First Bull Run Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown's Body, and Irvin McDowell at Bull Run

Andy Cardinal

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Stephen Vincent Benet's John Brown's Body is an epic poem on the Civil War written in 1928. Once considered a classic, it is for the most part forgotten today. Benet won the Pulitzer in 1929.

As a confession, I've never read it. An old copy sat on my grandmother's shelf and when she passed away many years ago, I kept it. It sits on my shelf now. Leafing through it recently, I ran across the passage below.

This is the part about Bull Run and especially Irvin McDowell, who has gone down in history as the loser at Bull Run. I have highlighted the part that I think we should all keep in mind when studying any battle of the Civil War.

200px-Stephen_Vincent_Benét_Yale_College_BA_1919.jpg

Benet (Wikipedia)
Six miles away, McDowell had planned his battle
And planned it well, as far as such things can be planned–
A feint at one point, a flanking march at another
To circle Beauregard’s left and crumple it up.
There were Johnston’s eight thousand men to be reckoned with
But Patterson should be holding them, miles away,
And even if they slipped loose from Patterson’s fingers
The thing might still be done.
If you take a flat map
And move wooden blocks upon it strategically,
The thing looks well, the blocks behave as they should.
The science of war is moving live men like blocks.
And getting the blocks into place at a fixed moment.
But it takes time to mold your men into blocks
And flat maps turn into country where creeks and gullies
Hamper your wooden squares. They stick in the brush,
They are tired and rest, they straggle after ripe blackberries,
And you cannot lift them up in your hand and move them.
–A string of blocks curling smoothly around the left
Of another string of blocks and crunching it up–
It is all so clear in the maps, so clear in the mind,
But the orders are slow, the men in the blocks are slow
To move, when they start they take too long on the way–
The General loses his stars and the block-men die

In unstrategic defiance of martial law
Because still used to just being men, not block-parts.
McDowell was neither a fool nor a fighting fool;
He knew his dice, he knew both armies unready,
But congressmen and nation wanted a battle
And he felt their hands on his shoulders, forcing his play.
He knew well enough when he played that he played for his head
As Beauregard and Johnston were playing for theirs,
So he played with the skill he had–and does not lie
Under a cupolaed gloom on Riverside Drive.
Put Grant in his place that day and with those same dice,
Grant might have done little better.
Wherefore, now,
Irvin McDowell, half-forgotten general,
Who tried the game and found no luck in the game
And never got the chance to try it again
But did not backbite the gamblers who found more luck in it
Then or later in double-edged reminiscences;
If any laurel can grow in the sad-colored fields
Between Bull Run and Cub Run and Cat Hairpin Bend
You should have a share of it for your hardworking ghost
Because you played as you could with your cold, forced dice
And neither wasted your men like the fighting fools
Nor posed as an injured Napoleon twenty years later.
 
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James N.

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Those are two really good lines. What an interesting poem. I have never heard of it. Thank you for posting it!
This should not be confused with any mere poem - fittingly, it's an epic poem, book-length and a fairly long one at that! As an epic, it covers the entire war and intertwines several fictional characters with historical personages like John Brown, Lincoln, Lee, and others. It's historicity has rightly been questioned, but considering both its age and when it was written it's probably not bad. A particular criticism I remember off the top of my head involves Pickett's Charge:

Stepping like deer, the Virginians,
The Fifteen Thousand


or something like that. Whatever I was reading it quoted in pointed out that as usual it gives short shrift to the North Carolinians, Tennesseans, and others involved, and it also inflates the Confederate force from its more likely 12,000.

I'll also mention that a notable multi-disc Columbia LP recording was made of selections from it featuring actors such as Raymond Massey and Tyrone Power in the 1950's.
 

7thWisconsin

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I love "John Brown's Body." I've read it at least 4 times cover to cover, and there are several excerpts I read all the time. It's poetry; hold the historicity somewhat lightly. Benet wonders at one point if anyone ever wore the shoes of Gettysburg. It's a very moving experience to read the section that begins "You took a carriage to that battlefield..." while sitting at the Angle at Gettysburg. That 1950s recording is very good, and still worth listening to today. I've worn out more than one copy.
 

