In rude and hurried characters is scored.
Walt Whitman recalls a similar scene in New York City when the news of Sumter was transmitted: "I bought an extra and crossed to the Metropolitan Hotel, where the great lamps were still brightly blazing, and, with a small crowd of others who gather'd impromptu, read the news, which was evidently authentic. For the benefit of some who had no papers, one of us read the telegram aloud, while all listen'd silently and intently. No remark was made by any of the crowd, which had increas'd to thirty or forty, but all stood a moment or two, I remember, before they dispers'd. I can almost see them there now, under the lamps of midnight again." Whitman marks a moment of collective introspection. The same thought travels not only through the mind of one individual, "tramping around in a circle through the brain." It circulates through all the people present, causing them to fall silent because no words are needed. That the news is "evidently authentic" draws attention to a general understanding that the news was frequently wrong, incomplete, and subject to change. That knowledge intensifies the immediate moment of common understanding. If coherence cannot be found in the unfolding narrative of events, it can be found collectively in a moment of common understanding. The moment haunts Whitman in its perfect sense of union.
With the news, poetry thrived, published alongside and often working together with the reports on the conflict in Northern papers. Hundreds of poems tracked, responded to, and shaped the reception of multiple aspects of the war. Poems urged men to enlist, fight, and die for the sake of the Union; they urged civilians to support the soldiers and to accept the sacrifice of loved ones; they insisted that soldiers' deaths would sanction and promote the growth of a stronger democratic nation purged of the sin of slavery. A number of critics have recently shown that a central rhetorical task during wartime is to invest death with meaning, so that the weight of human sacrifice gives national ideology force and persuasive power. The poems published during the Civil War repeatedly proclaimed that this was a just war for a moral purpose, and that the thousands who were losing their lives were not doing so in vain. "The Volunteer," for example, published anonymously in May 1862 in the highly influential, widely circulated, strongly pro-Union genteel magazine the Atlantic Monthly, concludes that "To fight in Freedom's cause is something gained— / And nothing lost, to fall." The poems about wartime sacrifices circulated widely during the Civil War, binding together communities of readers and forging relations between civilians and combatants. Via mass media circulation, poetry served a crucial role in negotiating new necessities of representation, both political and poetic, instigated by the war.
Some of the poems responding to the emotional and political necessities of wartime were closely tied to news reports in all their immediacy and particularity. As soon as news of a battle appeared, so did poems that responded to events: the hanging of John Brown; the unexpected retreat of Union troops at the Battle of Bull Run; the massive death tolls at Antietam, Shiloh, and Gettysburg; the heroism of the Massachusetts 54th at the Battle of Fort Wagner; the Siege of Charleston; the Battle of Mobile Bay. These and hundreds of other "aspects of the war," to use Herman Melville's phrase, were documented and circulated not only through journalistic reports but through poetry. When Confederates fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, and Union troops surrendered, Union poets were forced to admit an embarrassing defeat. In Harper's Weekly, a poem entitled "The War" muses on the event:
Fort Sumter taken! and its siege will fillNotable in the poem is the lack of heroicization of the event. It would be difficult to turn such an anticlimactic defeat into stirring legend, and the speaker says as much. With an obligation—newly felt—to adhere to the facts, the speaker turns to the moment's implications for "liberty" rather than commemorating an unlikely battle. With mixed feelings, the poem combines the political promotion of Union ideals with an adherence to journalistic facts in order to supplement news reports. This journalistic fidelity combined with an editorial function grounds much of the poetry of the period. Journalism's influence on poetry is evident in a new fascination with facticity; poetry of the Civil War explores the incantatory, gripping power of facts in aesthetic configurations.
No bloody chronicles in after-time.
It was a tame bombardment, if you will,
But in its consequences how sublime!
The first boom of the cannon sent a thrill
Not through the North alone, for every clime
Where liberty is prized, struck with deep sorrow,
Mourns for to-day, and fears the dread to-morrow.
But the very conditions that bring together poetry and events also foreground the difference between them. The intense relations between poetry and the news in a mass media war register in a range of formal and topical ways that this study will explore. Alongside Holmes, poets insist that wartime "impressions" literally imprint themselves on the minds of readers, generating new mental states. The necessity of figuration in the translation of the physical event to verbal sign becomes the subject of inquiry, as writers seek to articulate the ways that lines of communication convey the shocks of war to readers. Civil War poetry tests figurative language's capacity to forge correspondences between writing and fighting. Because "perpetual intercommunication" generates a direct line between distance and presence, violence and inscription become exchangeable. At its most extreme, the equation makes writing lethal and war articulate in the print culture of the period. Mass media networks destabilize the relation between figure and ground, and poetry explores the consequences of this instability. Socially constructive rather than purely "literary," poems articulate correspondences among different parts of the informational system, generating an interface to the war for readers at home via trope. Tropic practices are unsettled and reconfigured as a result. Figurative language is not the privileged realm of poetry, of course, as Holmes's essay shows, but poetry offers a crucial vehicle to explore transformations in figuration and their implications. Poems formulate a transitive relation between language and event to quite various ends; those formulations are a heritage of the period, even if much of the poetry has been forgotten.
