Civil War Prison Poetry

Joined
Aug 2, 2019
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April is National Poetry Month, and as it happens, I'm working on a chapter in the book I'm working on on poetry that was composed in, by, or about, prisoners at Andersonville. I thought I would share these two examples of Civil War Prison poetry that were found in the back of the diary of Frederic Augustus James, a sailor on the Housatonic, and the only known sailor to have kept a diary at Andersonville. Based on the content and the reference to Saint Patrick's Day, James was not the composer of either poem - he arrived at Andersonville on the first of June, 1864, and died there three months later, and the reference to "being captured by the roadside" suggests that the author of the poem was a soldier rather than a sailor.

If anyone knows of any other examples of Civil War prison poetry, please share them. These two poems, along with the lyrics to two hymns, were found at the back of James's diary and were first published in the 1973 book "Frederic Augustus James's Civil War Diary: Sumter to Andersonville" - he was captured at Fort Sumter and died at Camp Sumter, aka Andersonville Prison - edited by Jefferson Hammer. The original diary as well as James's letters are now held at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, not too far from where James lived with his wife and two little girls on Princeton Street in East Boston.

St. Patrick’s Day

In Georgia State, in Rebeldom now stands

Amidst pestilential air and swampy lands

A prison; a place more fir for Southron doge

Who raised its lofty walls of pinewood logs,



A swamp lies in the center; it runs quite deep and wide,

Between two steep & sandy hills, which sloop on either side.

No house- nor shed is to be seen within this dismal pen,

Wherein were thrust without remorse, seven thousand union men.



And in this wretched place, ‘neath Heaven’s blue vaulted sky

With no other shelter are left to rot & die

The aged man, the youth of tender years,

The halt; the blind; the noble volunteers.



Tis March; that month so windy & so cold

Whose hoary frosts regard not young or old

It blights alike the Sad, the strong man in his mirth,

And many a one before his time, consigns to mother earth.



Ere half their spell of life is quite run out,

They die of cold & hunger round about

Robbed of their all, money, blanket & great coat

By rebels, who vulture like upon their victims gloat.



If daily to the Hospital, one should resort

He’ll there see thirty miserable with life’s career cut short

Likewise an equal number lingering on the ground; their bed

Who doubtless next day will be numbered with the dead.



Look on yonder group, all huddled by a fire.

Ragged and Shoeless; no hope doth them inspire

See how the lightning flashes; hark how the thunder roars

While from among the clouds above, the rain upon them pours.



Heedless do they sit, closer still they lie

Endeavoring to keep their famished bodies dry

The time it is now midnight; the storm it has ceased

And a few of those poor helpless ones are from earthly cares released.



They are taken to the hospital, & there placed with the dead

And early on the morrow will be laid in their last bed.

Alas! No wives nor children will be there to mourn & weep

When departed worth shall be put in Earth to take death’s great sleep.



Tis sad and mournful to contemplate upon

The misery entailed upon the widows & the orphans

Whose bitter cup of grief is neigh full to overflowing

Who are the authors of this cruel doing?



Who shall bear the brunt of this great crying evil?

Is it Jefferson Davis? Or his privy Counsellor the Devil

Or shall the weight of it, in truth, be laid upon

The policy of our Government at Washington.



Time may tell, but what’s recompense to all

The brave, the noble, who at their country’s call

Surrendered home & all, with their values lives thereafter

Which they offered as sacrifices upon that county’s altar



This is Patrick’s Day, with stout hearts let us stand;

We’ll keep our spirits up while in this region of the damned.

We’ll place our trust in Providence while with grim death we cope

“Dum spiro espera” While there’s life, there’s hope.


And here's the second poem:



Morale

Now Volunteers and Substitutes whilst marching in the column

It behooveth each and all of you to take this warning solemn

Don’t leave your ranks on any account or circumstances whatever

Or else you’ll see that nabbed you’ll be unless you’re very clever.

The host of Union prisoners that swell the number taken

Are captured by the roadside at their coffee and their bacon.

This fact should well be bourne in mind by all good Union thinkers.