John Hartwell

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It's a mighty work. We studied excerpts from it in Middle School (Jr. High back then) -- I wound up reading the whole thing. I loved the poetry of it.

It's online at: https://archive.org/details/johnbrownsbody1928bent/page/n5, all 376 pages of it.

That afternoon he drove beside his wife​
And talked with her about the days to come​
With curious simplicity and peace.​
Well, they were getting on, and when the end​
Came to his term, he would not be distressed.​
They would go back to Springfield, find a house,​
Live peaceably and simply, see old friends,​
Take a few cases every now and then.​
Old Billy Herndon's kept the practice up,​
I guess he'll sort of like to have me back.​
We won't be skimped, we'll have enough to spend,​
Enough to do — we'll have a quiet time,​
A sort of Indian summer of our age.​
He looked beyond the carriage, seeing it so,​
Peace at the last, and rest.​
They drove back to the White House, dressed and ate,​
Went to the theatre in their flag-draped box.​
The play was a good play, he liked the play,​
Laughed at the jokes, laughed at the funny man​
With the long, weeping whiskers.​
The time passed.​
The shot rang out. The crazy murderer​
Leaped from the box, mouthed out his Latin phrase,​
Brandished his foolish pistol and was gone.​
Lincoln lay stricken in the flag-draped box.​
Living but speechless. Now they lifted him​
And bore him off. He lay some hours so.​
Then the heart failed. The breath beat in the throat.​
The black, formless vessel carried him away.​
 

7thWisconsin

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I think it's truly a forgotten classic. I started writing an epic about the Iron Brigade; I threw it away after 4 Cantos because I suddenly realized I was imitating "John Brown's Body." Ken Burns talked about the Civil War being our epic; I wonder if, in some way Benet had an influence of his depiction of the War also.
 

Lampasas Bill

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I was also exposed to John Brown's Body in Jr. High English class and have read it many times since. I even saw it produced as a play in the 1960s. Like 7thWisconsin, this is one of my favorite passages about Gettysburg:

You took a carriage to that battlefield.
Now, I suppose, you take a motor-bus,
But then it was a carriage--and you ate
Fried chicken out of wrappings of waxed paper,
While the slow guide buzzed on about the war
And the enormous, curdled summer clouds
Piled up like giant cream puffs in the blue.
The Carriage smelt of axle-grease and leather
And the old horse nodded a sleepy head
Adorned with a straw hat. His ears stuck through it.
It was the middle of hay-fever summer
And it was hot. And you could stand and look
All the way down from Cemetery Ridge,
Much as it was, except for the monuments
And startling groups of monumental men
Bursting in bronze and marble from the ground,
And all the curious names upon the gravestones. . . .

So Peaceable it was, so calm and hot,
So tidy and great skied.
No men had fought
There but enormous, monumental men
Who bled neat streams of uncorrupting bronze,
Even at the Round Tops, even by Pickett's boulder,
Where the bronze, open book could still be read
By visitors and sparrows and the wind:
And the wind came, the wind moved in the grass,
Saying . . . while the long light . . . and all so calm . .

"Pickett came
And the South came
And the end came,
And the grass comes
And the wind blows
On the bronze book
On the bronze men
On the grown grass,
And the wind says
'Long ago
Long
Ago.'"

Then it was time to buy a paperweight
With flags upon it in decalcomania
And hope you wouldn't break it, driving home.
 

James N.

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… And the wind came, the wind moved in the grass,
Saying . . . while the long light . . . and all so calm . .

"Pickett came
And the South came
And the end came,
And the grass comes
And the wind blows
On the bronze book
On the bronze men
On the grown grass,
And the wind says
'Long ago
Long
Ago.' "
My favorite part, and why I've always had a fondness for the High-Water Mark Monument, strictly accurate or not.

... this is one of my favorite passages about Gettysburg:

You took a carriage to that battlefield.
Now, I suppose, you take a motor-bus,
But then it was a carriage--and you ate
Fried chicken out of wrappings of waxed paper...
I suppose today you'd instead go to Friendly's or General Pickett's Buffet.