Receiving news bears a troubled relation to making news in U.S. Civil War poems. The conjunction of a new mass media network with the mass death that resulted from a full-scale war foregrounded the gap between vicarious and direct experiences of the conflict. For strangers and loved ones alike, reading the news may have been analogous to receiving a battle wound—Dickinson warned that "’twill riddle like a shot""—but it certainly wasn't the same. Even so, reading the news was an experience in itself, and many Civil War poems mark the difference. Poems enforce a difference between direct and indirect forms of experience while nevertheless positing relations between them. In doing so they mark productive distinctions between the distant suffering on the battlefield, reports of that suffering, and readers' reception of those reports.
Meditating on these lines of connection, popular Civil War poet George Boker envisions newsprint as a circulatory system, or a system of recirculation, for the blood of the dead. War news animates, nourishes, and brings together readers over a common, luridly fascinating topic. He connects lines of print to arteries opened on the battlefield:
Blood, blood! The lines of every printed sheetLike Holmes, Boker imagines a national body connected through lines of mass communication. Stressing the continuity between the physical conflict and the talk about it, between the "cannon's roar" and the "flash" of "jests," large-scale killing and the "prattle of horrors," he is critical of the vicarious pleasure that derives from the remote reception of violence. He also acknowledges that such a dynamic is unavoidable, for he cannot possibly exclude his own poetic lines from his condemnation; the "dark arteries" of his "printed sheet" also "reek with running gore." Or not—his metaphor shows that people on the home front are feeding on bloody impressions, not blood; their vicarious pleasure depends upon print's removal from physical violence. The horror that Boker seeks to convey is one of abstraction. There seems to be no way around it; a compulsive circulation of violent figures animates the public, who forge community from the dead without understanding the cost. When battle lines become headlines or lines of poetry—and they must because the conflict is on everyone's mind—animating force is transferred from the dead to the living at the cost of understanding. The transitive relation between physical violence and verbal expression means that people on the home front appropriate soldiers' sacrifice while overlooking it.
Through their dark arteries reek with running gore;
At hearth, the board, before the household door,
’Tis the sole subject with which neighbors meet.
Girls at the feast, and children in the street,
Prattle of horrors; flash their little store
Of simple jests against the cannon's roar,
As if mere slaughter kept existence sweet.
While poets adapted their skills in order to render themselves useful during the national crisis, their participation was by no means uniform. Foregrounding the difference between the bloody conflict and its verbal representations raised questions about how properly to write about wartime experience. Poets had the complex task of discovering or creating the purpose of art in wartime. Not everyone was as assuredly evenhanded as Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who, in his "Letter to a Young Contributor" in the Atlantic Monthly of April 1862, insists that "It is not needful here to decide which is intrinsically the better thing, a column of a newspaper or a column of attack, Wordsworth's 'Lines on Immortality' or Wellington's Lines of Torres Vedras; each is noble, if nobly done, though posterity seems to remember literature the longest." An officer in the war who was wounded, a man of action as well as words, Higginson balances literary and military pursuits against each other, using the words "column" and "line" for orders of both type and people, emphasizing the difference between them but valorizing both. Higginson suggests that while poets may in earlier times have been considered "pleasant triflers," at the present moment, the "pursuits of peace are recognized as the real, and war as the accidental."
Another Atlantic Monthly poet, Julia Ward Howe, would certainly disagree with Higginson's valorization of the peaceful pursuit of literary ideals untouched by war. In a poem entitled "Our Orders," published in July 1861, she calls on poets to sharpen their words into swords, or to accept their total irrelevance:
And ye that wage the war of wordsIf the war of words is to help the Northern cause, poets must purge themselves of personal ambition and purely aesthetic aspirations and enlist their services in the cause of wartime propaganda. And indeed, Howe was highly successful in lending her verbal power to the physical struggle. Her poem "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," first published in the Atlantic Monthly in February of 1862, became an unofficial Union anthem set to the melody of "John Brown's Body," one that Howe enjoyed imagining the soldiers singing in unison: "I knew, and was content to know, that the poem soon found its way to the camps, as I heard from time to time of its being sung in chorus by the soldiers."