That two out of three, that captured be, are straggling coffee drinkers.

The prison fare as served out here is scanty, poor and bad;

A mite of pork, of meal one pint, is all that can be had

Of Coffee you’ll not get one sup, in this Pinelog institution.

But foul air and water quite enough to wreck your constitution.
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Fairfield

First Sergeant
Joined
Dec 5, 2019
In Libby Prison, New Year’s Eve, 1863–64
Frederick A. Bartleson (1833–1864)​


’T IS twelve o’clock! Within my prison dreary,
My head upon my hand, sitting so weary,
Scanning the future, musing on the past,
Pondering the fate that here my lot has cast,
The hoarse cry of the sentry on his beat
Wakens the echoes of the silent street,—
“All ’s well!”
Ah! is it so? My fellow-captive sleeping
Where the barred window strictest watch is keeping,
Dreaming of home and wife and prattling child,
Of the sequestered vale, the mountain wild,—
Tell me, when cruel morn shall break again,
Wilt thou repeat the sentinel’s refrain,
“All ’s well!”
And thou, my country! Wounded, pale, and bleeding,
Thy children deaf to a fond mother’s pleading,
Stabbing with cruel hate the nurturing breast
To which their infancy in love was prest,—
Recount thy wrongs, thy many sorrows name,
Then to the nations, if thou canst, proclaim,
“All ’s well!”
But through the clouds the sun is slowly breaking;
Hope from her long deep sleep is re-awaking:
Speed the time, Father! when the bow of peace,
Spanning the gulf, shall bid the tempest cease,
When foemen, clasping each other by the hand,
Shall shout once more, in a united land,
“All ’s well!”
 
Joined
Aug 2, 2019
Cited by @Mike Serpa (#1 on 9 Nov 2019): A Mass. soldier from Andersonville:
I saw and appreciated that @Mike Serpa posted this, and at the time he said that there was no one named P. Whitney with the 1st Mass Cavalry, which is true. I believe that the publication botched the name, and that it was actually written by Theodore P. Whitney of the 1st Mass. Cavalry, who died at Andersonville on Aug 5th or 6th, leaving behind a wife named Ann C. Whitney, whom he married in 1860. They had no children, and Ann herself died on March 24, 1895, never having remarried.
 

Mike Serpa

Major
Joined
Jan 24, 2013
I saw and appreciated that @Mike Serpa posted this, and at the time he said that there was no one named P. Whitney with the 1st Mass Cavalry, which is true. I believe that the publication botched the name, and that it was actually written by Theodore P. Whitney of the 1st Mass. Cavalry, who died at Andersonville on Aug 5th or 6th, leaving behind a wife named Ann C. Whitney, whom he married in 1860. They had no children, and Ann herself died on March 24, 1895, never having remarried.
Thanks for the great detective work!
 

Drew

Major
Joined
Oct 22, 2012
No problem. I enjoy this kind of digging into the past.

A Confederate officer, William Steptoe Christian, was imprisoned at Johnson's Island, Ohio in the fall of 1863 and apparently wrote a poem, called, "The Past."

I can't find it but offer a box of virtual doughnuts to any internet sleuth who can come up with the text. Cheers.
 

Fairfield

First Sergeant
Joined
Dec 5, 2019
A Confederate officer, William Steptoe Christian, was imprisoned at Johnson's Island, Ohio in the fall of 1863 and apparently wrote a poem, called, "The Past."

I can't find it but offer a box of virtual doughnuts to any internet sleuth who can come up with the text. Cheers.
1617747285087.png

Is his picture worth a few virtual sprinkles?
 

Fairfield

First Sergeant
Joined
Dec 5, 2019
It is possible to find references to it but each say that the poem is long (that may be why it isn't on the Internet--afaik). I don't have access to southern literary works but, since Dr. Christian was a relatively high profile individual, there may be a biography; something longer than a directory citation. If so, there may be a full rendering of the poem. It is also possible that his college has a copy; the local college collects all sorts of memorabilia about its alumni. Some Union regiments have collections as well--why not Virginia regiments? Lastly, if the poem was published--and since it is often mentioned, it probably was, the Library of Congress may have a copy.
 

