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Friday, April 29, 2011

The poet-soldiers of the Civil War: Ambrose Bierce, John W. De Forest, Fitz-James O’Brien, Nathaniel Southgate Shaler

We certainly cannot close out National Poetry Month in this sesquicentennial year of the Civil War without acknowledging four poets who served as soldiers during the great cataclysm. Poets of the Civil War features writers from the North and South, but these four soldier-poets all fought for the Union. Their poems, in editor J. D. McClatchy’s words “exemplify a style too rare at the time” and “offer graphic witness to military life.”

Born in Ireland, Fitz-James O’Brien (1828–1862) was a well-known critic, playwright, and short-story writer in New York—and a regular at Pfaff’s Cellar, Walt Whitman’s favorite pub—when he volunteered in 1861 in the Seventh Regiment of the New York National Guard. Wounded in battle in February 1862, O’Brien managed to kill his attacker and rally his men, but his wound proved fatal and he died two months later, just a month after Harper’s magazine published perhaps his most famous poem, “A Soldier’s Letter.” O’Brien is also known for crafting wildly imaginative stories, his best-known, “The Diamond Lens” (1858), about a scientist who falls in love with a woman he discovers in a drop of water under a microscope.

Eighteen-year-old Ambrose Bierce (1842–1913) joined the Ninth Indiana Infantry in 1861, the second in the state to enlist. As Daniel Aaron notes in The Unwritten War: American Writers and the Civil War, “Of all the literary combatants of the Civil War, none saw more action or steeped himself so completely in the essence of battle.” Bierce fought at Shiloh, Murfreesboro, Stone River, Chattanooga, Kenesaw Mountain (where he was seriously wounded), Missionary Ridge, and Franklin. His wartime experience as a topographical engineer gives Bierce’s fiction and poetry a visual verisimilitude, even when what he describes borders on the surreal. Many of his mordant lines have echoed down the years, like these from “The Hesitating Veteran”:
The world is old and the world is bad,
   And creaks and grinds upon its axis;
And man's an ape and the gods are mad!—
   There's nothing sure, not even our taxes!
No mortal man can Truth restore,
   Or say where she is to be sought for.
I know what uniform I wore—
   O, that I knew which side I fought for!
Born in Kentucky and educated at Harvard, Nathaniel Southgate Shaler (1841–1906) was sympathetic to the South but believed a strong Union was necessary to protect states’ rights. Commissioned a captain in 1862, he helped defend Cincinnati against Braxton Bragg and fought off Morgan’s Raiders in Ohio. The attention to detail in Shaler’s poems betray his training as a geologist. A Southerner who always felt alien in the North, Shaler treats the enemy with compassion and respect. In “The Marksman’s Work,” after the sharpshooter “a lank, grizzled fellow, with the eye, / Blue-grey and strangely steadfast, of the sort / Who have the slaying habit,” takes out his mark at 900 yards, the Yankee soldiers “Keep eyes from others’ faces and seek out / Some trifling thing to do.”

John W. De Forest (1826–1906) may be better known for his novels (Aaron has called Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty “the best novel about the War . . . written by a veteran or, for that matter, by anyone”), but McClatchy finds that he wrote poems distinguished by “precision and an eerie modernity.” A captain in the Union army, De Forest organized the Twelfth Connecticut Volunteers, a company from New Haven, and saw action in Louisiana and with Philip Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley. De Forest’s battle experience and novelistic sense gives his poems a graphic immediacy, as this excerpt from “Campaigning” demonstrates:
And flying from afar, the shell
With changeful, throbbing, husky yell,
   A demon tiger, leaping miles
To spread his iron claws
   And tear the bleeding files;
While oft arose the charging cry
   Of men who battled for a glorious cause
And died when it was beautiful to die.
“Who wrote like that,” McClatchy asks, “until Wilfred Owen?”

[De Forest may be best known today for coining a phrase that has plagued generations of writers. His 1868 essay in The Nation, “The Great American Novel,” was the subject of a previous Reader’s Almanac post]

Also of interest:
  • William Howard Russell’s report on Charleston after the firing on Fort Sumter, a previous Story of the Week
  • Brooks D. Simpson on what letters by Grant, Lee, Sherman, and McClellan reveal, a previous Reader’s Almanac post
  • 150 year ago: The Civil War really begins—in Baltimore, a previous Reader’s Almanac post
Related LOA volumes: Poets of the Civil War; The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It; American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps (includes Fitz-James O’Brien’s “What Was It?” and Ambrose Bierce's “The Moonlit Road”)

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