With mystic fame and subtle power,
Go, chatter to the idle birds,
Or teach the lesson of the hour!
Other poets were less certain than Howe that words could make a difference when the physical sacrifices of war were so overwhelming in their scope. Negotiating their relation to the news of the day, many poets expressed guilt that they were writing rather than fighting for their country, yet nevertheless sought a purpose for their work. Some of the poems in the Atlantic Monthly articulate and seek to negotiate this dilemma. In the August 1862 issue, in a poem entitled "In Wartime," Quaker abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier laments the impotence of poets, who
. . . doomed to watch a strife we may not shareThe war has caused Whittier to think that, for better or worse, the sword outweighs the pen: writing cannot provide the necessary solace for the suffering of wartime. The speaker offers the "automatic play / Of pen and pencil" as his insufficient contribution. Whittier suggests that solace might be found by submitting to the play of a medium unconscious of its message, and by sharing that message with those who need it most. Though he went on to write such patriotic classics as "Barbara Frietchie," (published in the Atlantic Monthly in October 1863), at the outset of the war Whittier could not imagine an effective way to make writing an agentive force. The resigned solipsism of poetic self-comfort, extended to others to "hearten them," is especially striking because Whittier had already spent years as a public poet speaking out against the evils of slavery. The war has presented a challenge that requires a realignment of poetry's functions and forms.
With other weapons than the patriot's prayer,
Yet owning, with full hearts and moistened eyes,
The awful beauty of self-sacrifice,
And wrung by keenest sympathy for all
Who give their loved ones for the living wall
Twixt law and treason,—in this evil day
May haply find, through automatic play
Of pen and pencil, solace to our pain,
And hearten others with the strength we gain.
While Howe and Whittier offer more or less practical meditations on the question of how to adapt poetry writing to wartime, Ralph Waldo Emerson's poem on the subject presents a mystical riddle. In "The Test, Musa Loquitur," published anonymously in the Atlantic Monthly in January 1861, when the war was imminent, Emerson displays the kind of "mystic fame and subtle power" ridiculed by Howe:
I hung my verses in the wind;Emerson—or the muse, who speaks—casts the change wrought by war as primarily stylistic. Like enlisted men, the poet's lines must stand the test of intense violence; they survive only if they pass trial by Southern fire. Like weapons and ammunition, the lines are smelted and forged to stand up to the tests of warfare. Always condensed and runic, Emerson's poetry, he suggests, must become—is becoming in this poem—even more so to stand the tests of the current moment and still "survive" across time. The last lines of the poem tell us only five of the lines on the page before us will pass the test; like men in battle, it is impossible for the reader to predict which lines will continue to live on. War is metaphoric in this poem. The figuration suggests that language production should undergo harsh conditions analogous to the equipment and men used in fighting the war.
Time and tide their faults may find.
All were winnowed through and through;
Five lines lasted sound and true;
Five were smelted in a pot
Than the South more fierce and hot.
These the Siroc could not melt.
Fire their fiercer flaming felt,
And their meaning was more white
Than July's meridian light.
Sunshine cannot bleach the snow,
Nor Time unmake what poets know.
Have you eyes to find the five
Which five thousand could survive?
These three poems call for very different poetic responses to war: engaging directly with the fight, providing emotional support for suffering, and adapting stylistically in order to create something cryptic, but able to carry the weight of contemporary knowledge into the future. As even three poems from the same magazine suggest, the sense of poetic vocation varied widely, and this study will range over the breadth of response. But however different their approaches, Howe, Whittier, and Emerson divorce poetic utterance from personal expression and attribute the necessity of this shift to the vicissitudes of war. Howe serves the collective voice of Northern wrath, Whittier abnegates personal expression in favor of the automatic play of the pen, and Emerson lets the muse speak without interference; it speaks the truth of war's necessities (Emerson's impersonality is of course a trait that precedes the war). That general turn to what might be called the affective, impersonal, collective mode is a feature of the poetry in the Northern newspapers and magazines of the period with a national circulation, one of the primary subjects of this study.
But while I explore the changes wrought on poetic tradition by the war, I emphatically do not claim that a certain kind of poetry originated out of these cataclysmic events. In fact, the more catastrophic the events, seemingly the more important literary inheritance becomes. The writers in this study work within traditions and modify them thoughtfully and with great effort to render current circumstances affectively legible. It is precisely the familiarity of the tropes, forms, and rhetorics—the materials the poets inherit—that enable them to craft differences for readers to recognize, allowing them to process wartime events and place them within broader historical contexts. I will explore a range of these transformations by focusing on specific events and the revisions of convention they demand.
