Heed these Words

UB Professor Cristanne Miller publishes a memorable book of Civil War poetry

Story by Peter Koch

Cristanne Miller says poetry was a common way of sharing experiences during the Civil War.

  • Only one killed! It was my son,”
  • The widowed mother cried.
  • She turned but to clasp the sinking one,
  • Who heard not the words of the victory won,
  • But of him who bravely died.
  • Ah! death to her were a sweet relief,
  • The bride of a single year.

JULIA KEYES WROTE these powerful lines in response to an 1864 newspaper account of a Civil War battle that used the phrase “only one killed.” Her simple words are a response not only to the newspaper’s disrespect for the lone dead soldier, but also to the public’s growing indifference toward death after three years of gruesome, drawn-out war.

Keyes’ sentiments are of a personal nature that can’t be found in newspaper articles, public speeches, history books and other historical documents. Only poetry can perhaps fully convey what it was like to live during our nation’s most trying hour—the passion and sadness that it engendered. That’s precisely the hallmark of Words for the Hour: A New Anthology of American Civil War Poetry (University of Massachusetts Press, 2005), coedited by UB English chair Cristanne Miller. Within its pages, Keyes’ spectral voice rises amidst a chorus of her contemporaries, bringing the conflict within reach of readers and making it accessible in an unprecedented way.

Miller assembled the volume with Faith Barrett, assistant professor of English at Lawrence University, who is currently completing a monograph on Civil War poetry. The book is quickly earning a reputation for its original approach to anthologizing the Civil War. Rather than subscribe to the common notion that the “he” in “his story” should be a white male with money and an education, Miller and Barrett made a special effort to include a wide range of the kinds of poetry that were being published during that era by a much broader base of writers than are represented in most other Civil War collections.

This makes Words for the Hour a more rounded anthology, one that includes the work of literary greats like Whitman, Melville, Dickinson and Thoreau alongside the poems of lesser known, everyday people—farmers, housewives, army officers and enlisted men, freed slaves, abolitionists, secessionists and politicians. The result is a single narrative told from a great many perspectives, alternately harmonious and discordant. Reading the poems now, there are many striking parallels with the anguish and raw feelings many Americans continue to have toward the Iraq War and the loss of life in that conflict.

The way each poet chose to respond to the national tragedy was his or her own: Politically minded people wrote patriotic songs or ideological political pieces loaded with jingoism; African Americans composed accounts of slavery or passed on their communal “sorrow songs.” Many of the remaining authors simply penned romantic poems to their loved ones or sentimental poems about day-to-day life. “Reading the newspaper is important,” Miller says, “but it’s one thing to know the facts or to see the photographs, and it’s quite another thing to hear the dailyness of personal experience in the poems.”

The “dailyness” that Miller refers to is best seen in sentimental poems written by ordinary people about how the omnipresent conflict manifested itself in day-to-day life. Kate Putnam Osgood’s poem “Driving Home the Cows,” for instance, tells the story of a farmer who has to bring his cows in from the fields alone, now that his three sons all went off to war and were reportedly killed. “For news had come to the lonely farm/That three were lying where two had lain;/And the old man’s tremulous, palsied arm/Could never lean on a son’s again.” In the end, however, his final son returns home from a Southern prison an amputee. Finally reunited, they joyously drive the cows home together.

Another, anonymous poem titled “Reading the List” tells the story of a mother being read the list of war dead from a newspaper and discovering her only son is among the dead. With as many as 10,000 dead or wounded in a single day’s battle, Miller asserts that this was a common occurrence in the North and South between 1861 and 1865.

Who is Christanne Miller?

