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:
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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