In analyzing these shifts in figural, formal, thematic, and perspectival emphases, I contend that it is no accident that experimental poetic practices emerged from what is often called the first "modern" war. I further argue that this shift, while marked in Dickinson, Whitman, and Melville, is culture-wide, and that we undervalue the variety and historical and aesthetic significance of much of the poetry of the time by continuing to focus on a small number of "major," largely Northern, literary figures. Poetry of the nineteenth century has been critically separated between "popular and experimental," and the two are often figured in opposition. This study finds these terms inadequate for the subtle differentiations and overlapping practices between writers like Henry Howard Brownell, for example, a tremendously innovative poet who was one of the most popular writers of the war, and Herman Melville, who reached a narrow audience but shares many of the same concerns and aesthetic practices, and indeed was influenced by Brownell. I show that poets of all orientations responded to wartime events in order to forge a new understanding of the ways language can communicate under the conditions of mass media. What distinguishes writers like Dickinson, Whitman, and Melville from many poets of the period is a largely remote, often retrospective perspective that shifts attention away from war's immediacies and toward its linguistic effects. Other poets seek to engage the conflict more directly, responding to events as they unfold. While I sometimes distinguish between popular and experimental poetry, in reality they form a continuum. Studying the poems of Dickinson, Whitman, and Melville alongside the work of other poets, many of them well known at the time but less so, if at all, today—Brownell, Elizabeth Akers Allen, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, George Boker, Amanda Jones, and many others—I explore what holds these kinds of poetry together, as well as what differentiates them.
By tracing networks of poetic practice, the study challenges the ways that critics have delineated starkly polarized, monumental forces in studies of Civil War literature: the North and the South. The treatment of the poetry surrounding the Battle of Fort Wagner, for example, shows both internal divisions and allegiances among African American soldiers and white civilians in the North. I raise questions about the difference that gender makes in poetic responses to the war, though the emphasis here is on how poets of both genders join in communal reactions to current events. The poetic networks I trace, moreover, sometimes cross sectional boundaries, even though there are significant differences between print circulation in the two sections that pose problems for extending this study to Southern poetry of the war period. While Northern readers witnessed an unprecedented expansion of mass media networks, Southerners experienced the war years as a struggle to compensate for the loss of the national information system they had depended upon before the war. There were twice as many newspapers in the North as in the South during the period, with four times the circulation. With few resources, and while their territory was under siege, the Confederacy sought to develop an independent communication system that could promote the ideals of a newly declared nation. I treat Southern Civil War poetry, then, when it marks a point of direct engagement with Northern poetry: in the first chapter, where images of Northern and Southern weather enter into dialogue, and especially in Chapter 4, which treats the strange parallelism between Northern and Southern expressions of violence against one another in the Siege of Charleston.
In order to map out networks of response, I organize the project, loosely chronologically, by specific events and the poetry that responds to them. A series of case studies, the chapters each treat a significant battle along with the tropes and formal practices that mediate them for readers. Remediating events via literary traditions, poets work through what to think and how to feel about current happenings. The responses accrue within a print network that quickly generates a tropic repertoire within a recognizable poetic field. Collectively and with a sometimes remarkable consistency, given the newness of the news, poems draw out key features and draw on common tropic practices to mythologize, commemorate, and consider the consequences of events. The lines of communication reach outward through newspapers and magazines to the poems of writers like Dickinson, Whitman, and Melville, who drew their inspiration from their peers' practices and reconfigured them in ways that bear the traces of their engagements.
Chapter 1 examines the physical power of snow to disrupt, freeze, erase, and bury, as well as the power of the tropes that derive from these traits. A bombardment that can seem malevolent but is also just simply a part of an impersonal, ineffable system, snowstorms and battles bear strong resemblances that have been treated in a long poetic tradition, stretching at least back to the Iliad, that deploys snowstorms as a figure of war. Poets—Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Akers Allen among them—capitalize on this resemblance in order to figure war in a mass media age as a circulatory system that envelops both home and battle fronts. The chapter closes with a focused analysis of the Battle of Fort Donelson (February 11-16, 1862), during which a blizzard in Tennessee was as lethal for Union troops as Confederate fire. I read Melville's poem "Donelson" to show that this poem and the others I discuss absorb material events and use them as a kind of necessary substrata for complex poetic transformations. The conclusion of the chapter addresses the way Confederate poet Henry Timrod adapts Northern climatic figures to offer an alternative grounded in the "SNOW OF SOUTHERN SUMMERS": cotton.