Drew

Major
Joined
Oct 22, 2012
It is also possible that his college has a copy; the local college collects all sorts of memorabilia about its alumni. Some Union regiments have collections as well--why not Virginia regiments? Lastly, if the poem was published--and since it is often mentioned, it probably was, the Library of Congress may have a copy.

Thanks - I think he went to Columbian College, precursor to today's George Washington University in Washington, DC. Their library may be a good place to start.

Appreciate the advice.
 

Fairfield

First Sergeant
Joined
Dec 5, 2019
According to Hathi, his AB (1848) was from Columbian but his Medical degree (1851) was from Jefferson Medical College in Pennsylvania (now part of Thomas Jefferson University). I'd start with the alumni office: for sure, you'll be referred to the library but--in a large university--it helps to have direction to a specific part of the library (even little Colby College nearby has several libraries and its alumni stuff is in a special part of one of them).
 

Fairfield

First Sergeant
Joined
Dec 5, 2019
A Confederate officer, William Steptoe Christian, was imprisoned at Johnson's Island, Ohio in the fall of 1863 and apparently wrote a poem, called, "The Past."
These people may be worth contacting: http://johnsonsisland.org/history-pows/civil-war-era/. They seem to have several poems by prisoners--if they don't have a copy of Col. Christian's, they may know where to find one.

I forgot to mention the Middlesex County Library (https://www.yourmiddlesexlibrary.org/) as well the Middlesex Historical Society (https://middlesexmuseum.com/).

There may be a collection of his writings somewhere. I found several transcribed copies of a letter he wrote about seizing negroes so apparently there is documentation.
 

Drew

Major
Joined
Oct 22, 2012
I found several transcribed copies of a letter he wrote about seizing negroes so apparently there is documentation.

No, what you found were several third party quotes, or transcriptions, of a letter alleged to have been written by Colonel Christion, published in a Pittsburgh newspaper in the fall of 1863. No historian has ever seen the actual letter, because it doesn't exist.

Let's please not blow up a poetry thread over this. Thanks.
 

Fairfield

First Sergeant
Joined
Dec 5, 2019
No, what you found were several third party quotes, or transcriptions, of a letter alleged to have been written by Colonel Christion, published in a Pittsburgh newspaper in the fall of 1863. No historian has ever seen the actual letter, because it doesn't exist.

Let's please not blow up a poetry thread over this. Thanks.
Sorry but, in looking for Col. Christian, I found numerous copies of that letter by sources on both sides; it's quoted in its entirety in vol. 7 of The Rebellion Record (p. 325). That he chose to not enslave frightened civilians is nothing to be ashamed of.
 

Drew

Major
Joined
Oct 22, 2012
Sorry but, in looking for Col. Christian, I found numerous copies of that letter by sources on both sides; it's quoted in its entirety in vol. 7 of The Rebellion Record (p. 325). That he chose to not enslave frightened civilians is nothing to be ashamed of.

OK, but the "Rebellion Record" is a potpourri of Union propaganda, not an historical source. It should never be treated as the latter.

It quotes a newspaper article and not a letter.

I asked and hope the OP will agree, there's no need to blow up a poetry thread. If you want to argue this, bump an old thread or start a new one. Thanks.
 

Fairfield

First Sergeant
Joined
Dec 5, 2019
OK, but the "Rebellion Record" is a potpourri of Union propaganda, not an historical source. It should never be treated as the latter.

It quotes a newspaper article and not a letter.

I asked and hope the OP will agree, there's no need to blow up a poetry thread. If you want to argue this, bump an old thread or start a new one. Thanks.
You oughtn't have waved a name in front of a researcher and then expected that there'd be no research. ☺️
 

lelliott19

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I wish that you were with me now,
As I draw the sheet aside,
To see how pure the look he wore
Awhile before he died.
Yet the sorrow that you gave him
Still had left its weary trace,
And a meek and saintly sadness
Dwells upon his pallid face.