Then it was time to buy a paperweight
With flags upon it in decalcomania
And hope you wouldn't break it, driving home.
At least, some things never change!
 
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James N.

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… I'll also mention that a notable multi-disc Columbia LP recording was made of selections from it featuring actors such as Raymond Massey and Tyrone Power in the 1950's.
Earlier this month I happened across THIS, which I quickly snapped up for $! - unfortunately, there's very little of the parts we've been discussing, but it's interesting nevertheless! Here's my Throwback Thursday reminiscences of it: https://civilwartalk.com/threads/civil-war-talk-throwback-thursday-11-14-2019.165310/

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7thWisconsin

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This epic is so lovely, and Benet such an important part of 20th c American lit. So why is "John Brown's Body" so little known? Is it simply because the influence of poetry declined so precipitously after WW1?
 

DBF

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Stephen Vincent Benet's John Brown's Body is an epic poem on the Civil War written in 1928. Once considered a classic, it is for the most part forgotten today.

My favorite -

John Brown's Prayer

Omnipotent and steadfast God,
Who, in Thy mercy, hath
Upheaved in me Jehovah's rod
And his chastising wrath,

For fifty-nine unsparing years
Thy Grace hath worked apart
To mould a man of iron tears
With a bullet for a heart.

Yet, since this body may be weak
With all it has to bear,
Once more, before Thy thunders speak,
Almighty, hear my prayer.

I saw Thee when Thou did display
The black man and his lord
To bid me free the one, and slay
The other with the sword.

I heard Thee when Thou bade me spurn
Destruction from my hand
And, though all Kansas bleed and burn,
It was at Thy command.

I hear the rolling of the wheels,
The chariots of war!
I hear the breaking of the seals
And the opening of the door!

The glorious beasts with many eyes
Exult before the Crowned.
The buried saints arise, arise
Like incense from the ground!

Before them march the martyr-kings,
In bloody sunsets drest,
O, Kansas, bleeding Kansas,
You will not let me rest!

I hear your sighing corn again,
I smell your prairie-sky,
And I remember five dead men
By Pottawattamie.

Lord God it was a work of Thine,
And how might I refrain?
But Kansas, bleeding Kansas,
I hear her in her pain.

Her corn is rustling in the ground,
An arrow in my flesh.
And all night long I staunch a wound
That ever bleeds afresh.

Get up, get up, my hardy sons,
From this time forth we are
No longer men, but pikes and guns
In God's advancing war.

And if we live, we free the slave,
And if we die, we die.
But God has digged His saints a grave
Beyond the western sky.

Oh, fairer than the bugle-call
Its walls of jasper shine!
And Joshua's sword is on the wall
With space beside for mine.

And should the Philistine defend
His strength against our blows,
The God who doth not spare His friend,

Will not forget His foes.

I love the image of a "bullet for a heart".

http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks07/0700461.txt
 

Lampasas Bill

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I saw John Brown's Body produced as a play in 1964 with appropriate passages set to music. I've been looking for a similar production ever since but have had no luck. Pity.
 

7thWisconsin

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I saw John Brown's Body produced as a play in 1964 with appropriate passages set to music. I've been looking for a similar production ever since but have had no luck. Pity.
Wow That would be beautiful! I'd buy a ticket for that. It was probably a theater department centennial project that came and went and will never see the light of day again. Pity, though: the action parts of the poem are as good as the songs and reflective pieces. Imagine if you took that idea and added multimedia assets that didn't exist then...
 

John Hartwell

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The play you are thinking of is the adaptation of Benet's "John Brown's Body" arranged in 1953, by Charles Laughton (who also directed it's debut Broadway run that year), with music by composer Walter Schumann (in his catalog it is listed as his only "opera"). It has been performed a number of times over the decades, a NYT review from 1989 is attached:

The Columbia Masterworks recording is also on YouTube (audio only): Part 1, Part 2.

An unabridged reading of the entire epic was made in 2006, featuring actor Dick Korf, and is available as a 12-disc dvd-rom, which you can also download in mp3 format.

The Kindle edition of the book, very attractively set up, is only $0.99!
 
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