Like snow, autumn has a long poetic tradition of associations with death and dying. Chapter 2 charts the ways this figure is adapted to address the issue of mass death after the Battle of Antietam, in which thousands of men died in a Maryland cornfield before Confederate troops retreated. The extreme irony of the enormous number of dead men destroying the corn at harvest time gave rise almost immediately, in the journalism as well as the poetry of the time, to the image of the ghastly harvest. I explore the ways romantic harvest imagery is transformed into gruesome, often surreal figurations of environmental devastation that open up the possibility of atheism and the annihilation of natural cycles. This chapter traces the circulation of the image of the ghastly harvest through eyewitness coverage of the event and numerous poetic treatments, from anonymous newspaper poets to Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.
Chapter 3 takes up figurative practices of commemoration associated with the sonnet and the ode and places them in relation to popular traditions of song in order to make sense of the response to the unprecedented events of the Battle of Fort Wagner (July 18, 1863), one of the first times African American men fought in the war, proving their courage under fire. The battle gave rise to numerous poems seeking to commemorate the event in a way that would capture the democratic promise of racial equality. This chapter traces two conflicting traditions arising from that event. The first is affiliated with African American soldier songs, which celebrate collective agency and a new image of black military manhood. The second tradition focuses on white commander Robert Gould Shaw, whose memory is carried forward in odes and sonnets that elide black agency. Analyzing the powers of commemoration to carry events, selectively, through history, the chapter traces these two traditions through the end of the century's unveiling of the Robert Gould Shaw monument on the Boston Common. A comparative study of the traditions and their interactions shows the commemorative capabilities and limitations of specific poetic forms. It also indicates the ways memorial traditions can come at the cost of historical knowledge. A diverse range of writers including Anna Quincy Watterson, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Private Frank Myers, Henry Howard Brownell, Marian Bigelow, James Russell Lowell, and Paul Laurence Dunbar help forge these commemorative traditions.
Chapter 4 explores the journalism and poetry surrounding the prolonged siege of Charleston, paying particular attention to the figure of the talking gun. As the center of Confederate intellectual culture and the first state to secede from the Union, Charleston was the focus of particular Union animus for symbolic even more than strategic reasons. The erection of the Parrott Gun, nicknamed the Swamp Angel, off the coast of Charleston made possible one of the first incendiary bombings of civilians in wartime. As communicators of state violence after verbal negotiations have halted, guns, cannons, and ammunition were frequently figured as engaging in a perverse form of speech. This chapter traces dialogues between the talking weapons in Northern and Southern poetry during the escalating violence of the siege. The excess of verbal violence in these poems conveys a sense of the limits of poetic expression when it comes up against the desire to become a weapon of lethal force. The chapter's concluding section examines poetry by two writers—Henry Timrod and Herman Melville—who seek a way out of this tragic end game.
The final chapter addresses the adaptation of ballads to the conditions of modern naval warfare. Wooden sailing ships have long been a central figure in sea ballads. The invention of the ironclad muddled those terms of representation while radically changing the conditions of naval warfare. Clashes between wooden sloops and ironclads served as occasions for reconfiguring ideas about what constitutes heroism. The highly visible and vulnerable captains and crew of sailing ships were long figured as iconic images of heroic bravery; in the new ironclads, in contrast, the crew was completely hidden from view, operating within protective shells of steel. The confrontations between these two kinds of ships staged dramas between the traditional and the modern, the past and the future, the legendary and the immediate. This chapter takes up two noteworthy naval engagements—the Battle of Hampton Roads and the Battle of Mobile Bay—in order to explore the ways that poets negotiate the symbolic disruptions and new figurative and formal possibilities opened up by the fights. Poets identify the limitations of inherited ballad forms and adapt them through an acute attention to the new forms of naval warfare. The chapter includes an extensive comparison of Henry Howard Brownell's eyewitness poem about the Battle of Mobile Bay, written while an officer aboard the Hartford, and Melville's "Battle for the Bay," which, I argue, engages intensively with Brownell's poem.
The epilogue turns to the end of the nineteenth century to explore the question of Civil War poetry's legacy by taking up the work of Stephen Crane. Though Crane is often positioned as a future-oriented poet, I argue that his work is permeated by a sense of loss of the collective poetic practices enabled by the conditions of the Civil War. Whereas poetry held a central place in the war, circulating to a national readership and sharing a common sense of mission, Crane expresses a sense of isolation predicated on the absence of such conditions for the turn-of-the-century poet. Writing at the time of other, less culturally central wars, publishing in magazines that reached a highly selective readership, Crane searches for ways to speak to and for the people even while acknowledging that they may not be listening. This crisis of social belonging, commonly understood as an anticipation of modernism—has strong roots in an awareness of poetry's earlier central role in the Civil War.