These lines were written by Colonel William Stewart Hawkins in the poem entitled The Letter that Came Too Late, alternately styled as "A Friend's Reply." Col. Hawkins was born October 2, 1837 in Madison County, AL. As a young scholar, he studied literature and poetry at the University of Nashville and graduated from Bethany College of Virginia in 1858. At the out breaking of the war, Hawkins enlisted in the 11th Battalion Tennessee Cavalry. By January of 1864, he was in command of Wheeler's Mounted Scouts when he was captured and imprisoned at Camp Chase.

In March 1894, Minnie T. Abernethy of Croft, NC sent the poetry to The Sunny South for publication, with a note saying:
The preceding touching poem was written in the prison dead house at Camp Chase by Col. W. S. H. A fellow prisoner was engaged to a beautiful lady; she proved faithless, and her letter came breaking the troth; soon after he died, and this was Col. H.'s reply.-- Minnie T. Abernethy, Croft, N.C.​
We are left to wonder how Minnie obtained a copy of the poem. Perhaps she was the unfaithful woman to whom Colonel Hawkins addressed the poem? Or perhaps it was published in an earlier newspaper and she kept a copy? However Minnie came to have a copy, it must have been meaningful to her since she kept it for 30 years. Interestingly, an old handwritten copy of the poem was sold at Historical Auctions in November 2011. It came without signature or provenance -- excepting a line at the bottom: "Camp Chase, Dec., 1864"

A Friend's Reply
Your letter came, but came too late,
For Heaven had claimed its own;
Ah, sudden change! From prison bare
Unto the great White Throne.
And yet, I think he would have stayed
For one more day of pain,
Could he have read those tardy words
Which you have sent in vain.

Why did you wait, fair lady,
Through so many a weary hour?
Had you other lovers with you
In that dainty silken bower?
Did others bow before your charms
And twine bright garlands there?
And yet I ween in all that throng
His spirit had no peer.

I wish that you were with me now,
As I draw the sheet aside,
To see how pure the look he wore
Awhile before he died.
Yet the sorrow that you gave him
Still had left its weary trace,
And a meek and saintly sadness
Dwells upon his pallid face.

"Her love," he said, "could change for me
The winter's cold to spring."
Ah, trust of thoughtless maiden's love,
Thou art a bitter thing!
For when these valleys fair in May
Once more with bloom shall wave,
The northern violets shall blow
Above his humble grave.

Your dole of scanty words had been
But one more pang to bear,
Though to the last he kissed with love
This tress of your soft hair.
I did not put it where he said,
For when the angels come
I would not have them find the sign
Of falsehood in the tomb.

I've read the letter, and I know
The wiles that you have wrought
To win that noble heart of his,
And gained it - fearful thought!
What lavish wealth men sometimes give
For a trifle, light and small!
What manly forms are often held
In folly's flimsy thrall!

You shall not pity him, for now
He's past your hope and fear;
Although I wish that you could stand
With me beside his bier.
Still, I forgive you, Heaven knows,
For mercy you'll have need,
Since God his awful judgement sends
On each unworthy deed.

Tonight the cold winds whistle by
As I my vigils keep
Within the prison dead house, where
Few mourners come to weep.
A rude plank coffin holds him now,
Yet death gives always grace;
And I would rather see him thus
Than clasped in your embrace.

Tonight your rooms are very gay
With wit and wine and song,
And you are smiling just as if
You never did a wrong.
Your hand so fair, that none would think,
It penned those words of pain;
Your skin so white -- would God your soul
Were half so free from stain.

I'd rather be this dear, dear friend
Than you in all your glee,
For you are held in grievous bonds,
While he's forever free.
Whom we serve in this life, we serve
In that which is to come;
He chose his way, you yours; let God
Pronounce the fitting doom.

William Stewart Hawkins, the ex-Confederate Colonel and poet, died November 6, 1865 soon after his release from Camp Chase. He was 28 years old.
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@TerryB and @donna discussed Colonel Hawkins and the poem in a thread way back in 2013, but the content of the poem was not included. https://civilwartalk.com/threads/col-william-s-hawkins-truth-or-fiction.79500/

Sources:
 
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