Chair, Department of English and Edward H. Butler Professor of English

Came to UB in 2006 from Pomona College in Claremont, CA, one of the top liberal arts colleges in the U.S., where she was W. M. Keck Distinguished Service Professor of English

Fellowships in 2001–2002 from the National Endowment for the Humanities and Rothermere American Institute, University of Oxford

Editor, The Emily Dickinson Journal (Johns Hopkins University Press)

PhD, University of Chicago

The collected poems are organized chronologically, giving them both a contextual and a narrative frame. “In that way,” Miller says, “it functions both like a story and a history.” And like a story, that format encourages “reading through” the war. Doing so allows readers to see the common themes as they develop and change over the course of the war. Authors male and female, black and white, Northern and Southern often began the war writing with optimism and patriotic saber-rattling that, over the course of the next four-and-a-half years, evolved into resigned anguish. It’s no surprise that the Civil War would have had this effect on the public. It was bloody in ways that are hard to imagine, largely because the nation was so fully engaged, and military tactics and maneuvering hadn’t evolved to adequately respond to new technology. As historian James M. McPherson notes, both armies were using some of the same tactics employed at the beginning of the 19th century—most notably Napoleonic close-order linear battle formations—while using much more accurate weapons, such as the rifled musket. The result was that they killed each other with devastating efficiency, leaving nearly 600,000 dead by war’s end. According to historian David W. Blight in his 2001 book Race and Reunion, 6 percent of Northern white men and 18 percent of Southern white men died in the war, while 20 percent of African American men who enlisted died.

“What does it mean to live in a place where war is part of your daily life, and fear and loss are a part of the ongoing communal experience?” Miller asks rhetorically. “These poems, I think, provide a real window into that experience, which very few people living in the United States today can understand.”

The Civil War was a communal experience, and poetry was a common way of sharing experience in the mid-19th century. In fact, as Miller states, poetry played a vastly different role then than it does today. “If you opened the equivalent of the New York Times, you would see poetry columns in which famous and not-famous people were publishing poems about particular battles, about loved ones who’d been killed, about issues of the war—the whole gamut of responses to the question of what was going on.”

Indeed, it was a culture of memorization and shared-literary experience, and poetry became a way for people of every stripe to communicate their experiences both personally and publicly in journals, newspapers and popular magazines.

That made the work of collecting poems relatively simple for Miller, though there was a good deal of detective work involved in the research, particularly with finding biographical information for the authors and pinning down publication dates. “Multiple people claimed particular poems, or they were sometimes published under multiple titles,” Miller says.

In other cases, poems were just plain published under the wrong author’s name, even though they’d been initially published by their author—for example, when a poem was put to music and became a popular song. Miller explains that discovering publication dates sometimes meant pulling clues from the text, such as mention of a battle, and using them to find an approximate publication timeframe. As a prodigious scholar of 19th-century poetry, however, Miller saw the work as a labor of love.

Miller’s goal in her current research is to explore how the Civil War affected the development of the genre of poetry in the United States. To her mind, such a cataclysmic event is a natural focal point for studies of poetry after 1865, though she says it’s rarely discussed in literary histories of American poetry. “Nobody talks about the effect of the war on the way poetry was being written or being used or being thought about or its development as a genre,” she says. “It’s my sense that the war had a huge impact.” Miller believes that the best way to make these discoveries is to look at poetry written before, during and after the war. Words, which covers poems written during the war, is a first step in this direction. She’s currently working on her next book, to be titled Poetry After Gettysburg.

What Miller and Barrett achieve with Words for the Hour is a powerful and enduring monument to the everyday people whose lives and livelihoods were rent by the Civil War, as well as those who continue to suffer in times of war. And in the end, it is a truer and more complete testament than that offered by any granite pillar or brass plaque erected in their memory on a once-bloody battlefield.

  • I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
  • And the white skeletons of young men,
  • I saw them,
  • I saw the debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war,
  • But I saw they were not as was thought,
  • they themselves were fully at rest, they suffer’d not,
  • The living remain’d and suffer’d, the mother suffer’d,
  • And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer’d,
  • And the armies that remain’d suffer’d.

— Walt Whitman, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”

Peter Koch is a Buffalo-based freelance writer whose credits include Artvoice and 1300 Elmwood.

Related Reading: Driving Home the Cows